Burnout is an experience that is reversible which means it is in a person’s power to correct it. This idea is the first thing my clients work on — what things they can control and what things they can let go of because they are not controllable. So, to start, burnout or the effects of burnout are controllable. This goes back to my last point in the previous question. Regaining the belief that you are in control of your life and you can make things better, and then making a plan to do those things you can control, is the platform to reduce burnout.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robin Buckley.
Dr. Robin Buckley has her PhD in clinical psychology. She is an author, public speaker, and certified professional coach who works with executives and high-performance couples. Her proprietary coaching model uses a business framework and cognitive-behavioral strategies to support individuals and couples in creating and executing concrete, strategic plans for developing their careers and relationships.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was raised in Connecticut with my younger sister. My dad was a high school English teacher turned vice principal and my mom was a registered nurse. They instilled in us the idea of giving back through the people they helped in their careers as well as in their personal lives. Once powerful way they taught us this was at Christmastime. Every year, my sister and I would write a list of three things we hoped Santa would bring us. Then, my parents would make my sister and I go shopping to pick out one of the things on each of our lists to donate to the local fire station’s toy drive. I remember being so scared one year when I really wanted a Raggedy Ann doll. I was hugging the doll in the backseat of the car, sitting outside the fire department, and asked my mom, “What if Santa doesn’t bring me one?” My mom turned around and said that I had to believe that by doing something so hard, and giving up something I truly wanted, that Santa would see that and know I truly put others ahead of me. It was a bit over my head, this idea of trusting the universe or karma or reciprocity at age 6, but I surrendered the doll and, of course, Santa did bring me my own Raggedy Ann that year, cementing that lesson in a very concrete way. That was how life was in my house. Helping others, taking people in to live with our family, donating, being kind…these integrated into a very strong belief system for me in my life.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I started college as a communications major. I had adopted my mom’s belief that I should be a broadcaster and since I liked writing, decided that was the way to go. In my second semester of freshman year, I took Introduction to Psychology as a requirement. It was a three-hour night class, taught by an adjunct faculty member at Marist, my alma mater. I wish I could remember his name…maybe Philip Hall…because he was the one who encouraged me to change my major. He saw my interest, and when I would stay in the room during breaks, he would answer my questions and encourage me to research different topics related to our classroom discussions. When he finally asked me why I wasn’t a psych major, I told him I was already a communications major. I very clearly remember his response: “But you don’t love communications like you love psychology. You can change your major if you want to do what you love.” By the end of the semester, I had made the change and, in all honesty, I still love psychology as much now as I did in college.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I can’t identify one mentor because it was really lessons from some amazing women in my life that created the blueprint for me. I think about my friend, Leona, who I met teaching my first doctoral residency when I was newly pregnant with my first child. She taught me to appreciate where I am physically in life because at some point, we all look back and can’t believe how critical we were about ourselves at younger ages. Or my friend Dawn, my boss in my first job out of grad school. She exemplifies to me what being a strong, powerful leader is, particularly when sitting in a room when she is one of the only, or the only, women. My mom, Lesley, who instilled in me so many ideas of being independent and being able to take care of myself by being educated. My friend, Laura, who inspires me through her unending dedication to help her patients and give them a voice. And finally, my sister, Holly, who might be one of the most insightful, authentic, and hard-working individuals I’ve known. These women have all been mentors to me through their unique personas and roles in my life. Each of them inspired me, and continue to inspire me, personally and professionally.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I was invited to a black-tie event by a mentor of mine who at the last minute had an extra ticket. The event was in honor of a philanthropic couple who were known for their charitable giving and their long-term “love story” according to what my mentor told me. I was excited to go and focused more on preparing myself physically versus doing research about the event. When we arrived, my mentor was quick to introduce me to the guests of honor. To my surprise, it was a couple who was working with me on the dissolution of their marriage through couples coaching. I stood in front of the couple, the husband who avoided eye contact with me and the wife who gave the very slightest raise of her eyebrows with an almost imperceptible smirk, while my mentor offered praise about their amazing philanthropic and romantic partnership. No one else seemed to notice the awkwardness. One month later, my mentor asked if I had heard the surprising news about the couple’s separation. Since it was public at that point, I honestly replied that I had heard about it, leaving out the details that I’d heard it from the couple one month prior.
