Working Smarter

Risk Factors for Burnout: The 6 Burnout Triggers

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out guy-1

In an unbounded, lean-staffed world, burnout is never too far from jumping up and taking down any of us. What used to be the domain of mostly the people industries—education, social work, and health care, burnout has become a problem for everyone.

The last stage of chronic stress, burnout is the final stop after a prolonged bout of excessive stress that drains energetic resources until there is no remaining capacity to cope. All that remains are the signal dimensions of burnout: complete exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally—depersonalization and cynicism, and an inefficacy that comes with reduced productivity and low morale.

THE GROUP ROLE IN BURNOUT

It’s a strange, mysterious state to be in for most people who wind up with it, since they tend to be the hardest workers, the achievers, the most conscientious. They have always been able to bring more to the job than the average person—more endurance, stamina, intensity. But now it’s gone. What happened?

In a nutshell, their coping resources were drained over a prolonged period during which the stress response remained activated 24/7, unleashing a tide of defensive resources, from hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to jacked-up blood pressure velocity. At a certain point, the backup energy supply runs out, and the resulting fatigue is so startling that the burned-out can hardly recognize the person whose name is on their driver’s license.

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The bigger secret of burnout is that, yes, it can be set off by an individual overdoing it in the face of severe demands, but it’s often the byproduct of structural and organizational factors too. Researchers have identified risk factors in organizations—burnout triggers—beyond individual stress reactions that play a prime role in burnout.

The more we can become aware of these warning signs, or imbalances between the person and job, the more individuals can avoid the burnout treadmill and organizations can keep their talent from flaming out and running up health and retention costs. Some 40% of people who leave their companies cite stress as a factor.

THE HUMAN SIDE

Humans are the social animal, and that’s certainly true at the office as everywhere else. We are designed to connect, relate, and support and when that doesn’t happen in overloaded organizations people operating in isolation beyond coping resources can get trapped on the burnout treadmill, where pessimism and negative emotions fester. Burnout scholars Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have documented that when we don’t pay attention to the human side of work, there are consequences—bad health to bad performance.

“People who are burning out are likely to withdraw from the job, both psychologically and physically,” she and Michael Leiter report in The Truth About Burnout. They invest less time and energy in their work, do only what is necessary, and are absent more often. In addition to doing less, they do their work less well. High-quality work requires time and effort, commitment and creativity, but the burned-out individual is no longer willing to give these freely. The drop in quality and quantity of work produced is the occupational bottom line of burnout.”

What they are describing is a decline in attitude and output that comes from disengagement in the work. It turns out that the main dimensions of burnout are the opposite of employee engagement—energy, commitment, and effectiveness. No management team would knowingly order up a prescription for burnout if they knew it would gut engagement.

Yet in a world where autopilot reflex is the driving force, action precludes thought and burnout triggers can become entrenched while everyone is up to their eyeballs in mechanical momentum. Let’s take a look a look at how group and interpersonal dynamics in the organization can create burnout triggers. Here are six warning signs identified by Maslach and Leiter, known as the Areas of Worklife Model, that can transform stressors into a much bigger problem: burnout.

THE 6 BURNOUT TRIGGERS

1. WORK OVERLOAD

Excessive workload is always the aggravating factor for burnout. When demands constantly push physiologies beyond capacity, energy sources are overloaded. Nobody wins when we do more than we can do well. If you are bringing home work and leaving late chronically, this doesn’t end well. You might be able to handle the work of an ex-colleague who hasn’t been replaced for a little while, but you and managers need to insist on getting the support, or the department will soon be down another person. The risk of heart disease and diabetes increase threefold with workweeks more than 51 hours. Excessive hours keep you from recharging and recovering from stress, allowing chronic stress to entrench, which crowds out positive emotions, which are absent in burnout.

2. LACK OF CONTROL

Researcher Robert Karasek identified the chief driver of workplace stress, lack of job control, or latitude. Stress is a function of how much perceived control we feel we have over the demands coming our way. The goal for managers who want engaged staff should be to encourage more autonomy in how people do their jobs. More flexibility leads to more sense of control and more self-responsibility. More micromanaging leads to less latitude and more stress. Discuss ways you might be able to play a bigger role in how you manage email, deadlines, your schedule, or other stressors that create a work environment that feels out of control.

 3. INSUFFICIENT REWARD

Extreme workload wears away at the energy and loyalty of employees. When overload becomes the expectation and there is no compensating reward for the extra effort or even a sense of gratitude, it is human nature to feel you’re on the short end of the stick. This is the breeding ground for disengagement. Having to make efforts continually beyond the call of duty or job responsibilities without recognition or reward deepens loss of trust and lack of commitment. People who put in a lot of effort and get inadequate rewards are twice as likely to have heart disease (Siegrist).

 4. ABSENCE OF FAIRNESS

There is an implied contract for most of us that we will be treated in good faith. When that trust is broken, cynicism grows. As workload grows along with profits that don’t get spread around, loyalty fades and bitterness sets in. In the era of downsizing and restructuring, many feel their efforts are not valued, promises are not being kept, and everyone is replaceable. This climate added to chronic overload can ramp up the withdrawal and cynicism of burnout.

