We all want to be good people. Show up every day with a great attitude, strive to have a positive impact and be a person who is productive, makes a difference, and is a great role model for our colleagues and family.  

But we are struggling. Many of us are finding that the length of time working from home during this pandemic is becoming a bigger challenge. The impact of the monotony, social isolation, and feeling that we need to work twice as hard to make up for lost team members or increased workload has set in.  

While we might be experiencing some of the typical symptoms of working hard like being tired and exhausted, it is probably feeling deeper than that. We are starting to feel other things, beyond exhaustion, that are making it hard to show up as we would like. And it does not feel good. Welcome to burnout. 

Burnout catches us off guard and infiltrates our lives without us even being aware of it. We initially thrive on the challenge of the moment, but the truth is that we can only survive in that state for so long. 

The typical ways we have learned to deal with burnout simply don’t work. We either try to manage burnout by working harder – ‘getting on top of our work’, which, of course, is part of the problem. Or we don’t respect burnout, and fail to take it seriously, believing that burnout is something that happens to others, not us.

Burnout, of course, loves this kind of attitude, because it allows it to silently creep up on us, and without warning, ensnare us, making it hard to get free. 

What’s at Stake? The Cost of Burnout  

Burnout isn’t simply about being tired. It is deeper and more profound than that.

Burnout is what happens to us when we face prolonged, chronic stress that is unrelenting.

It is not just about needing to put out fires every day, though it can sometimes feel that way, it is the fact that it continues on for so long without reprieve.  

It affects us on a deeper level and is characterized by three signs: 

  • exhaustion, both physical and mental
  • cynicism that makes us feel like we are becoming ‘estranged’ from our job and not doing it very well, and finally,
  • loss of joy or pleasure

Burnout’s Secret Weapon 

Many people think adrenaline is the primary chemical that mediates burnout, it is not. The mediating chemical is actually cortisol, which is a stress hormone. You can think of it as It is nature’s built-in alarm system. 

Cortisol works with certain parts of our brain to control our mood, motivation, and fear. It is produced not in the brain, but instead in our adrenal glands, a triangle-shaped organ at the top of our kidneys (if you put both hands behind you and grab onto your upper, lower back, they are roughly underneath your hands on both sides).

Cortisol is the reason that burnout is bigger than simple exhaustion. If we habitually have too much cortisol in our body, it suppresses our immune system, and decreases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which affects our happiness and well-being. The positive effects of a healthy immune system and high levels of dopamine and serotonin are important in our regular daily lives, and even more important when facing the challenges of a pandemic.   

What Causes Excess Cortisol?  

There are a number of reasons why cortisol levels increase but there are three we will want to pay particular attention to.

Perceived lack of control. This is where we feel a lack of say in decisions that are impacting our professional or personal lives. We feel controlled by something or someone else outside of ourselves. COVID-19, of course, is an exemplar of just this type of circumstance. 

One of our reactions to feeling a lack of control is to sometimes feel the need to be perfect in every task we do. When we are caught in this trap, we end up spending way too much time on a task that really doesn’t warrant it, which means work accumulates and we feel even more snowed under. Our frustration builds and cortisol increases. We are even less able to let go of tasks our direct reports could feasibly do for fear that they might not do it right. 

Out of proportion reactions to the challenges we face. There are many reasons we react out of proportion to a situation, but a big one centers on how we can personalize an interaction. A comment from a colleague when we are all under pressure of a deadline, for instance, that we take personally when that might not have been their intention. Or, a small disagreement about something becomes much bigger than it needs to. We have a lower threshold to irritation and we find our reaction becomes bigger than it needs to be. This is not to blame the victim, but it does point to the need to learn specific tools to manage our brain and our emotions if we are going to manage burnout. 

Not Feeling Connected. With COVID-19, there is a greater chance that we are not feeling as connected as we normally do. This is significant because we know from very good research that a feeling of connection is one of our most important sources of resilience and optimism. We know when we feel emotionally connected to others, our brain is better able to self regulate, process cortisol, and our risk of burnout, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges decreases. 

How do I know if I have burnout? 

Ask yourself, are any of the following true for you: 

  • You have trouble getting started and sometimes feel you like you need to drag yourself to work, even though it is just down the hall. 
  • You are becoming more impatient with others. 
  • You feel a lack of energy. 
  • You can see yourself becoming more negative and cynical about work. 
  • You feel like you cannot get anything done.  
  • You are starting to feel disillusioned with your job. 
  • Your sleep habits have changed. 
  • You are experiencing more physical complaints than usual, such as headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or muscle ache. 
  • You are finding that you are starting to use alcohol or drugs more than usual to feel better. 

If you answered yes to three or more of these statements, you might want to face the fact that you might be experiencing burnout. 

What to do? In order to get underneath burnout, you need a plan. As C.S. Lewis said: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” 

The Plan: Getting Back to The Person You Want To Be 

Burnout is not something to take lightly and it won’t be solved in a single blog article. It also won’t just go away if you take some time off or tell yourself to ‘relax’. It is deeper than that. It has to do with how we relate and respond to the challenges we face and the world around us.

