If you are feeling increasingly exhausted, depleted of energy and despondent, you are not alone. Record rates of burnout are being reported in a year that has asked a lot of us as emotional beings. In our own State of the Nation report, 49% of startup founders and talent reported experiencing the debilitating symptoms whilst working from home. Collective trauma is spreading quickly, with headlines about Covid-19, Brexit, Black Lives Matter and the US election demanding too much of our headspace. Stress creates a lot of noise for our nervous system, and we experience brain fog and lack of clarity as a result.
As someone who has experienced and managed burnout several times, I am passionate about speaking out about its causes and what we can do to help each other get through difficult times with empathy and compassion. My most recent experience of burnout was earlier this month, when I had to do two weeks of restricted movement with my one year old son, as we were close contacts of a family relative who had caught Covid-19.
After a fortnight of limited sleep and late nights spent catching up on work I was left feeling completely exhausted, guilty and uninspired. Having to take care of my son and manage a business from the “home office” (my kitchen table) does not serve me well. As someone who craves variety, people and connection, I need boundaries between my home and work life and the buzz of the workspace to feel calm, connected and centred to my purpose.
Recently, I listened to an excellent podcast on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us by Emily and Emilia Nagoski, who have also written a book on burnout and how to complete the stress cycle. According to the sisters, burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, decreased sense of accomplishment and depersonalisation of empathy and compassion.
Many of us may have experienced emotional exhaustion. It is defined as fatigue that comes from carrying too much for too long, and is strongly linked with our health. Did you know that every emotion causes a chemical reaction in our body? If we don’t allow ourselves to feel an emotion and complete our stress cycle, chemical reactions can fester and build until we crash. Emotions have a beginning, middle and an end but we often cut them off as society demands us to suppress how we are feeling. Our moral obligation is to be happy and calm and generous to the needs of others.
When we are in a state of stress, our blood pressure goes up which has a knock on effect on our blood vessels. This is why stress is so often linked to heart disease. It’s not only our cardiovascular system that is impacted, our nervous system, digestive system and endocrine systems are also severely impacted when adrenaline and cortisol build. According to the Nagoski sisters, exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion. Movement is often the best way to feel and complete an emotion. If you’re not a long distance runner, don’t worry. Simply putting on your favourite song and dancing around your kitchen can work wonders.
When we feel emotionally drained and exhausted, we can have a decreased sense of accomplishment which can lead to a sense of futility and a feeling that nothing you do makes a difference. Creative expression is often recommended to help alleviate this – this can be through writing, painting, dancing, singing … anything that takes you out of your daily routine and gets other parts of your brain going. These activities are often the first to be parked when we are burned out so it makes sense that they help us reconnect with our purpose and inner joy.
The good news is that there are things we can build into our daily lives to help with burnout, and to avoid it happening in the first place. Please note that this is not a substitute for medical guidance or medication and regular visits to your GP are essential.
Tips to avoid and manage burnout
- Avoid an overload of news and turn off your notifications. Being constantly exposed to negative situations, and existing in a state of continuous partial attention is detrimental to our health.
- Complete stress cycles by doing something that makes you feel happy and safe. For many people this is taking a walk in nature, or speaking to a close friend.
- Establish daily routines or rituals that help establish a moment of calm. Guided relaxation before bed can work wonders.
- If you have a very heavy workload, start the day by picking three things that you absolutely must get done that day. Park anything that is not top priority. Work smarter, not harder.
- Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and eat your lunch away from the laptop.
- Close your laptop during the evenings. If you have to work at nightime, think about reducing screen time at least an hour before you go to bed. The blue light from our phones and laptops tricks our brain into thinking it’s still daylight, which is why we find it so hard to switch off when we are lying in our beds.
Lastly, remember that you are not alone, and now more than ever is a time to be braver together.
We surveyed over 200 founders, entrepreneurs and startup talent on the almost-overnight move to working from home. Screenburn, loneliness and productivity: it’s all there. Download The New Work Mindset Report here.