 5. COMMUNITY

High-turnover, mergers, and constant changes within organizations can hollow out support systems and leave employees estranged as they try to do more than they are equipped for. Alienation is the route to cynicism, a main dimension of burnout. People feel more depersonalized when there is a sense that no one cares, and engagement disappears. The risk for burnout grows as trust fades. Be as proactive as you can and communicate with managers and lobby hard for support. Finding teammates and mentors who care can provide a critical buffer to the forces of overload.

 6. CONFLICTING VALUES

People are more likely to embrace the vision of the company they work for when it reflects their values. Having a good fit on values can spur people to go beyond the extra mile. But when those values are contradicted by policies or behaviors that are at odds with deeply held values, the mismatch can lead to an acceleration of disengagement and withdrawal.

Burnout, then, is often a two-way street. The chronic stress that sets it off may start with incessant high demands that drain an individual’s coping resources. The experienced burnout, though, can be deepened by the social layers of organizational distrust and lack of support and reward.

Since the damage of burnout to individuals and teams is super-costly, from absenteeism to cardiovascular treatment, to depression (which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady), to tanking productivity, the status quo has to be challenged and solutions found. There is a healthier road to success.

Tags: burnout, social support and burnout

Why a Workaholic Will Die Before an Alcoholic

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM on what makes for productive work often settles on the endurance factor, or quantity of hours. It’s as if the workplace is an Ironman triathlon in pants. The quantity yardstick plays right into the hands of a work behavior that is the opposite of what any employer would want: workaholism.

This is because the conventional wisdom on productivity is dead wrong, as in deceased-human-being wrong. As burnout scholar Christina Maslach puts it, “A workaholic will die before an alcoholic.”

WORKAHOLICS AREN'T MORE PRODUCTIVE

For most alcoholics, it’s a long demise from cirrhosis of the liver or alcohol-related hepatitis. For workaholics, the end comes quickly in the prime of life, courtesy of stress-induced blood clots and heart attacks. It’s not a very productive outcome.

Researchers have found no positive correlation between workaholic behavior—long hours, feeling you should be working every waking minute, overwork—and productivity. Melissa Clark of the University of Georgia found in her metastudy on workaholism research that “even though workaholics may spend more time thinking about and physically engaging in work than the average worker, this may not be of any benefit to their employer.”

As someone who coaches and trains employees to work in a sustainable and more productive way through work-life balancestress management, and time management programs, I have had the opportunity to see up close why workaholics don’t do their companies any favors. They have high levels of stress, which undermine complex decision-making and cause crisis mentality, time urgency, bunker mentality, mistakes, and a raft of medical problems resulting in high absenteeism and medical bills. They think no one can do the job as well as they can, so they can't delegate or trust, causing bottlenecks, conflicts, and missed deadlines.

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Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so you can’t see the big picture, and the ruminating thoughts it sets off serve as a constant distraction from whatever it is you’re trying to do. The workaholic’s stress and time frenzy is also highly contagious, spreading anxiety and frazzle throughout the team or department.

DRIVEN BY NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

The very motivation of the workaholic is at odds with employee engagement. While engaged employees get intrinsic enjoyment from going the extra mile and fulfilling inner needs such as excellence or service, the workaholic is driven by negative feelings about work—that he or she should be going overboard. Guilt and perfectionism drive the workaholic, and both are constant stress triggers, self-inflicting pressure and tension beyond the demands of the job and causing friction with others.

Clark found in her research that “workaholism was related to the experience of negative discrete emotions (i.e., guilt, anxiety, anger and disappointment) at work and home, whereas work engagement was related to the experience of positive discrete emotions (i.e., joviality, attentiveness and self-assurance) at work and home" (Clark, Michel, Stevens Howell, & Scruggs, 2013). 

The difference in outlook has a big impact on the organization and the individual. People driven by negative emotions and pessimism have been shown to have reduced productivity, sales success, and rapport with others on the job, reports Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina.

In other words, proactive engagement is generated from within and satisfies core psychological needs as a result, while workaholism is a chase for external approval that can never be attained, since there is always the next item on the to-do perfectly list or jump on the instant you finish the last task. Engagement fuels positive emotions; workaholic behavior negative emotions.

The motivation behind workaholism, in essence, is a self-inflicted inadequacy, which can help us see why it’s a hazard to work, relationships, and home life. It forces you to prove worth beyond what’s needed in a futile exercise that runs over colleagues, performance quality, family, and health.

WORKAHOLISM UNDERCUTS ACHIEVEMENT

The term “workaholism” has been hijacked over the years to mean somebody who works hard, to the point experts had to stop using the word and switch over to “overperformance,” instead. It’s a more accurate definition, focusing on the act of not knowing when to say when and the poor time management and non-boundary-setting that drives it.

On so many levels, then, the workaholic undercuts his or her very reason for being—achievement. Quality results are not being accomplished—in fact, the opposite is happening, with output the result of fractured attention and a frazzled, overwhelmed work style. And you can never take satisfaction from what you get done, because there's always more to do.

Making things worse is the fact that the workaholic can't step back and recharge or even enjoy a free moment--since he or she hears the voice to get busy in any quiet moment. Free time is the engine of energy, focus, and productivity, so jamming it with more work cuts off critical performance resources.