From that experience, I learned to make time to do my research. To this day, I never attend an event or accept an introduction without researching who I’m meeting or what the event is.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
One of my favorites is from Nelson Mandela. He said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” I can’t give you one story related to how this quote impacts me because it influences me every day. Each activity I do, every interaction I have, daily allows me to work towards my personal or professional goals. To me, thinking about this quote only in terms of my bigger experiences limits the impact of Mandela’s words. I want to experience success or growth every day so I keep these words in mind every chance I can.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am working on an online relationship program which eventually will be the basis for couples’ retreats. It is based on a framework I’ve been using for several years with couples who are highly motivated to either strengthen and improve their relationships or establish a solid plan for a future commitment they are planning. With the couples who have worked with me using this approach, they have experienced incredible success and I love that it is with my help, but driven by them, that their relationships improve. The online program and the retreats will offer different methods, beyond couples coaching, to help support couples to achieve the relationships they want.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first one that comes to mind is my focus on accomplishing my goals and not letting challenges stop me. I don’t accept failure, and I use those moments as opportunities to learn or to reflect on my plan to determine how it could be improved. For example, people will ask me about my choice to do a doctoral program. It actually started with me being rejected by my first-choice program. After recovering from the ego bruise, I took some advice from my dad and reached out to the program director, explaining why he should give me an interview. After a six-hour, round trip drive and one of the most infuriating interviews of my life, I was accepted into the program. People also ask me why I decided to get a PhD. While there were several, including my love of psychology. But the number one reason I put myself through something so hard was so that I had the highest degree in my field, and no one could ever tell me “no” based on lack of degree. I don’t wait for outside forces to change or dictate my situation, and having my doctorate is part of that plan.
Another trait I have was fostered by my parents as I mentioned earlier and that is kindness. While not always a characteristic associated with success in business, I would debate that point. Whether you can it karma, destiny or coincidence, I believe that when we are good to others, it creates a positive change in the world. Eventually, it is logical to assume that the kindness will come back on whoever created the initial change, like the butterfly effect. I use this approach with potential new clients who contact my practice. When they have questions, or have never worked with a therapist or coach, or who are overwhelmed by their situation, I make the time to talk with them. I want individuals looking for support to understanding what to ask and know what to look for in the professional they work with. It honestly doesn’t matter to me if someone decides to work with one of the people in the practice. I’d rather that person educated in mental wellness. This kindness, this focus on the person rather than as a potential client, allows my practice to stand out from others.
I think my last one is different than kindness, although related, and that is my ability to connect with others. I work to pay attention to how people receive information and adjust my message or approach to best support their processing. When I was younger, this could be difficult. While I might modify my approach, I still want to be authentic in the interaction. It helps me to function off the goal-driven question of “Which of my traits can I use to best share the information to best help this person?” That specific question keeps me from adjusting too far from who I am yet still work to best meet someone’s needs.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
As an Executive Coach, burnout is a common theme with my clients and, unless addressed, can lead to detrimental results for the person. I use my education in cognitive-behavioral psychology and my training in coaching to help people either avoid burnout completely or recover from burnout. Clients choose to work with me to help sort through the thoughts and emotions which stop them from thinking in logical ways so that they can get to their highest levels of functioning.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
Burnout is an experience of exhaustion which can be physical, emotional or both. It is a result of work-related stress. It reduces productivity, increases self-doubt, and erodes a person’s identity. A fallacy about burnout is that is only impacts a person’s professional life. Burnout has detrimental impacts on all areas of an individual’s life — with their family and significant other, with friends, with co-workers and with themselves. It hits their personal lives as hard as their professional lives. The most important part about burnout is identifying it before it gets to the level where the negative impacts are substantial. Asking questions such as “Am I cynical or overly critical about work?”, “Do I dread going to work?”, “Am I using substances to reduce or ignore the negative feelings I’m having about work?”, and recognizing changes in habits or behaviors, are all ways to discern whether you are approaching burnout.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
I love this question! It focuses on the 180-degree opportunity for change, spinning the topic in such a positive way! So, the opposite of burnout would be a state of high productivity in which you feel significant satisfaction and fulfillment from your work. You look forward to each project or workday. Your work energizes you and when you talk about work, it is likely for you to hear something like, “It’s really obvious that you love what you do.” That is optimal functioning, the opposite of a burnout state.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
Let me answer this with a question: If you were running in a race, and you broke your ankle, would you listen to someone screaming from the sidelines, “Grin and bear it! Just shake it off!” It will never cease to amaze me that in general society looks at mental wellness so differently from physical wellness. We wouldn’t dream of ignoring physical warning signs, but it isn’t uncommon for people to ignore warning signs of mental health issues. When burnout is ignored, it creates problems both physically and psychologically. Individuals with burnout develop physical manifestations of their stress: migraines, ulcers, skin conditions, high blood pressure, insomnia. They also develop cognitive difficulties with attention, concentration, and processing. Psychologically, burnout creates and increases depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome. It also creates social distance with the people we love.
