Burnout: Turning a Taboo Topic into a Healing Conversation
There I was on my yoga mat, finishing a much-needed practice. I was feeling both exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, a characteristic that pretty much nails the perpetual energy required of me the last 3 years.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am at the tail end of a 3 year “ultra-marathon” of sorts – of sitting at a desk writing through all hours of the day and night, teaching up to 12 hours a day, studying late into the night, and typically a required combination of all three, 7 days-a-week.
What is the result of hard work?
My first textbook book is due for publication this summer (August 2016). I also earned a doctorate degree during this time.
But here’s the reality. I also had to maintain my day job as CEO and executive director of an educational organization, along with all the teaching, writing, blogging, research, and administrative requirements that go with it, recover from giving birth to my third son, and undergo hip reconstruction with a more-than-I-signed-up-for 1.5 years of rehab to get me back on my feet again, literally. I do also have a life, which required being an attentive parent to three young sons and a present partner to my (also overextended) husband while (literally) paying for the cost of writing a book and earning a doctorate.
And, I can say, “I did it!”, which is laudable, especially when analyzed under the microscope of the American work “ethic.”
But at what cost?
In fact, we can all ask that of ourselves. On a day-in, day-out basis, we often can exclaim, “I made it! I endured and conquered! I won!” “I did it!”, but, at what cost? To our families, To our communities, To our well-being? To our productivity and creativity? To our health?
We also, as I do, often feel ego-centric in sharing our difficulties with peers or friends. My husband recently threw a graduation party for me, which was a total surprise and completely amazing, but, as an introvert, it also makes me incredibly uncomfortable. It’s like shouting through a bullhorn to the world, “Hey! Look at me! Look at all I am doing! I’m so great!” “I can lean in and do it all as a woman, wife, and mother!”. When really, all I want to do is celebrate the fact that I made it through that insane 3 years by hiding in a closet for a year with the enormous stack of books that have been patiently waiting to be read since I started this “adventure” in 2012.
Confessing Our Weaknesses Strengths
I still haven’t talked about “burnout” though, right? That’s the point. We often don’t talk about it (burnout). We pretend as if everything is fine (aka That we have a superhero cape in our closet that allows us to be that Energizer Bunny and keep going and going and going). Or alternately, we believe that if we admit needing a break, we could catch serious flack at work or be labeled as “lesser.” That’s the American way, right? To work until you drop? To glorify busy?
However, I think if more of us admit to the possibility of burnout, and stop couching it as a dirty word that insinuates weakness or lack of resilience – then the more likely it will become acceptable to say what I’ve wanted to say for a long time now, “I need a break.” In this way, we are not confessing our weaknesses as much as we are declaring our strength. My spiritual grounding tells me “in our weakness we become strong.” Meaning, if we have the strength to admit to ourselves that we need a break, isn’t that a first step in declaring resilience by making the wise step to renew our energy and capacity for love? I believe it is.
Experts say that even those who LOVE their job, like me, are susceptible to burnout. The American Psychological Association reports over 50% of Americans say their work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed.” Read this excerpt from The Huffington Post, titled, Burnout is Everywhere, and What Countries are Doing to Fix It:
The United States: So far, no government body has publicly addressed the ubiquity of burnout in the U.S. or its toll on public health. Americans work longer hours than workers in Australia, Canada and most of western Europe, and the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation. It’s also the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave.
Pastors, healthcare providers, therapists of all types, and not to forget, parents – in short, anyone who serves others everyday – shoulder an even higher risk of burnout. No one is immune.
But back to my yoga mat. Or rather, stepping off of it.
I was ruminating over keeping my promise to myself to make it through the last 3 years. The breakneck, inhumanly-paced, workload. Now that I’ve (almost) made it through to the other side, I need to seriously consider how to preserve my sanity beyond the yoga mat, because even folks who LOVE their job (like me), can suffer from burnout.
Why do we burnout?
In our hearts, we know why we burnout. But we aren’t normalizing the experience by talking about it. We pretend we can avoid it, or worse, those in service profession believe that if they admit to burnout, they will lose respect or standing in their field. Yogis don’t admit to needing a break from teaching yoga. Teachers can’t admit they need a break from teaching. Writers, well, writer’s block is a real thing, but you get my point, right?