This is a complete misunderstanding of how the body works. Periods of activation set off by the demands we face each day have to be countered with the parasympathetic system’s built-in remedies of rest and maintenance. If there’s no recovery, the stress builds cumulatively day to day, taking us down the road to the burnout treadmill.

SUDDEN DEATH

Which brings us back to the physical threat of workaholism. How does it take you out of the sentient human being column so quickly? Let’s take a look at how the condition plays out in Japan, a country with a long tradition of punishing work hours. The Japanese salaryman is known for laboring long into the night, and stories abound of people doing 100-hour weeks having heart attacks at the office. They have a term for it: karoshi, or death by overwork.

There are some 2300 official karoshi deaths each year (you have to have worked 100 hours or more of overtime per month for the family to qualify to receive karoshi benefits, about $20,000), but Japan’s National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi says the true number might be a high as 10,000 people annually.

People who work too much tend to eat badly, not get exercise, and have very high stress levels, and along with that, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. A Finnish study that examined 603,000 working people in the U.S., Europe, and Australia reported in 2015 that working 55 hours or more per week doubles the risk of heart attack and increases the risk of a stroke by a third.

Behaviors that drive workaholism, such as impatience, irritability, perfectionism, and anger lead to chronic stress, high blood pressure, and clogged arteries, and it’s a sudden trip to the ER or mortuary. Sure, there are alcoholics who have a quick exit, too, say, from auto accidents, but the majority will raise lots of glasses over the years while the workaholic has long since departed.

What if you love your work? Can you still wind up with a premature departure from the planet? Yes. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip-Flop Shop, a footwear retailer, started feeling out of sorts after working as an around-the-clock entrepreneur for years. As the boss, he had control, something that helps mitigate stress. Yet he felt he better get checked out. He had his blood pressure assessed and did an EKG. He still didn’t feel right when he ran to stay in shape, feeling sluggish and a little breathless.

He went back to the doctor and did a treadmill stress test. Good thing, too, because his physician looked at the result and told him he had to go into surgery that minute for a quadruple bypass. He was 39 years old.

Don’t be a hero or a martyr. Workaholism is a lose-lose for work and life.

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Tags: workaholism, burnout and workaholism, perfectionism, burnout, overperformance

The Science of Why We Burn Out and Don't Have To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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JOB BURNOUT is an accident. No one aspires to a state of exhaustion so complete you don't want to get out of bed. If we knew ahead of time that we were headed down this road, we could change course. But we don’t know that, because the chronic stress that drives burnout directs us down an unconscious track of mechanical momentum.

We don’t think about managing the demands that are pushing our buttons, we just keep reacting to them on autopilot on a route I call the burnout treadmill. Just keep going until the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving so we need a healthier approach to how we work and react to pressure, stress, and other people, and that means a conscious understanding of how we respond to burnout triggers and how certain personality traits and habits factor in to the equation. Stress management has to be as routine as brushing teeth.

BRAKE FOR BURNOUT

To prevent auto crashes, we moderate speed and make sure the brakes are working. To keep the accident of burnout at bay, we have act preventitively too, by putting the brakes on uncontested stress and perfectionism, and what researchers call self-undermining, from bad coping habits to lack of communication 

Most of the people I work with in my coaching practice suffer from burnout. They come to me after a long period of extreme work hours, workloads beyond their capacity, and high chronic stress from demands that have overwhelmed their coping systems, touching off anxiety, cynicism, and fear about what the future holds.

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They are not slackers; in fact, they are the opposite. They have worked so hard that they have gone beyond what’s healthy or needed to be productive in their work. They may think they are the only one who can get the job done right and don't delegate. Often, they associate endurance, quantity of hours on the job, with performance, when in the knowledge economy, it’s all about how fresh the chief productivity tool—attention—is. I meet them when the exhaustion, drop in performance, and medical issues tell them they can’t go on anymore like this. 

Burnout is what happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental. It’s easy to get caught up in because chronic stress floods the body with adrenaline that masks the physiological impacts and makes us think we’re handling it, at least for a while—until we’re not. 

We're left in a state of chronic exhaustion, futility, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. Not only do you not have energy to do the job or live your life with joy, but you also feel like there’s no point to doing either. Cynicism and emotional distancing, withdrawal, and a host of medical issues follow.

CONTEST THE STRESS

Studies show a high incidence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in burnout cases (Ahola, 2007). Burnout is also a factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Melamed, Shirom, 2006), gastro-intestinal problems, and stroke.

On the performance side, burnout triggers higher absenteeism and turnover (Maslach 2001), and presenteeism. The body’s at the office but not much else. It takes longer to get tasks done because of low energy and attention levels, so productivity is reduced.

There are situational factors that trigger burnout—the structure of the work, unrealistic deadlines, excess workload, and insufficient reward or support—but also individual causes rooted in personality traits and our own responses (or lack of them) to demands. The key to not fall prey to reflex burnout triggers is to be aware of the daily issues that drive stress, and resolve, dispute, communicate, and adjust them so they don’t push your buttons.

We all have a job we have to do. Nothing we can do about that. But how we do our tasks is something we can change. When we make adjustments to how we do our tasks and how we respond to others, we turn off the engines of burnou, which thrive on lack of control. When we make little and big changes, delegate, ask for help, control devices, and find ways to feel more autonomous, we eliminate the festering root of burnout—helplessness.

Research shows that when we exercise acts of choice and flexibility, we satisfy one of our core needs, autonomy, an antidote to burnout (which thrives on futility and lack of agency). One study (Bakker, Demerouti, Euwema, 2005) found that employees who communicate often with supervisors, get regular feedback (something you can ask for), have social support, and feel more autonomy as a result can have high demands but not get burned out.

DO EXTRAVERTS GET BURNED OUT?

The key to managing the stress that drives burnout is increasing control over demands and the thoughts and self-talk that undermine us. That’s where we gain autonomy and make work-life less difficult. But we have to set boundaries, which are a success tool, studies show (Nash, Stevenson, 2004). We can’t be doing two hours of work email at home. We can’t reflexively do 12-hour days without asking what’s wrong with workflow, delegating, or time management. 

And we have to speak up. We have to let others know the situation is untenable. One of my clients told her boss that though she loved her job, the toll of burnout on her and her family was no longer something she could accept. Something had to change. The boss agreed and removed a person driving high stress from contact with her and gave her a month off with pay to regather her crashed resources.

Proaction is the way out of burnout. Keeping everything inside is the way to keep burnout going. This client is an introvert, but she was able to step up and communicate her needs. Studies show, by the way, that extraversion is negatively associated with burnout. So if extraverts tend to have less burnout than introverts, that is instructive data. People more inclined to talk about challenges and ask for adjustments feel more control over events, and that control reduces the helplessness of silence.

EXHAUSTION LEADS TO MORE EXHAUSTION

In a fascinating study, Arnold Bakker and Patricia Costa examined the individual side of burnout. They found that, “Employees with higher levels of daily exhaustion show self-undermining behavior…Chronically burned-out employees are less able to manage their own emotions, and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. These self-undermining behaviors all contribute to higher daily job demands.”

Bakker and Costa found too that high levels of daily exhaustion resulted in mistakes that had to be done over, which pushes schedules back, creates more time urgency, and more pressure in an ever-repeating cycle.

Researchers have found the best antidote to burnout is something every employer wants: employee engagement. People who feel they are valued and participants in the way the work is done don’t get burnout out. Burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported that the key dimensions of burnout—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of professional efficacy—are the polar opposite of engagement's main domains: vigor, dedication, and absroption. 

The autonomy support framework created by the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan is an ideal antidote to burnout. It brings more teamwork, satisfaction, and something else critical for anyone to do something that’s hard—the right kind of motivation, intrinsic motivation. When we work, not for the external payoff, but for internal goals such as service, challenge, excellence, or craft, we satisfy our core needs of autonomy, competence, and connection with others and don’t go down the track to isolation, alienation, and catastrophic thoughts that lead to burnout.

Attention, then, is our exit off the burnout treadmill. The more attention we have on how we work, the fewer emotional reactions and mechanical momentum that can self-undermine us. There is nothing more important to pay attention to than your health, so let’s all make sure we jump on the triggers that set us off and not give stress a pass or buy the bravado that we can “take it.” Or one day, you get taken by burnout.

Tags: burnout, stress management, burnout causes, work overload, job burnout, setting boundaries at work, boundaries

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things. A schnauzer or a tabby is adept at this, dropping a stressful moment like it never happened. Humans, unfortunately, did not get this talent.

DETOXING BY DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by hanging on to them and ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entranches false beliefs and makes them appear real. It’s pretty darn masochistic, but most of it comes from autopilot behavior programmed by an overactive defense system. We can opt out of reflex cling mode with awareness.

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for in a culture in which idle time is the devil’s time. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise, to music and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and health. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace. “If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery. Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. This tends to occur when supervisors and employees have a very tight connection, which is usually a good thing, especially for employee engagement. But when people are very close to their leaders, they want to help them out more, even to their detriment of not being able to let the office go after work and doing more than they can do well.

It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect. Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day and/or commute, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be at the threshold of pain or near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more if you can to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with positive autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

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Tags: stress management, stress management training, stress relief, work stress, work recovery, burnout

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated obsessing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and depression in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions. It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being hoodwinked on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

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Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system.

Over-cogitating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats today. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity at hand. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response reduces the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse. Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to an even bigger problem, depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. “Explanatory style,” as it’s known, is the combustive engine for stress and depression.

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job?" "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic explanatory style. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. 

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions we are being fed are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Martin Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER visit. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear that is flaring, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“I don't react,” “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “I move on.” Repeat it for several minutes.

DISPUTING THE BOGUS STORY

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life in the false beliefs of rumination.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, optimism and work, stress response, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, explanatory style

Work Stress: 7 Stress Tests That Can Save Your Life & Team

Posted by Joe Robinson

Head_down_on_desk

Humans made it through the survival gauntlet of evolution because of our legendary adaptability. Cold, heat, bad food—we adjusted and kept on ticking. Yet adaptability is a habit that can threaten your survival—and the productivity, decision-making, and bottom line of your organization when it comes to stress.

