Until my burnout in 2013, if you had asked me about the important things in life, what I valued and what I prioritised, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to put myself on that list. I had a long list of what I wanted to achieve, the goals, the promotions, the lifestyle, the income, the house, the type of mum and wife I wanted to be – for my sons and husband, not for me, and I was set on achieving it all.
I exercised a lot because it was a stress release and another thing to tick off the list, but I was never really present, just focusing on how much more I could do in the time and how much further I could go. Everything in my life was about doing, being and having better.
I’d been told that I couldn’t grow and develop my career whilst being a mum to twin sons, I was told I’d need more time to reach the top, I was told that my timelines and aspirations were unrealistic. I was told I should lower my expectations.
And perhaps out of spite and because I’ve never been one to fall at the first hurdle, I had begun to morph myself into some kind of Superwoman persona. When I left one company to move into a more senior role elsewhere, the Head of Marketing even made me a card with my head superimposed on Wonder woman’s body. This façade was fast becoming how other people saw me, yet inside I was an imposter, full of stress and anxiety and worry and overcome by fear that one day I would wake up and everyone around me would see me for the fraud that I was.
As I changed roles and my next promotion and big salary jump came, I assumed that 14 hour days were normal, that my workload was part of the salary I was now earning. I worked even harder at being everything to everyone, the stress became overwhelming and I burned out.
As I began to recover from what until that point had been the hardest, most stressful year of my life, I vowed that I wouldn’t let anyone else go through what I had been through. And so my self-discovery, research, interest in Neuroscience and studies into Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy began.
What had caused my burnout, what could have been done to prevent it and how could I help my clients more effectively to avoid the same?
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised Burnout as an occupational phenomenon, it stated that burnout was as a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, and I could relate to this. We need to recognise that chronic stress in one area of our life will impact other areas of our life; Self, Relationships, Work, World. And in the book I was asked to write on Overcoming Stress I wrote about practical ways to reduce and overcome unhealthy stress in our lives.
There is, as with everything in life, no one-size-fits-all approach to everything, and yet as I look at patterns, these are the 10 of the most effective ways to get you from burnout to balance
If you start your day running late, stressed, worried, frantic and rushing around, it’s likely that the rest of your day will follow suit. And you’ll be less swan-like and more Tasmanian devil as you spin around causing chaos and frantic energy wherever you go.
And too much bad stress will lead you toward burnout and totally away from balance.
Start your day as relaxed as possible, set your intentions for the day, take the time to reflect and plan, enjoying your first cuppa of the day, maybe some exercise, maybe listening to your favourite music pr reading a few pages from your favourite book.
You don’t need hours of time in the morning to start your day right, even 10 minutes of calm will change how you start the day. And how you start the day will set you up better for how you finish it.
A good start to the day starts the night before and sleep plays a big part in this.
Many of us expect to stay stressed and frantic all day, scrolling through our phones last thing at night or working right up until we can no longer concentrate and then we wonder why our head starts buzzing with thoughts and to-do lists and ideas and solutions to things we’ve been struggling with all day as soon as our head hits the pillow.
I like to think of sleep a bit like running a race.
Some of us can of course just head out of the door, run as fast as possible and get to the finish line. For many of though, we need to ensure we are in the right clothes, in the right environment, in the right frame of mind, with the right shoes, we need to stretch beforehand, we need to prepare.
And it’s the same with our sleep.
Avoid caffeine and sugar at least two hours before bed. Put down your phone laptop an hour or two before bed, and leave it outside of the room if you can. Don’t watch TV or films that will set your thoughts whizzing or your heart racing. Make sure the temperature of the room is right. Do some reading, or journaling, or meditation before you want to fall asleep.
Prepare yourself for sleep, and your sleep will improve.
The better the quality of your sleep, the more calm and relaxed you will be and the more you can move toward balance and away from burnout.
3. Define balance for yourself
What does balance really mean to you?
I’ve never liked the work/life balance analogy, it makes us feel as though our life and our work are two complete different areas of life, when in fact we can only create life balance, and that includes all areas of our life.
So what would balance mean to you?
Is it about fun, freedom, security, time to think, time for yourself, boundaries, less/more responsibility?
When you are clear on your definition of balance and what needs to change/happen for you to achieve it, you move away from burnout and toward balance.
As our stress levels increase we can often push harder to be a total pleaser, saying yes to everyone else and no to our own needs.
