How can individuals minimise the risk of burnout?
Think back to when you were last on an aeroplane and a member of the cabin crew was making the safety announcement. You would have been told to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others. The same principle applies in burnout. You can’t help anyone else with burnout, if you are burnt out yourself. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As well as caring for yourself, it’s helpful to model good self-care for others to see. It follows then that the first place to begin when trying to tackle burnout is with yourself. If you can’t care for yourself, you won’t be any good at caring for others? Here’s what the research says about the best individual strategies for preventing burnout.
The boundary between work and home
The best strategy to prevent or reduce burnout is to have a clear boundary between work and home life. When you’re at work, work hard. Then, at the end of the day, do your very best to forget work - switch from work mode into home mode. In other words, leave work at work.
Researchers in Germany found that psychological detachment from work during non-work hours as well as the ability to relax and switch off are the best predictors of prevention and recovery from burnout (Hahn et al., 2011; Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). People who are able to detach from work, relax, pursue hobbies and spend time with friends seem to be immune from burnout. Of course, the converse is also true. If you find it difficult to switch off from work and relax and you have few interests outside of work and few friends, you are at very high risk of burnout.
Resilience and ‘antifragile’
Personal resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is often put forward as being the answer and antidote to burnout. But while it is generally a good thing to be resilient, it can also get you into a lot of trouble and in fact be counter-productive. This is one of the arguments put forward by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile (Taleb, 2012).
When we think of resilience, we tend to think of two extremes. At one end, things are fragile, like a china teacup. At the other end, things are resilient or robust, like a hammer. Fragile things break easily when exposed to stress, but robust things can stand up to stress and not change. In other words, people who are ‘fragile’ are susceptible to burnout, whereas people who are robust are less prone to burnout. However, according to Taleb, things are not quite so simple.
Taleb argues that the real opposite of fragile isn’t robustness or resilience, but antifragile. Antifragile is very different from resilience, because people, objects or systems that are antifragile actually get stronger when exposed to external stress, whereas resilient things stay the same, and fragile things just break.
Most things in nature are antifragile. The best example being your own body. If you expose yourself to stress by exercising, you will get stronger. Expose your immune system to stress by taking a vaccine and your immune system gets stronger. However, in order to benefit from stress (to become antifragile) the stress has to be interspersed with rest and recovery. For example, training for a marathon isn’t a matter of running for long distances every day. Most marathon training plans mix short runs with occasional long runs, all of which are broken up by rest days which allow the body to recover. If the runner were to run incessantly without breaks, they would get injured and never make it to marathon day.
This is a great metaphor for many people’s working lives. They work long hours, miss coffee and lunch breaks and work at weekends. It’s hardly surprising that many people burn out.
Being antifragile applies, not just to people but also to bigger systems including organisations.
BOX 4.2 HOW BEING RESILIENT CAN HURT YOU
On 26 March 2016, the boxer Nick Blackwell fought Chris Eubank Jr at Wembley Stadium. It was a tough fight and both boxers were breathing heavily. By the sixth round, Eubank was clearly winning, but Blackwell always came back for more. No matter how much pressure he was under, he stood there and took it and did his best to fight back. He was the embodiment of resilience.
After ten rounds in the ring, Blackwell had a closed left eye and blood coming from his nose. The match was stopped by the referee. Blackwell was taken to hospital on a stretcher while receiving oxygen. He had suffered a brain bleed.
Blackwell was astounding in his courage and his resilience. But the problem with resilience is that you can only go on for so long. Eventually, the punches get to you, and, like Nick Blackwell, you collapse. If you are a runner, you can only run so far before you eventually stop. It’s the same in life and in business. The person, the team and the whole organisation can only tolerate stress for so long until that final punch gets them. Resilience will eventually turn into fragility.
How to become antifragile
If you want to avoid burnout and help others to avoid burnout, you could do a lot worse than organise your life to become antifragile. Here are some ideas for how you might do this:
Develop your awareness
A property of antifragile is the ability to react and adapt quickly to your environment. To be able to do this, you first have to be aware of what is going on around you. So, you should try to become more aware of yourself, other people and your environment.
Everyone today is under tremendous pressure to do their best. It is very easy to get caught up in the hamster wheel of life, simply reacting to whatever is going on around you. When you do this, you miss the subtle clues that help you to adjust more effectively to your environment. These clues might be physical - your shoulders tightening up, for example. The clues might be from other people - when one of your colleagues looks slightly anxious or sad or angry. Being aware of these subtle pieces of evidence is the first step to taking correcting action. If you notice your shoulders are tense, have a stretch and go for a walk. If you notice a colleague is anxious, talk to them about it - invite them to join you for your short walk. If you don’t even notice, you don’t have a chance to correct it.
Cultivate stress and take breaks
In Chapter 2 I talked about the Yerkes-Dodson curve and how it showed stress creates lots of positive energy. However, it is only good when it is acute. When stress is chronic, it is very bad for you and triggers all kinds of nasty things like high blood pressure, heart disease and of course, burnout. However, short bursts of stress, even very high stress, followed by periods of rest and recovery, makes you stronger. It’s like exercise: if you run three times a week, you will get fitter, but if you run every day without any rest periods, you are likely to get injured.
Stress at work is only bad when it is unrelenting - one thing after another, without any recovery time. So, if there is a lot of stress in your life, make sure you build in lots of rest and recovery time. In many jobs where concentration is critical, this is built in. Medical scientists who spot cancer cells on microscope slides have to take regular breaks, otherwise they make errors that can kill. Similarly, lorry drivers must follow rules on how many hours they can drive and the number of breaks they must take.
Antifragile people and systems survive and thrive because of spare capacity. But nowadays, especially in the workplace, there seems to be hardly any spare capacity. Everybody is at full throttle all the time. It sometimes seems like one person is doing the work that would previously have been done by two people. This is all well and good until something goes wrong. Doing the work of two people is exhausting. To be antifragile we sometimes just need to take a break; it’s as simple as that.
So, rest really helps - but keep in mind that it can’t compensate for a toxic culture at work. In the coming chapters we’ll explore the cultural and systemic factors implicated in burnout.