At first, you might feel the churning stomach or the headaches of a stressor overloading coping ability. Then the body gets used to it. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to help you fight or run from danger masks the fact that your body is going down in any number of ways—heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel. Your team or department also gets used to the stress and adapts to it.

The adrenaline set off by the stress response makes you think you are handling it, but it’s an illusion. Stress is eating away at your health, suppressing your immune system, increasing the bad cholesterol, decreasing the good cholesterol and providing a false sense of energy and transcendence. Chronic stress can lead to stroke, depression, and burnout, the last stage of stress and a three-way shutdown of mind, body, and emotions.  

STRESS KILLS

Stress is nothing to mess around with. It’s a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death and some estimates have it as an element in more than 75% of doctor visits.

Stress is a killer. At one workshop I led for a large consulting firm, I learned that one of their top consultants, in his forties, had a heart attack on a bathroom floor while on assignment. He was known as someone who would go to the wall on every job. At a federal agency, managers told me about hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns because of stress. One entrepreneur I spoke with had a heart attack at the age of 29 from out-of-control stress.

Of course, all this has a massive impact on productivity, health costs, errors, and absenteeism for organizations. Stress costs U. S. companies $407 billion a year in health bills, absenteeism, lost productivity, and recruiting and training, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher Peter Schnall.

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The havoc doesn’t have to happen. We can manage stress with one simple new habit: regular stress testing. We do eye checkups, mammograms, blood panels, but we are never taught to identify and manage stress. We need to measure stress levels on a regular basis, say experts like Schnall, or we wind up at the mercy of a runaway medical train.

How do you know if you are in the danger zone? There are a number of tests you can do to monitor your stress levels, from saliva to blood and treadmill tests. If you are under a lot of strain, and even if you think you are managing the pressure, you need to make the time to take a stress test. Tom Row, a Tennessee scientist I spoke with, didn’t even know he was stressed when he had a heart attack at his office and was carried out on a stretcher. He’d been doing 12-hour workdays for years. 

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

Let’s take a look at some of the main types of stress tests, beginning with cortisol testing. Stress sets off a flood of hormones from your adrenal glands, including adrenaline and cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, to help your body prepare for action to confront danger.

Elevated cortisol levels from stress, though, cause a host of problems, from high blood pressure to heart disease, and can increase the risk of depression. Interestingly, researchers have found that cortisol levels drop in people who have burnout—another reason to do the test. Burnout depletes your adrenal glands of the hormones and energetic resources you need to function. Chronic fatigue and Addison’s disease are marked by low cortisol levels. So cortisol testing can determine both if you have abnormally high levels of the hormone or very low.

  • Saliva Test. This may be the simplest stress test, one which checks cortisol levels at various times throughout the day. The process involves leaving your saliva in a test tube-like device and sending it off to a lab for analysis. You can buy saliva test kits over the counter and online. Most experts, though, feel that the saliva test is less accurate than a blood serum test.
  • Cortisol Blood Test.  We all know the drill here. Needle time. Have your doctor draw blood and submit it to a cortisol analysis. The test will determine whether you have abnormal cortisol levels, high or low. Certain medications can interfere with test results, such as steroid drugs, estrogen, androgens, and anti-seizure drugs. According to the National Institute of Health, the normal values for a test at 8 a.m. are 6 to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • Cortisol Urine Test. You can also measure your cortisol levels with a standard urine test.  The National Institute of Health reports that the normal range is 10 to 100 micrograms per 24 hours (mcg/24h).
  • Cognitive Stress Test. This non-invasive approach can be very helpful in identifying stress and various physical byproducts of strain and high demands. The questionnaire can be used in conjunction with other tests, such as a blood test or blood pressure test to map out the larger picture of demands outstripping coping ability and the effects that is having on your body and thinking. 
  • Blood Pressure Test. Keeping an eye on blood pressure is an important tool to track the effect of stress on your cardiovascular system. U. C. Irvine’s Schnall says that it’s crucial you get your blood pressure measured, not just at the doctor’s office, but also at work. The true state of elevated blood pressure may not appear in the calm of the doctor’s room. He strongly recommends that you test BP at work to measure how your body is faring in the heat of the workday. According to the American Heart Assoc., Stage 1 Hypertension begins at a systolic number (the top number on your BP reading) of 140-159 or a diastolic number (the lower figure) of 90-99. Hypertension Stage 2 is a systolic of 160 or higher and a diastolic of 100 or higher, while a Hypertension Crisis is higher than 180 for systolic and 110 for diastolic.
  • Electrocardiogram Test (EKG). This test can find underlying issues of heart disease and hypertension. Electrodes measure electrical signals in the heart that can find patterns of rhythms and heartbeats that may be a tipoff to problems. The devices have gotten very streamlined and much easier to use, and can spit out results on the spot, so you can get a very quick analysis of your heart health.
  • Exercise Stress Test.  An EKG, though, may not always be enough. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip Flop Shops, can thank the exercise stress test for saving his life. An EKG didn’t catch the massive jam in his arteries. Sometimes known as a treadmill test, the exercise test measures the way your heart responds to physical effort, and the extra demands can ferret out issues other tests can’t. This test pinpointed an array of problems so serious that Curin was advised to go directly into surgery, where he had to have a quadruple bypass at the age of 39. Do yourself a favor, and take the time for your health and get this test done.