For society in general, burnout contributes to significant profit loss whether in lost revenue when goals aren’t accomplished, or the costs associated with letting go of a burnt out employee and rehiring and retraining someone new. Burnout also fosters the idea you stated earlier — “power on”, “keep pushing”, “don’t stop”, “shake it off”. American society is not geared towards taking time to prevent burnout or at the least, allowing time to address burnout. We go and go, we are praised for our perfectionism, we are encouraged to be busy all the time. These become inaccurate badges of being hardworking or successful when they’re actually the steps towards burnout.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
Certainly, one cause of burnout is something I just mentioned — excessive activity, constant busy-ness, overwhelming stress. When we are in this type of situation, our sympathetic nervous system is hyper-aroused. This is the part of our nervous system which involves “fight or flight”, essentially getting us prepared to deal with a challenging or threatening situation. It prepares the body including triggering the release of neurotransmitters we typically describe as adrenalin. This is great to deal with a hard situation but exhausting for the body and mind if a person is continually in this heightened state.
This cause can lead to a second cause of burnout which is work/life imbalance. If most of your time is spent fixating on work, consuming your physical time or your mental space even when you aren’t at work, you lose your connection to family, friends and parts of yourself which aren’t related to work. When my clients debate on the need to focus on work and sacrificing personal time to do so, I remind them that even though spinach contributes good things for our health, a diet only of spinach is going to kill us.
Another significant cause of burnout is a lack of control. If your job tasks or schedule is dictated by others, if your job role isn’t clearly defined or if you work in a toxic workspace, these are all situations which make us feel like we have no power to change these external factors. This perception of lack of control makes us feel cornered and when we feel cornered, our sympathetic nervous system is engaged yet again.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Burnout is an experience that is reversible which means it is in a person’s power to correct it. This idea is the first thing my clients work on — what things they can control and what things they can let go of because they are not controllable. So, to start, burnout or the effects of burnout are controllable. This goes back to my last point in the previous question. Regaining the belief that you are in control of your life and you can make things better, and then making a plan to do those things you can control, is the platform to reduce burnout.
- The second strategy is a specific approach to regain a sense of control. Burnout is created when we are overwhelmed and constantly busy. For many successful individuals, they use to-do lists to maintain their productivity. When it comes to burnout, however, an endless to-do list in which things tend to linger without accomplishment or items just keep getting added can contribute to burnout. Using a priority system with your to-do list can make your list realistic and under your control. For example, number items on your to-do list as 1, 2 or 3. Ones get top priority to accomplish, twos would follow and threes are only if the first two categories are resolved, you’ve already provided yourself with self-care and now you have extra time. This seems to help a lot in organizations in which meetings can be added to your calendar without your input. As you review your week, you determine which meetings are ones and your presence is essential and valued, which meetings are twos, and your input is valuable but not essential and which meetings are threes in which your presence is not required but welcomed. Suddenly, you control where you go and when and you create time for other things, including yourself.
- Now that you have time in your day by prioritizing your calendar items, you can build in daily self-care. Certainly, cardiovascular activities, meditation and yoga are terrific to fight burnout, but you can get the same benefits in short intervals, too. Scheduling time for either mindful walking or mindful breathing during the day are two great practices which help control burnout. Mindful walking can be done in three ways. One way is to simply walk and concentrate on how your feet feel when connecting with the ground. The second way is to incorporate mindful breathing with walking; for example, four steps while inhaling, followed by four steps while exhaling. The final way is to focus on sensory experiences while walking. Focusing on one sensory system at a time, identify five things you are experiencing through that sense. If you start with touch, your focus might be on the way your sneakers hug your feet, the warmth of the sun on your face, the feel of the wind in your hair, the cuff of your shirt against your wrist, the weight of your phone in your pocket. Then you move on to the next sensory system and do the same. Each approach has its variations but ultimately, they all get you to focus on the moment, reducing any stressful thoughts, and allowing you control over your breath.
- The idea of building in self-care into your workday extends to the fourth strategy for managing burnout. Building in specific time for life activities to balance work activities by writing them into your calendar. Too often people will assume that when they have down time, they will do fun or relaxing things by themselves or with loved ones. The problem is that people on the path to burnout will often keep working or will be overwhelmed about making decisions on how to spend their down time. If you plan out the time and the activities you will do when you aren’t working, you are less likely to fall into the habit of filling the time with work. The important thing to remember is to view these life activities just as you do your work meetings and tasks. Aside from emergencies, these are commitments to yourself and your loved ones and should be treated as such.
- The final strategy to manage or avoid burnout is to identify and work with a professional coach. While it is great to talk about issues you are having with your significant other, or friends, or co-workers, it does not produce the same results as working with someone trained in cognitive-behavioral approaches. You want to have the confidential space to openly discuss your challenges, and then with the coach’s guidance, discover the most beneficial strategies and plans for your mental wellness. Working with a trained coach — which is different than a business advisor or consultant — in a preventative model or in an intervention model is an investment in yourself to function at your optimal level of performance.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
Remember to listen. Hear what the other person is saying. Don’t make assumptions about what that person needs or wants. You can even ask what they want. For example, “Do you want me to just be here to listen, or do you want me to help?” Sometimes it is about creating a space for a conversation that is most important.
