Continuingon from part two of this series – how to escape burnout – this third article is focused on how to prevent burnout. And no, it isn’t work less, eat healthy, and get more sleep (though all of those are important!).
If you’re a busy, successful, multi-tasking professional, you’ve no doubt heard warnings from colleagues or loved ones, advising you to slow down, take things easy, and even take a break. While each of those may lift the immediate burden, none will serve you in the pursuit of preventing burnout. Burnout is not about exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. It is possible to be exhausted, anxious and depressed without being burned out. Burnout is about living a life without pleasure. Cast your mind back to part one in this series and you’ll recall my definition of burnout as, “the progressive erosion of personal values leading to a perpetual state of a life devoid of pleasure.”
Having experienced and recovered from burnout, I can safely say that it is most definitely about a life spiraling out of control and into the abyss of dissatisfaction and perpetual lack of fulfillment. It is the most dark and terrifying place I have ever visited, and coming back from burnout – while absolutely possible – is far from straightforward. Burnout is a perfect example of where prevention is most definitely preferable to cure.
So how can burnout be prevented? While there are no cast iron guarantees that the following suggestions will prevent burnout, I can with confidence that they will go a very long way in reducing your risk. As mentioned earlier, burnout is about eroded values and an absence of pleasure. Therefore, it makes sense that prevention be about those things too. And it is. The most effective way to prevent burnout is by doing these three things.
Define your values and live bythem.
‘Values’ is a trendy word, and an even more trendy concept. Nowadays, corporations, governments and most organizations have a set of values they claim to live by. When organizations live by their values they attract great people, delight their employees and customers, and create working environments that allow people to thrive. Individuals are no different. When we have clearly stated values and we know what we stand for, our worlds somehow fall into step and we’re able to approach life from a place of self-confidence and self-assuredness.
However, many people struggle to communicate their values clearly. When asked what their values are, many will stumble before answering, if they answer at all. This is usually because people have a tendency to fall into a perpetual state of ‘doing’, but doing without purpose. Doing without purpose meansdoing without pleasure or intent. And sooner or later this leads to feelings of frustrations, helplessness and hopelessness; the precursors for burnout.
Be clear of your values. Make a list of the things that are so important to you that living without them would be unacceptable. When your list is made, live your life according to those values. Assert them confidently and refuse to compromise them.
2. Establish boundaries and enforce them.
Now your values are clear, set boundaries to protect them. This goes far beyond simply‘saying no’. It is a common misconception that a boundary is about standing up for oneself, putting a stake in the ground, and refusing to put up with other people’s nonsense. Boundaries are actually none of those things. Simply, boundaries are statements of truth. Your truth. Your boundaries are clear statements of what you’re prepared to expose yourself to and the limits of that exposure. And a clear route to burnout is failure to enforce boundaries.
Without boundaries, you’re exposed to the whims and desires of others. Without boundaries, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘people pleasing’. In the absence of your own clearly set boundaries, other people will be only too happy to impose theirs. This will leave you feeling out of control, helpless, deeply frustrated, dissatisfied, and angry.
Use your values to guide your boundaries. If you know you’re about to agree with something that compromises a value and imposes upon a boundary, be courageous enough to believe in yourself and hold firm to what you know to be right for you. Ultimately, it will do wonders for your self-esteem and self-confidence, and will go a long way in protecting you from burnout.
3. Love what you do.
I know. This sounds so obvious, doesn’t it?
But how often do you hear yourself complaining about your work, your partner, or your kids? How often do you get lured into office gossip ordrawn into commiserating with colleagues about your lot? It’s all too easy to find yourself speaking negatively of others, or thinking negatively about your life or circumstances. And when you do, something very interesting happens. Things get worse. Whether you believe this is the universe at play, karma, or just ‘circumstances’, I can guarantee that when you have negative or disparaging thoughts about things or people, your circumstances will not improve. In fact, they will grow progressively worse.
When you’re tired and when things aren’t going quite as planned, it’s understandable that you would want to blame your circumstances. But if circumstances are the at the root of your misery, that would mean you are powerless to change them. It is those feelings of powerlessness and helplessness that push people down the path to burnout.
If you notice yourself thinking or speaking negatively on a daily basis, take note of how you feel when you do. Then find a way to neutralize your thoughts. That doesn’t mean replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones. It simply means changing your vantage point until you see the situation from a neutral position. When you do, you’ll notice an immediate shift in your energy and outlook. And you’ll become aware that the power to change your circumstances – for better or worse – lies entirely in your hands. And that is incredibly liberating. It puts you in control of your own destiny. It puts you in charge. And it allows you to think about your life, your work, and the people you interact with in a whole new way.
In this fast-paced, demanding world we live in, it’s far too easy to get swept along with the tide and forget who we really are. We forget what is important to us as and why we do the things we do. We set aside our own values in order to service those of others. Eventually, the person we once were becomes a hazy memory and when we try to find our feet, we struggle to land firmly.
Stay true to what is important to you. Be prepared to communicate your values and boundaries clearly and assertively. And always follow through. Live your life believing that other people’s intentions are generally speaking] good, and that your circumstances are a result of your own actions. Because the prevention of burnout starts and ends with your own belief in yourself.
Tina Cantrill RN, MBA, CPC
Tina Cantrill is a coach and trainer for burned out healthcare professionals. She teaches them how to lead, and how to take care of themselves first, so that they can love their work again.