You can say no to meetings that add no value. You can say no to last-minute requests, somebody else’s poor planning does not mean everything then becomes your priority. You can say no to things that you don’t want to do. You can say no to long hours and unreasonable deadlines.
And the more you get comfortable in saying no to everyone else, the more you can start to say yes to what you need.
As part of your daily, weekly and monthly planning, schedule time in your diary for you. Take the walk. Enjoy your coffee. Sit and breathe. Book a lunch date with a friend or partner. Take a day off just for yourself. Book the spa day. Get your hair done. Go to the gym. Take the class. Read the book. Have a nap.
The research changes all of the time and depending on what you read, some experts will say to take a break every 90 minutes, some will say 10 minutes every hour and some will say take a break every 52 minutes.
I say, at least three times a day for you, for as long or as little as you can. Take 10 minutes in the morning, take an hour for lunch, take 10 minutes at the end of your workday or soak in the bath before bed.
Find what works for you. Create your non-negotiables and stick to them.
You are MORE productive the more you rest and recharge, not less.
6. Set and maintain boundaries
I am always talking about boundaries, perhaps because this would have been the gamechanger for me if I’d have set them earlier, but every single one of my clients that sets boundaries early on in our coaching relationship has results much faster than those that don’t.
Boundaries are more than just saying no.
They can be about only things that align with your values. They can be boundaries at work, with your working hours, with your finances, with your health, with your TV time, or phone time, literally anything in any area of your life.
The more you are firm in your boundaries, the more others will come to respect that. And if they don’t respect your boundaries, they are not your people!
7. Disconnect to fully connect
Turn off the phone, close the laptop, switch off the TV.
Learn to connect with yourself more, your needs, wants and desires. Spend time with your family and friends. Get outside and connect with nature. Reconnect with your favourite hobby or get a new one. Volunteer. Join a club. Join a group. Meditate (without an app). Breathe. Cook. Bake. Have a day at the office where people speak to each other instead of typing at each other. Start a walking lunch break. Have walking meetings. Have meetings on a park bench.
Do something that makes you feel good.
I completely understand that tech helps us connect more widely with many of our team, clients, family and friends, and it’s helped hugely in allowing us to work from home.
We also need to know when to walk away from it. Connect with what or who is around us, and enjoy it.
Let go of the all-consuming, stress-inducing to-do list.
Pass the project onto someone else.
Let go of the need to please and control and win at all costs.
Let go of other people’s expectations.
Let go of the judgement of yourself and others.
Keep what matters, let go of what doesn’t.
Cut through the BS excuses that are stopping you from creating balance and moving you one step closer to Burnout.
And whilst you’re at it, if you’re making ongoing excuses for the headaches, the exhaustion, the cynicism, the errors, the mistakes, the withdrawal from your favourite people and favourite tasks, the brain fog, the lack of exercise, the stomach cramps, the sudden food intolerances, the short temper, the increased hours, the no breaks, and blaming it on ‘that thing from yesterday’ repeatedly, you need to make some changes.
I ignored the signs for months, always an excuse for every single of them, and I became seriously ill before I sought any kind of help.
Excuses lead you one step closer to burnout and one step further away from balance.
I know, I go one about this repeatedly, and yes, you already know that self-care is not selfish. You’ve seen the quotes and the memes and you’ve bought the t-shirt.
And you’re still not doing it.
So let’s break it down a little more.
If you don’t take control of your workload and ridiculously long hours, who will?
If you don’t reduce your stress levels, who will?
If you don’t pay attention to the increasing signs of burnout that you are experiencing, who will?
If you don’t prioritise your sleep, who will?
If you don’t put yourself at least once a day, who will?
If you don’t start to put yourself and be your own VIP, who will?
I did not think stress would impact me the way it did. I thrived on stress and competition and tight deadlines and last-minute wins for years. I thought it was how I was made. Those women around me who were signed off by doctors for stress, anxiety and depression, I didn’t understand, at all.
So like me, you can think that Burnout will never impact you and that you can keep on being Wonder Woman forever, and you may well be right, as long as in the process of being Wonder Woman you prioritise seeking balance, prioritise yourself, and don’t push too hard. We all have a breaking point. Don’t leave it too late to find yours.
You can have it all. You can succeed and win, and you can have balance, it doesn’t have to be an either-or.
And if you don’t know where to start in creating or maintaining your balance, get in touch to arrange a discovery call.
Kelly is an Executive Coach to Senior Women in Leadership and helps women move from Burnout to Balance. She leads and coaches with an open heart and an open mind and challenges the status quo.