Beyond monitoring and testing, if your office or department has a stress problem, don't ignore it. Fix it. Reach out and contact us, and we can show you how a stress management program can give your team tools to control demands, instead of the other way around. Stress is optional. 

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress, job stress, burnout, cost of stress, heart attacks, job burnout, stress management programs, chronic stress, burnout prevention, stress testing, managing stress

The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

Hikers

What goes through your head when you have an unoccupied moment outside the office? Most likely it goes something like this: Get busy! I really should be doing something!

The reaction isn’t just based on habit, but something that is drummed into our heads that couldn’t be more hare-brained: Leisure is a lesser realm that has no value. In fact, quality and frequent leisure time is vital to health and life. It IS our life, the thing we’re working for. We don’t get that message, though, and as result, many of us feel squirmy about stepping back, as if only a slacker would partake.

This is what the psychological world calls a “false belief,” an uninformed notion held dear that holds back health, happiness, and the truth.  If you look at the science, getting a regular dose of leisure is as important to your health as eating the right foods or getting exercise. Recreational activities are the missing piece of wellness, the overlooked antidote to entrenched stress and pessimism.

BEYOND BOREDOM

A new study from Matthew Zawadski, a psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, found that people who took part in leisure activities reported they were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad. “When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels,” he reports on the UC Merced website, “better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement—that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors. But it’s important to immerse in the activity and protect leisure time from external stressors.”

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In other words, to get those benefits, you have to be engaged in the activity. That doesn’t mean it has to be aerobic or muscle-flexing, though those work great too. Quieter pursuits, such as listening to music, doing puzzles, or sewing can also shift minds out of tension and into the positive space where recovery and flourishing begin.

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When you’re having fun and fully immersed, it crowds out stress and negative mood. Why is this so hard to get? One of the reasons is that we have been taught to feel guilty unless we are on task and that productivity is a function of endurance and stamina, a triathlon in pants. All the research tells us this is bogus.

FATIGUED BRAINS LOOK SOUND ASLEEP

Brains that are fatigued look like ones that are sound asleep, MRI scans show. The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy is recharging and refueling and brains that are fresh. Leisure activities have an amazing ability to provide that refreshment, not just because play and doing things we like energize us, but also because these activities satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. That makes us happy. Princeton’s Alan Krueger led a study that found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities.

The tonic of engaged leisure acts as a rumination-buster. Rumination—thinking over and over again about our problems—is a core driver of stress. Stress constricts the brain to perceived emergencies that lock us in to loops of doom and gloom, or “awfulizing,” as it’s known in the psychological trade. Leisure activities preoccupy the brain with challenge, learning, and fun, which push out worries and allow a reset.

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions can reverse even the physical effects of stress. They can “undo” a high heart rate and disrupted digestion. They also build resources, in this case of positive emotions that have been shown to buffer stress and help us withstand setbacks.

BUILDING POSITIVE MOOD

If you don’t break up the self-propelling loop of tension and danger in your head, the stress can develop into chronic stress, which can set off a host of medical conditions, and ultimately, morph into burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. That means a mode of continuous fight-or-flight, which suppresses the immune system, and increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

We can escape this rut through psychological detachment from the day’s events in the form of that thing right next to us we think is only permissable for kids and retirees: leisure. Making a psychological break from the strains and pressures of the day is an essential stress management tool. It unleashes the positive emotions that turn off the danger signals and bring us back to our core selves and the things and people we enjoy. 

Without a diversion from the day’s preoccupations, we’re left in a morass of negative thoughts and tension. Researchers have shown that leisure activities after work counter the stress loop and negative affect (grouchy, angry, tense, irritable, a non-pleasure to be around) that comes with it. Studies show that people who engage in leisure activities, whether it’s chess, dancing, reading, and especially any activity that involves a mastery experience, wake up the next morning with positive affect and more energy.

PUT PLAY ON THE CALENDAR

Stress is a huge energy-drainer. It forces your organs to work overtime under duress, and that is the opposite of employee engagement, whose main domains include vigor and dedication. Recreational activities refuel that energy, which is why they are a significant piece of wellness and enagement programs.

One of the challenges to unlocking this amazing resource is that stress and the belief it sets off in your ancient brain that you are about to die suppresses the play equipment in the brain. Who wants to have fun when you’re about to kick the bucket? The way around this vise-grip is to plan activities, put them on the calendar, and commit to doing them no matter what negative frame of mind you’re in. Moods are transient, so the false emergency of stress will disappear within a few minutes of doing something fun.

Another way to trick the brain so it doesn’t freeze fun out of your life is to take up a hobby or leisure pursuit. This insures that you engage in the experience on a regular basis and allows for a steady dose of psychological detachment and increasing opportunities to build competence and social connection, core needs. Studies show that a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I’m betting that’s something you would consider valuable—even if it comes from that slackery world of leisure.

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Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crisismentalityshot

Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that crisis mentality sets off. It's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to qualify urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

Posted by Joe Robinson

John Lennon reached out in "Help"

The Beatles made reaching out respectable as far back as 1965 with the iconic strains of “Help.” John Lennon said he wrote the song as a cry for help to escape a depressive period in his life.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still not easy in a culture of rugged individualism to ask for a hand. That’s especially true when it comes to work-related issues. We’re supposed to suck it up in silence, and keep on going till the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving, so we need a smarter approach.

I met one manager at an aerospace firm who was back at work after a heart attack. He was already worried he was going to have a recurrence. A scientist in Tennessee told me how he was hauled out of his office on a stretcher after his myocardial infarction and remembers his panic as the siren wailed in the ambulance on the way to the hosptial.

A social worker told me about her nervous breakdown, set off by an overwhelming caseload.  She didn’t even tell her husband how serious her stress had been until she was in an ER bed. At one training I did for a large consulting firm, staff members reflected on the heart attack death on a hotel bathroom floor of one of their hardest road-warrior workers, someone who was only in his 40s.

FEAR AND EGO

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem, and we have to face up to it as organizations and professionals. All the tragic events above could have been avoided if people had just asked for help—if individuals had reached out when things got beyond their capacity, if managers had reached out to staff or to leadership for training in stress management or time management.

It’s hard to be productive when you’re in an ER or six feet under. So why is it so hard to ask for help? Fear and ego override common sense and even self-preservation. We don’t want to let managers or peers think we can’t handle our responsibilities, fearing we’ll be thought of as lightweights or that we will jeopardize career or promotions. Egos tell us that admitting we need help would be a failure. Like all fear, these are projections that something will happen that almost never does. Irrational self-talk locks in false beliefs that put your health and even maybe your life in jeopardy.

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Denial fuels more stress, because it keeps the false belief driving the stress entrenched through rumination. The more we think about the false belief the more it feels true. Health consequences from your work are flares from your physiology to examine what’s not working and what you can do about it.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

Part of the problem of reaching out is that we are led to believe that it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. One Harvard report about speaking up in the workplace called the word “No,” the voice-oriented improvement system. We move forward when we find out what's not working and remain counterproductive as long as we don’t say anything. Think about dialogue, not as a sign of failure, but of progress—problem-solving ineffective behavior, such as stress and burnout, that can cost you dearly and the company five to seven times more than the average workplace malady.

Fear and ego blind us to the irony that, to appear strong and play the bravado game, we consign bodies and minds to physical weakness. Are CEO’s weak who bring in consultants to chart a new path? No, it’s considered smart to bring in expertise to solve problems.

That’s all we are doing when we speak up and let someone know there’s too much on our plate or a department is too overwhelmed to avoid making serious mistakes. We are solving problems.

Asking for help isn’t a character flaw, it’s a sign of character, of knowing when to  say when, determining when we have diminishing returns, identifying when we have more than we can do well. It’s a sign of strength.

GETTING UNSTUCK

Ignoring health problems is a big lose-lose for employees and companies. Let’s set a new standard to change this. If the way you are working is affecting your health, it’s time to reach out. If the people on your team or department are racking up doctor appointments or citing burnout, it’s time to reach out. If stress and crisis mentality is rampant, it’s time to reach out.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Most of my coaching clients contact me when they are on absolute fumes, when a small spark could cause a conflagration. It’s no different than going to a personal trainer or music teacher. You move forward through new knowledge, through strategies that take an outside ear and expertise. Our brains generate ideas through associations, putting this idea with that random one. It’s inefficient, time-consuming, and it often leads to an association dead-end. We get stuck in association cul-de-sacs and can’t get out on our own.

The same is true for organizations. If your department is reeling, don’t wait for the entire company to do something, reach out and explore a stress management, work-life balance, or productivity training for your team. Get solutions to overwhelm and burnout that everyone knows are undermining productive efforts, rapport, and future success.

“Help me get my feet back on the ground,” sang John Lennon. Ask, and chances are you shall receive.

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The 7 Signs of Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

Burnout is a medical condition

I’m a longtime fan of the Candid Camera show. People being themselves can be funnier than the most brilliant comedian. I recently stumbled upon an episode of the show, which featured a woman driving a car minus an engine. She pulls in to a gas station by coasting down an adjacent hill. When the dead vehicle comes to a halt at the station, the woman complains that it won’t start.

The mechanic looks under the hood, and to his surprise, finds a gaping void. “The reason the car won’t go is you ain’t got no engine,” he says. Another mechanic peers in to the vacant space where the engine should be, scratching his head. The driver tells them the car has been working fine.

NO GET-UP-AND-GO

It reminds me of what happens to people whose engines have vanished, their get-up-and-go extinguished by burnout. Burnout doesn’t just kill physical vitality, motivation, and any semblance of work-life balance, it also guts the entire internal combustion machinery. You can’t get the ignition to turn over, because there’s nothing to turn over. 

Unlike with the gag car, we can’t look under the skin and spot the problem. But the void is as real as inside that vehicle, and we have to recognize it and resolve it or pay with serious consequences for work, health, family, and life. 

In an always-on world, many will face burnout at least once in their careers, and once they do and recover from it, they will never go down that road again because of the misery it inflicts on every part of work and life. Burnout can lead to major health issues.

