Anyone can experience ‘burn out’.
We all know of someone, a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance… who has suffered from burn out, and unsurprisingly it is becoming more and more common in leaders.
But what does the term ‘burn out’ mean, exactly?
It is not a medical diagnosis, but it means that physically and emotionally you feel that you just cannot give any more. The World Health Organisation has defined burnout as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
How do we get to ‘burn out’ stage?
In the West we are educated by our society to disconnect from the messages that our bodies are giving us. We just carry on with our everyday lives, hoping that tomorrow, next week, next year, things will be better.
I believe that burnout happens because we ignore these signals and don’t make the changes our body needs.
I’m not talking about huge changes, such as changing our jobs, or partners, or homes. It could just be a case of making some adjustments to our personal development and our way of ‘showing up’ in the world and e.g. finally standing up for yourself at work and drawing up and holding on to clear boundaries around your time/work/team.
It’s up to you to do this, no-one else can do it for you: you are responsible for your own wellbeing. But to find out what changes you need to make, you really need to tune in to your body.
Change can only happen once you start listening to what your body is trying to tell you.
Conforming to society’s expectations
We live our lives conforming to what our society states is going to bring us happiness and success.
Society leads us to think that happiness can be a permanent state, which is totally unrealistic when you consider that happiness is just one of many fleeting emotions that we are designed to feel. The result of this is that any ‘negative’ emotions – sadness, loneliness, emptiness, helplessness… – we suppress.
We start a life-long habit of suppressing ‘negative’ emotions and avoid connecting to our bodies in case these feelings surface.
We manage to stay disconnected from these feelings by a range of different strategies. Some strategies appear more functional than others…
The most common strategy is to take a drug, drink alcohol or choose ‘comforting’ food that keeps the feelings at bay. However, if we experience addictive behaviour because of this strategy then we risk being viewed as a ‘failure’ in the eyes of society and experiencing a negative impact on our long-term health.
Another strategy to ensure that we don’t have to reconnect to these suppressed feelings is to ‘stay busy’. If we have children and demanding full-time jobs, maybe even a dog that needs walking etc. then we have filled our lives with ways to distract ourselves. This strategy – viewed from the outside – can seem ‘successful’ however it is often unsustainable, especially if this success is ultimately a strategy to avoid the acknowledgement of negative feelings.
The reason it’s not sustainable is that living a life that is constantly ‘busy’ is exhausting both physically and emotionally. Humans are not designed to be continuously productive, to be continuously switched on and in up-time.
These two strategies – especially when combined – can result in burn out if we don’t allow time to switch off and listen to our bodies.
We need time to be alone, in peace and quiet in-order to reconnect to ourselves.
Learning to listen
If we continually deny ourselves time to reconnect, then our body and mind rebel: either the body will break down (in the form of an illness that forces us lie still for a while on our own) or we will break down emotionally (can’t stop crying, or retract inwards, unable to motivate ourselves to do anything). These are the ways in which our body takes over in order to just be still and silent for a while.
Our bodies are so wise that they will do almost anything to stop us from overworking and ‘busying’ ourselves to death. Our instincts fight to help us survive – even if our minds are driving us towards this extreme sense of exhaustion.
We can, in fact, interpret burn out as a cure: our body’s way of healing itself after being ignored for a prolonged period.
One simple action to prevent burn out: STOP
If you are experiencing any physical or emotional symptoms such as persistent headaches, detachment, uncontrollable crying, exhaustion, lack of motivation… then simply stop.
Stop, stay still and stay silent long enough for the message that your body is trying to give you to come to your conscious mind. Breathe deeply, shut your eyes, and this connection will help you to understand what your body needs.
By taking a few moments to stop, you can begin to connect to your body and start to discover the changes you need to make to maintain a healthier work-life balance, to regain control of your life and to rediscover your purpose in life.
Taking to time stop will not only help you to avoid burn out before it hits, but also start you on the path to an authentic life where you are making sustainable decisions, tuned your whole system.
From my work with leaders in all walks of life I do understand how difficult it is to simply stop and connect. If you feel that you need some help with this process, then I offer coaching for leaders in person or over the phone in quick sessions to fit your availability.
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