While it is great to listen and be there for your loved one, you are not a professional. Certainly, be there as that personal connection for that person, but encourage them to seek out a professional. Executive coaches and clinical therapists are trained to help manage cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges or issues. One small action step you could do if the person agrees with that suggestion is to research the difference between a coach and a therapist. Some people going through burnout would be more successful with a coaching approach, while others might be experiencing clinically significant mental health issues and need a therapist.
One specific idea used by many of my clients is a “fun jar”. Choose whatever name you want for it, but it is essentially a repository of ideas to have fun or relax. As the person or loved ones within their home think of fun ideas, they write the idea on a piece of paper and stick it in the jar. The ideas are captured so they won’t be forgotten. As the person or family has a free day, they pick a slip from the jar and, if feasible, do whatever idea is listed. I even knew a female executive whose family created a color-coded system for their jar — blue slips for activities you could do on your own, red for activities that needed more time or planning, yellow for quick activities not needing a lot of time. This strategy helps in a few ways. It connects the person with burnout to others, so they don’t feel alone. It also keeps them grounded in the present and it builds work/life balance.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
There are several steps they can take. Make time to listen to employees in one-to-one sessions. If this is too challenging, another option is to give your employees access to executive coaching. Review company protocols, both official and unofficial. Change any which encourage an identity of perfectionism or constant busy-ness. Foster a culture in which personal time is as important as work time, recognizing that both encourage best functioning in each area of the person’s life. Maybe even consider some companies in America and Europe which demonstrate best practices regarding employee health and satisfaction and integrate their practices into your organization. And when you are creating goals for individuals or specific roles, be sure these goals are realistic and allow opportunities for growth, including input from the employee.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Awareness and positive change must be supported and demonstrated by organizational leaders to be sustainable. Leaders can start by publicly articulating their support of mental wellness and then follow up their words with behaviors and actions consistent with that message. This is an idea I see as unified health — physical and mental. Not differentiating between the two since both are equally important and completely interconnected. Build this concept into the organization’s mission statement. Establish organizational relationships with trained executive coaches or with local therapists so employees have easier access to services.
Every so often I’ll meet a C-suite individual who challenges me on the concept of businesses supporting mental wellness in general or burnout avoidance or recovery specifically. Very often this perspective is held by individuals who are thinking less about the individual and more about the company. As I said earlier, I like finding the best ways to have a message heard so I begin throwing out statistics on the cost to businesses when they must let an employee go. Factors such as loss of revenue as that individual is spiraling, insurance premiums as that person’s physical health issues increase, cost of firing someone, severance packages, cost of hiring and training someone new, instability created because of transitions. I don’t know if I always convince the person I’m talking to, but I know that I give most more to consider.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
Assume you know what someone needs or wants or assume you can just shake it off. Assume it’s just a phase and everyone goes through it. Assume it’s a weakness in you or others. These are truly the most common fallacies I hear about burnout. These debilitate the process towards wellness and encourage the stigma of mental health support.
First step to avoid these is to educate yourself. Learn more about the causes and effects of burnout. Learn about the benefits of both preventative methods and intervention strategies. Talk to professionals who have experience in this area. Next, remind yourself that by ignoring the symptoms or by delaying getting help, you or your loved one is not living their life in the most healthful and happy way. And wouldn’t it be amazing if that was the goal for everyone? Healthy and happy.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I often talk a lot about my belief that kindness can create positive changes in the world. One of my other passions is how to support females. I say females because there can be such power in supporting young girls versus adolescents versus young adults versus adults but the ways we can support these different groups of females should include consideration of developmental needs — physically, emotionally, and cognitively. We can’t lump all females together and assume that what works for one group will work for all females or every individual. Part of your question was about bringing the most amount of good to the most people. I believe that by supporting females which is only about half the world’s population, it does bring good to the other half of the world. Males benefit so much when females are functioning at their best. Collaboration, innovation, communication, interaction, productivity — all of this improves if girls and women have the support and encouragement to grow and learn and engage authentically.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I follow many individuals who encourage this idea of supporting women — Amy Poehler and her Smart Girls organization, Pink and her most recent support of the Norwegian women’s handball team, and certainly Malala Yousafzai’s continued work with the Malala Fund. Most recently, I’ve been curious to learn more about Allyson Felix’s efforts to promote women in general and females in sports specifically. Certainly, her athletic accomplishments are impressive, but it is her strength to stand up to Nike, to use her voice and her position to create change, and to turn such a challenging situation into a positive platform with her creation of Saysh are what I find inspirational. Having a conversation with her, or a group lunch with all these women, to see how we might move our respective but unified missions forward, would be an honor.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!