The point is, the American work “ethic” (ahem, code word for overworking) most often means being tethered to work, somehow, whether through email, social media, the phone, or physically showing up to whatever your office is, 6-7 days a week. This is almost certain if you are self-employed, which I am. I work long weekends teaching, and then when I’m not teaching or writing, I can easily spend an entire weekend tethered to email and/or social media – all for work.
Back to My Story
My work is yoga in healthcare. A GREAT job, right? I get the privilege of helping others through education and healthcare. And, it takes me all over the world. I get to make a difference locally AND globally. I teach in universities, hospitals, clinics. I get to make a real difference – contributing uniquely to healthcare reform through bringing yoga into healthcare professions, education, and healthcare itself.
I haven’t really discussed my private life yet, right? I also have three young sons, one with special needs, and a life I’d like to enjoy outside of work. I will say I am blessed in many ways, I am happily married, have a wonderful job, and a beautiful family. But here’s the secret: I never take vacations. I never get a break. Any “vacation” I take is a working vacation, and the last true non-working vacation I had, all to myself without wearing a “mommy,” or “work” hat, was honestly, 1998. I spent 2 weeks in Italy as a graduation gift to myself after my first round of graduate school.
Now, my husband and I have a date night to ourselves, in our own house, about once per year. And like so many other Americans who also never get a break, it shows. In our collective health and community Americans are, overall, not the healthiest or happiest lot.
It is why I am thankful to have had the strengths of spiritual practice and a trusty yoga mat the past 3 years. I could not have made it without those things, as well as the support of my family and friends.
So back to that yoga mat, or rather searching for how to take the good vibes off the yoga mat. I saw an article, “Why I’m Vowing To Use All Of My Vacation Days This Year, and seriously, a light bulb not only went off, but it burned like a supernova in my head. Like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts Christmas special, my brain shouted, “That’s it!” I know why I can’t concentrate, had a resurgence in old put-to-rest aches and pains, am unusually fatigued at odd times of the day or week, often don’t have enough time for self-care, and generally feel disconnected. It’s because I haven’t taken a break – not even a simple vacation.
Now taking a “vacation” doesn’t magically dissolve problems OR cure burnout, but if you are like me, and you cannot remember the last time you took a vacation that didn’t include work – then that’s the tip of the iceberg right there. If you don’t give yourself a break, then you are bound and determinedly headed for full-blown burnout. “Welcome, welcome to burnout”, I snickered inside, greeting myself with a big internal smile and a heavy dose of sarcasm. Hey, at least I have retained my sense of humor about it all. And to be honest, I predicted this would happen when I signed up for too many jobs back in 2012. But, the risk was calculated based on the needs of my family and myself. And, I did make it through, though not without paying a price.
Sobering Evidence for Self-Neglect
I am one of those 42% of Americans who didn’t use ANY vacation days in 2014, and for almost a decade surrounding that time. In my case, I could at least start with a little down time, with NO work involved. Right? How about you?
Anything and everything I have done, even cool things like traveling abroad, has been for work. And if you are an introvert, having no alone time is rather hazardous to your health. Read about how Introverts Interact Differently with the World
Speaking to Working Mothers AND Fathers
Let me speak directly to working parents– parents who are single or married, leading companies or working for them, forging new ideas and making them happen or managing other’s ideas and making them happen, along with making lunches, doing laundry, and getting kids to dentist appointments and summer camps on time. Mothers (and dads too), are “leaning in” to the corporate world, all while raising children in an environment like the US which has no parental leave and still refuses to globally address workplace discrimination and antiquated workplace policies.
Working parents perhaps have an even higher risk of burnout.
Constant childcare struggles, juggling multiple schedules at once, and the continuous surprise phone calls of, “Oh, Johnny is sick at school. Can you come pick him up?”, coupled with the extremely high cost of childcare and preschool, is enough to put any parent under the bus before even getting to Wednesday’s “hump day.” Read my post on A Mother’s Return to Work Story
It’s a shame when even going to the drugstore by yourself constitutes a minor celebration and fist pump (fellow moms, you hear me loud and clear, right?) – and qualifies as self-care and a break. So, I’ve decided that, in the least, I should try to start giving myself official vacation days from 2016 onward. Brilliant, novel idea, right?
It is hardly a brilliant OR novel idea, but this is where many of us are stuck right now. We don’t take vacation, much less vacation days off.