I have coached hard-working people with burnout from every part of this country and from Switzerland to Australia, and helped them cut off the chronic stress that drives burnout. Feeling without energy or drive is an alien feeling for all of them. In fact, it's the opposite of who they have always been, since people who get burned out are not slackers--they're the hardest workers.

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Burnout isn’t just being very tired, which it is (the main dimension is exhaustion). It’s a serious medical condition that can set off other problems—depression, stroke, suicidal thoughts, breakdown. The last stage of chronic stress, burnout occurs when all your energetic resources—emotional, physical, and mental—have been used up.

With no resources left to counter the catastrophic thoughts of stress, it’s hard to contest false beliefs triggered by an ancient part of your brain that thinks you are about to die. Instead of being able to marshal analytical thought or physical willpower to fight back, there’s nothing, a void where the engine used to be. That feels very odd and fragile to people who have always had the ability to bounce back.

DIRE THOUGHTS

Burnout is a cumulative process, in which the alarm signal of stress goes off day in and day out for a long period of time. The stress response is only supposed to go off for a brief time until you can fight or run your way out of danger, because the process it sets off is extremely harmful in large doses. The stress response suppresses the immune system, tissue repair, and digestion processes to drive blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from danger, so the longer chronic stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body and the more resources it depletes. The stress response increases the bad cholesterol and reduces the good kind.

The usual response is to soldier on, but that doesn’t work with burnout, since by the time you have it there are no coping resources left. You're left with severe fatigue and feeling that nothing really matters anymore--job, success, people you know, everything. 

The way out of burnout is to reach out. When we are sick, we go to the doctor, but when it comes to stress and burnout, we are reluctant to get the expertise to turn off the stress response and get healthy. Studies show that one of the most effective ways to overcome burnout is through stress management coaching. From my experience helping people escape the burnout cycle, I can tell you that the courage to reach out unlocks the door to restoring your health.

Stress and burnout thrive on silence, not saying anything, because the engine of it all is thinking and rumination. It's ruminating over and over about a stress trigger that keeps the perceived danger alive and making your organs work overtime, even when you are sleeping. If you have burnout, I strongly urge you to reach out. We offer a free initial consultation. I strongly urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.

When you are burned out, someone who has always hurled themselves into their work can't bear the thought of working. For people who have defined themselves by performance, it feels shameful. But it’s not. It’s a physical condition that has to be dealt with in the same way as other serious illnesses, by rooting out the cause and rebuilding the body and mind.

Persistence is a great trait, but not at the expense of the immune system and organization.  Let’s take a look at seven key signs of burnout that need to be recognized and acted upon to prevent a cascade of physical and psychological issues and bring back the joy of living.

 7 MAJOR SIGNS OF BURNOUT

 1. Severe exhaustion. You can barely get up in the morning. There’s no desire to do anything that involves effort. Just the thought of work, of doing what you do well but have overdone, can make you physically sick.

2. Excessive workload. Excessive workload drives stress and prevents the body from physical recovery and the mind from replenishing mental resources. It leads to little sleep, bad diet, no exercise, and unrelieved stress, and eats away at the immune system. Physical exhaustion leads to mental and emotional exhaustion.

3. Cynicism. There seems to be no point to anything, no sense of accomplishment anymore. What used to fuel—pride, service, ambition, challenge, even money—seems meaningless. Belief, in the profession, achievement, anyone else, it's pointless.

4. Emotionally draining work. Burnout was first identified in social workers whose clients and large case loads burned up excess emotional resources. If your work involves intense emotional demands, and there’s nothing to replace those resources or help with them, the constant stress can dry up adrenal glands, causing severe physical fatigue and a lack of defense chemicals to manage stressors.

5. Absence of positive emotions. This is one of the hallmarks of burnout. A brain on chronic life-or-death watch from chronic stress fixates on the perceived emergency, on threats, resentments, problems. Even what you used to enjoy outside work feels meaningless. 

6. Catastrophic thoughts. Burnout leads to dire thinking. It colors everything dark and strips away the will and effort to change the situation. It sets off awfulizing and worst-case scenarios on a grand scale. “I can’t do this job anymore." "I won't be able to take it." "Why bother?” It’s all coming from an ancient part of your brain that doesn’t know how to interpret the social stressors of the modern world. It feeds false beliefs, and there are no coping resources left to fight them.

7. Lack of support or rewards. When you go beyond the call of duty over and over, it can lead to a loss of emotional and physical resources. You may be able to work long hours for a while, or for rewards that make you feel the work and you are worthwhile, but when there’s no payoff for going the extra mile, all that’s left is exhaustion and resentment. You wind up detaching yourself from everyone and everything, lose social support, a key resource, and have no opportunity to feel effective, a core need.

Burnout can happen in any industry, from engineering, to healthcare, to administrative assistants who work for nonprofits or even churches. Take proactive steps to reach out. Burnout can seem like the end, but it’s not. With changes to how you work, think, and take care of yourself, you can make a complete recovery and, with keys to work-life balance, put the engine back under your hood.

Learn about our stress management and burnout prevention coaching by clicking on the button below:

Click for Free Burnout Consultation

Tags: employee stress management, reducing burnout, burnout coach, stress and burnout, stress management, job stress, burnout, job burnout, stress management programs, catastrophic thoughts, awfulizing

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