Let's talk about: When burn out bites

Building your personal resilience is possibly the best career move you’ll ever make – recognise burn-out and try these strategies for repair


In May 2019 the World Health Organisation updated its definition of ‘burn-out’ in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Here, it is classified as an occupational phenomenon, not as a medical condition: ‘Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’

Dry definitions aside, consider the mental, emotional and social price of burn-out. It is rare that someone will talk frankly about what it actually feels like. There is some fear that colleagues will wonder when you’ll get overwhelmed again and become unreliable. Before my TEDx talk I thought that speaking out to challenge the stigma might be akin to career-suicide given the high-pressure, work-hard-play-hard culture in which I worked – it wasn’t.

The longer people believe that burn-out means a couple of weeks watching daytime TV in pyjamas, the longer it will take for people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and the more lives will be lost – both literally and in terms of quality of life.

WHAT DOES BURN-OUT FEEL LIKE?

To get a better idea of what burn-out is, imagine that – right now – you have to completely clear your diary for the next three months. You can do no handover. A colleague will have to advise your clients why you are absent. You sleep 14-16 hours a day and are exhausted during the awake hours. You can’t drive. Your brain feels like ‘mush’, you can’t string together a sentence (even daytime TV is too taxing) and you fear you’ll never regain your mental alertness. Family, ‘friends’ and colleagues can stop calling because they don’t know what to say. Your relationship is seriously under strain. Over the following three months you will gradually build up from one day a week to five days a week at work.

Prior to burning out I thought I could handle it all, prided myself on impossibly high standards and had what I now recognise as a victim mindset (believing that ‘this is how my industry is’ and feeling powerless to change my situation). I was wrong on all counts; I couldn’t handle it all, many of my high standards were self-imposed and I could change myself and influence my environment. I realised I was overworking myself into an early grave and that golden-handcuffs (high salary, car) were not in the best interests of my health and career.

Maybe you have thoughts like I did? If you’re regularly self-medicating with coffee to wake up and alcohol to sleep it’s likely that you are already on the slippery slope to burn-out. I have spent the past nine years researching and developing my FREEDOM model (30 habits) to support others. There are many simple, fast and powerful resilience habits you can develop to succeed in your career and life, but it doesn’t happen by accident or overnight.

BITE OFF WHAT YOU CAN CHEW

Those within the legal profession are often highly capable and this is accompanied by high levels of ambition. This is a great driving force, but it can cause many to take on too much too quickly. Break big goals down into manageable chunks that are easier to focus upon and you can clearly see the effort required. It’s okay if you do not feel ready for the next stretch – consolidate for a while, then increase your performance levels for a sustainable career.

The change formula (Dannemiller and Jacobs, 1992) asserts that change happens when the combination of a) your dissatisfaction with your current situation, b) your vision for the future and c) first steps required is greater than your resistance to getting started. If your resistance is still high, choose an interim vision to work towards. Reassess the first steps needed so that the stretch is enough to move you forward, but not too large to send you into the panic zone. Now you are comfortable with the first steps you can take action and adjust along the way.

MAXIMISE VALUE WITH MINIMUM EFFORT

Reaping maximum value from minimum effort is key to efficient use of time and energy. One method is through the 80/20 Rule (Richard Koch, 2014) which he illustrated using business economics. We can achieve 80% of the results from only 20% of the effort when focusing on the 20% of tasks that add the most value; that is four days’ worth of value from only one day of effort. The law of diminishing returns means that an additional day of effort only improves the original 80% result to about 90%, ie our effort is rewarded less as we try and get closer to ‘perfection’.

To remain efficient one approach is focusing on ‘progress, not perfect’. Whilst many legal tasks need to be detailed and entirely accurate, there are other daily activities where you can let ‘good enough’ be ‘good enough’. Focus on the tasks where you add most value and hone your delegation skills, eg prepare a draft document yourself (80% value) and then delegate the refining work to someone else (20% value) to free up your time for higher business value activities.

MINIMISE DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS

Whilst there are many benefits to technology, and it is important for legal professionals to stay up to date with the world around them, notifications can cause excessive distractions and make people increasingly dependent on the approval of others. Fear of missing out, heated online debates, lengthy email threads and constant comparison to others can cause huge amounts of unnecessary stress. It is not enough to put your device out of sight; you are conditioned to being always ‘on’ and waiting for the next ping. Switch devices off for some periods of the day, turn notifications off, or use ‘do not disturb’ mode. Parents and people ‘on call’ may need to be contactable more often but it is important to make use of functionality on devices (allow favourites) that enable you to mentally disengage from most of the outside world to rest and recharge. Technology should work for us, not the other way around.

WHY YOUR FUTURE SELF WILL THANK YOU

Make the decision today to take radical responsibility for your own wellbeing; no-one else will do it for you. Developing your resilience habits is vital to being able to take life’s challenges in your stride and feel fully equipped to take on things that excite you. Do something small each day that your future self will thank you for.

The Labour Force Survey in 2018 revealed that in Great Britain, a staggering 595,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. To balance the many demands on leaders at work and move forward from these statistics, workplace resilience needs to be prioritised to attain and sustain high performance.

Whilst the trigger of the stress might be outside your control; how you perceive the stress and how you respond to it are within your control – so choose to take action. 

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Angela Armstrong

Angela Armstrong is an independent leadership partner working with the professional services to deliver sustainable high performance. She is a TEDx speaker and author of The Resilience Club (Rethink Press, 2019) which contains 30 resilience habits: www.angelaarmstrong.com