We feel guilty for just taking a sick day, even when we are actually sick (yes, that’s me)! Or worse, we can’t take a sick day or day off because we are self-employed (also me). The work piles up, and if we take a day off – guess what – no pay. And for some of us, even we aren’t always getting paid when we work (can I get an amen small business owners?!), so taking time off can be a double whammy. However, there is a bright side to all this burnout talk.
Don’t Let It Get You Down
A few weeks back I had posted this article on my FB wall, The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship, which was met with its own set of fist pumps from colleagues and friends who are also living that article and are willing to admit that being brutally honest is healthier than lying about the stress of being self-employees, especially in ventures that are new and untested (yep, also me).
Just getting the support of colleagues made me feel better, as did admitting that I had felt the psychological and financial sting of trying to take a “great idea” (aka nothing) and turn it into something (aka something that I love and that also pays the light bill).
Ahh, that is good news, right? Knowing that we are not alone. It’s just that we aren’t talking about it (burnout) enough. Especially in the healthcare and wellness industry where we live and die teaching self-care and helping people be their best.
Now, if you’ll recall, this “aha” I-never-take-vacations moment came just after yoga. That’s no surprise, right? Yoga can provide calm, clarity, rest, and renewal, not to mention the opportunity for profound transformation in every sense (bio-psycho-social). Yoga is perfect for making better decisions and thinking clearly, right? You bet.
But it doesn’t mean that wellness practices like yoga are a panacea. “Wellness isn’t the answer to overwork.” We still have to address WHY we are overworking in order to determine HOW we will fix it.
America, and other countries that are as crazy and imbalanced as us in the work ethic department, can’t sustain this pace. Chronic diseases, which are stress driven in large part, are epidemic and endemic. This means abnormal, poor health has become the norm, when it should not be. With the chronic pain and opioid crisis, and the recent death of music icon, cultural liberator, and covert humanitarian, Prince (yes I was and still am a huge fan), I cannot believe the state we are in today. Prince’s death should overwhelmingly send a clear message – we cannot sustain the pace we have set for ourselves, and healthcare must be reformed away from slap- a-band-aid-on-it, looking-for-smoke-but-not-the-fire, drive-thru big-pharma, fast-food-driven sick-care. The article, “Prince didn’t die from pain pills, he died from chronic pain,” is very telling, and should come as a warning to us all. We must take time for self-care (and put down the pills).
The Positive Story
- Burnout can happen to anyone, especially those in service industries.
- Burnout does not mean you are weak, incapable, or unfit for your job.
- Even when you love your job, you can still suffer from burnout.
- The first step to overcome burnout, is to admit that you may actually be working too hard.
- Yoga, or any other wellness or fitness routine, is not a cure for overwork.
Huffington Post has encouraged us to use the #TakeABreak hashtag to join their encouraging movement in declaring the importance of pursuing an adventure and taking those unclaimed vacation days off. Or if you are like me and you don’t get any paid days off, take those days anyway, and budget for some time off. If taking a break means we can restore our concentration, focus, health, and passion for the jobs and families we love again, isn’t it worth scaling back a bit?
Overcoming burnout takes more than a single vacation or weekend off. But for me, that’s where I will start.
I don’t know how or when, but with a little help from my friends and family, I’m going to figure out how this self-employed-mother-of-three-in-the-middle-of-finishing-major-projects-that-are-revenue-depleting (not generating), can take a little time off to relax and renew. Heck, I may even find time to make (and keep!) my long overdue healthcare preventive appointments.
You’ve got 6 months left in 2016, and I’m right there with you, deciding to make the best of them and shift the paradigm my work ethic, something I’ve been waiting to do since I made the pledge to the 3 year tour of overwork.
I’m taking on the challenge to actually take vacation days this year, which means continuing to practice my yoga (whether or not it brings more “aha” moments), keeping the faith, loving my family and my job, and oh yes, the most difficult part – unplugging from technology on a more consistent basis, especially for that enigmatic, yet-to-be-planned vacation (which I promise I WILL take, and you can hold me to it!).
Good luck and happy summer to you! I hope this article helps you find the courage to cite your weaknesses (admitting to overworking for starters!), and claim them as strengths to help you beat burnout!
Here are 10 signs you are burning out and how to stop it, from Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and president of TalentSmart, world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence. Also, High Octane Women: Where Do You Fall on the Burnout Continuum by Dr. Sherry Bourg Carter and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. For caregivers, Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue? Also by Dr. Sherry Bourg Carter, may also be helpful. Finally, 5 Ways Taking a Break Can Make You a More Productive Person