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How to think about burnout

There is nothing to gain from working yourself into the ground. Whether its forgoing sleep, burying yourself in task after task, or neglecting your emotional wellbeing - burnout manifests in all kinds of ways. And it is deeply damaging.

What happens when you combine completing your last semester of full time university with a photography competition. Entry for Canon Photo5 2009 Brief 4: Spectacles Portraiture.
What happens when you combine completing your last semester of full time university with a photography competition. Entry for Canon Photo5 2009 Brief 4: Spectacles Portraiture.

For the first time in May this year, the World Health Organisation defined chronic stress, or burnout, as a syndrome. For some, this signalled the lifting of a taboo. For many others, it made something commonplace seem far more sinister than it is.

What’s certain is that it raised awareness of chronic workplace stress and hinted at its dangers. Burnout is unquestionably a very real problem, and one that affects all kinds of people in all kinds of jobs. Ignored, dismissed or denied outright, burnout can have a serious impact both on your personal life and professional life. 

The myth of the 24-hour entrepreneur

Despite rising awareness of burnout, there is still a pervasive belief in some parts of the business world that if you don’t go without sleep and fill every waking hour with work, you’re in some sense ‘not doing enough’. Already, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and professionals in senior positions have enough to do, and your task list becomes a kind of hydra, replacing each completed task with two more. Yet because of this widespread belief, and our habit of comparing ourselves to others, it’s easy to fall into the habit of saying to yourself that you’re not doing enough. And this adds to our imposter syndrome: the self-doubt that afflicts so many entrepreneurs, the little voice in your head telling you that unless you work harder you’re a fraud.

The personal versus the professional

Despite so much talk of ‘work/life balance’, the boundary between the personal and the professional is illusory. Few things will remind you of this fact in a more striking way that burnout, which definitely won’t remain in the office when you go home for the evening. The loss of confidence and sense of being trapped that accompanies burnout in the workplace manifests as distraction, impatience and pessimism at home. It’s as if a dark cloud is following you around, but you don’t want to burden those not in the same position.

All too easily this leads into what I call the cycle of guilt and doubt. You know you need to take a rest, and so you take it. But you feel guilty not working, and so you overcompensate. Round and round this exhausting cycle goes, and it isn’t sustainable. Without steps in place it’s hard to break it.

Why you should communicate

There’s no nobility in silently enduring chronic stress. It’s critical to communicate what’s happening to those around you. Telling people that ‘everything is going to be fine’ is not enough—even if it’s true. Far better is to explain what’s going on, why it will be fine, and the measures you’ve put in place to guarantee that outcome. It’s a truism that emotions are contagious, and left unaddressed an atmosphere of anxiety and stress will descend over your business.

Sometimes, others can share a burden or change our thinking in a positive way. Those suffering from burnout might just be surprised by how many people are having the same or similar thoughts. We shouldn’t be afraid or too proud to discuss our feelings, especially when you can benefit from the empathy and advice of others.

Creating a culture of empathy

My social and digital content agency, the tree, works with a number of what we call ‘responsible clients’. These are businesses that are socially aware and have a social purpose, such as Rescue Remedy and Shole, and their commitment to empathy and ethical business amplifies our own. In a working culture that values empathy, any kind of personal problem, whether it’s burnout or something else, is more likely to be expressed and addressed quickly. Those who see empathy or ethical practices as unimportant or non-essential should consider their commercial impact.

Empathy is in the tree’s DNA, and we’re exploring the idea of a sustainability workshop that includes advice on ethical marketing and mental-health management at work. But all businesses can cultivate a more ethical culture by encouraging openness and discussion, and by giving team members time to recover from bouts of mental unrest or mental-health difficulties. For agencies, working with ethical brands is a great way to support these efforts and grant your team a greater awareness of wider social issues.

People are different

There is the good stress which leads to personal growth and better working outcomes. And there’s the bad stress that wears you down and leads, if unaddressed, to burnout. In a working environment, distinguishing between the two comes through experience and discussion, as well as through a deep understanding of the team around you and how it works.

But it’s also important to remember that people are different. Though certain principles apply to everyone, be aware of and respect each person’s individual response to stress—including your own. Some people thrive in stressful conditions. Others struggle. It isn’t about weakness or strength but diversity. Appreciate diversity, cultivate empathy and communicate with those around you, and burnout need not hold you, or those around you, back. 

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