Here are some questions that will help you sort out where you might want to start changing your approach: 

1. Where does your time go to each day?  

Do a time audit and try to better understand where you spend your time and see if it fits with where you want it to go. We can often find ourselves doing things that, in retrospect, are not really how we want to spend our time. This can be the number of meetings we agree to or time spent on social media. Look at the time you are spending on these activities and create a plan to reduce time spent here – create blocks of time with no meetings, or remove social media from your phone or set time limits. 

2. What is the first thing you do when you wake up? 

Many people reach for their phones immediately upon waking, which is just about the worst thing you can do for your brain. Your brain is not ready for the assault of news and emails and extra cortisol this brings first thing in the morning (while cortisol is highest in the morning each day, it gets spiked if we look at our phone first thing).

Create a morning routine. While there are many different routines available, experiment and see what works best for you. A great place to start is The Last 8% Morning podcast, which integrates movement (walking), mindfulness, and mental training exercises as a way to help you start your day off right. 

3. Do you have an intentional way to wind down each day? 

Many people don’t have a specific ritual to wind down and close the day. The consequence is that they never really disconnect from work and give their body and brain a much-needed break.  Create a ritual personalized to you. Some people use the Last 8% Morning to end the day as well: they ‘finish work’ and leave the house and go for a walk and listen to an episode and when they return home, their evening has begun. It might just be 15-20 minutes but it allows them be more present for their family or friends. 

4. Is feeling the need to be perfect serving you? 

If you view every single deliverable as if your career and reputation hinge on it, it will exhaust you. If you feel like the only way you will gain affection and approval is through impeccable performance, you will avoid failure at all costs and nothing less than a ‘A’ will suffice, even if it is not a high priority. An action step might be to talk with a coach or therapist and dig into this challenge as this one can take a bit more self-examination to understand.  

5. Do you have someone to talk to and be vulnerable with at work about how you are doing and feeling?  

This is easily the most important thing you can do to help you be more resilient. Unfortunately, if we don’t take the risk and open up, we rob ourselves of this powerful antidote. 

6. What is within your control to change the situation? 

Something within our control that many of us miss is having a Last 8% conversation (a difficult conversation) with our boss about our workload, priorities, or how we are feeling. Many of us are afraid to do this and we never give our manager the opportunity to step up and help us. Another thing within our control is our reactions, which is all about managing our emotions… 

7. Finally, have you developed skills to soothe your emotions?  

Our brain is built to protect our body from harm. It makes predictions about whether we are safe or not based on an amplification of the negative. This is a great adaptation for survival in the short term, but not so great if we have not learned skills to soothe or down-regulate our brain and process cortisol over a longer period, of say, long unrelenting days of a year-long pandemic. These are the skills of Emotional Intelligence that are learnable and critical to learn and grow. Check out what your company has to offer in this space as most have come to realize how important these skills are for performance and leadership and also good mental health. 

The Beginning of a Better You 

While experiencing burnout can be incredibly challenging on so many levels, it can also be one of the most important wake-up calls we receive because it asks us to look at how we are living our lives. It requires honesty, however, to be effective.

As Patrick Pichette, former CFO of Google, has said: “It’s important that you don’t lie to yourself. If you lie to yourself, you end up with burnout.” 

What I know from working with people who are experiencing burnout is that it is often the impetus for real change in their life. The kind of change that goes beyond changing jobs, though that sometimes happens, but a change that requires a different way of engaging with the world.

They are more willing to ask themselves tough questions such as: how perfect they really need to be in all aspects of their life, or how much risk they are willing to take to have the more courageous and difficult conversations they face, to, maybe most importantly, how all of this is affecting their emotions.  

We are all stronger than we think we are. Our situation is more amenable to change than we think it is. We need to recognize that we already have far more resources at our disposal, including the people around us and our own courage, than we realize.

It requires though that we become a ‘student of human behavior’, starting with ourselves, so we can better understand our behaviors, our brain and how we manage our cortisol. 

What we have in front of us, whether it is burnout or not, is an important opportunity to re-evaluate our perspective, develop different default behaviors and habits and strengthen our support system. This is the kind of situation that if we can bring a level of courage to might help us transform into a better version of ourselves. How great is that? 

Want to learn more about burnout, especially in these difficult times? Listen to this episode of The Last 8% Morning and share with your team!

Want to learn how you can support your organization in 2021?

IHHP’s Organizational Psychologist, Dr. Cranla Warren, is hosting a live webinar panel discussion for Learning and Talent Development leaders and will be exploring practical solutions to battle burnout.

Join us to learn how you can help your people recharge and reignite their potential. Sign up now!

About the Author

Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry is one of the founders of IHHP. He co-wrote the NY Times bestseller, Performing Under Pressure, and is sought out by Fortune 500 companies as a keynote speaker. If you want to hear more about how to manage stress and pressure, subscribe to his podcast Last 8% Morning on Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher