Five Lessons – From Burning Out

In the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 526,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17 and 12.5m working days were lost as a result over that period.

Research in the US suggests that burnout costs around $300 billion to the American economy annually. And entrepreneurs are apparently more at risk of burnout because they tend to be extremely passionate about work and more socially isolated, have limited safety nets, and operate in high uncertainty.

I have suffered burnout more than once. I remember the utter bewilderment and exhaustion. I remember feeling incapable of moving, of making a decision, of even finding the words to describe how I was feeling.

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a ‘state of vital exhaustion’. What is vital, is avoiding burnout in the first place. Here are five lessons I learnt from burning out. I hope they might help you to avoid a similar experience.

Self-care is not selfish

This was a biggy for me. I had this belief that prioritising myself and my needs was selfish: that somehow I had to plaster a smile on my face and keep ‘selflessly’ soldiering on. I hear this a lot from my clients ‘I can’t possibly take time out for me in the evenings / at the weekends – I need to take care of my partner, my kids, my friends, my family…’ ‘Taking care of myself is just selfish when there’s so much else to do.’ Really?

Here’s my take on it…let’s be honest, you’re not doing a great job of hiding how knackered and stressed out you are; which means the people you most care about are probably already worried about you. The last time I burnt out I discovered that my friends and family had all been expecting it for months. They’d all been really concerned and wondering what to do. And I thought, wasn’t it more selfish of me to have caused them all so much worry than it would have been to just take some time off when I needed to?

And another thing…what happens if you collapse? What happens if you become so exhausted that you become ill? What if you have to take weeks, if not months, off – not only from work but from your life? You won’t be able to take care of anyone else…but they will now have to take care of you. Ultimately isn’t that more selfish?

Work out what you need

Get really clear about what you NEED and then make a clear commitment to getting it.

We all have different needs. Those things, without which, we are not OK. We’re not talking about ecstatic here…just ok. Some people need eight hours of sleep. For others, it’s only five and an afternoon nap. Some people need to drink 10 glasses of water – and for others, it may only be 8 plus some herbal tea. Some people need three good meals a day and for others, it may only be two and a snack. Work out your basic needs (food, liquids, sleep, exercise) and then work out the less obvious ones: how much social time do you need to feel OK? How much family time? How much fresh air or time in nature? For me, time by the ocean is a NEED – if I don’t see the sea at least once a month, I am not OK. Get really clear about what you NEED and then make a clear commitment to getting it. Making sure our needs are met (also not selfish by the way) is what keeps us on an even keel and fends off burnout.

Watch out for the signs.

There are some obvious signs of impending burnout: exhaustion, sleeplessness, detachment, feeling listless, having difficulty concentrating, signs of depression…but there is one that is perhaps not so obvious.

If your needs aren’t being met then you’re on the slippery path to burnout. And here’s how you know…unmet needs leave a hole and you will feel compelled to fill that hole with something else that is usually something far less healthy. So, for example, you NEED X hours of sleep. If you’re not getting it, chances are that you feel compelled to drink coffee or some other stimulant to fill the hole. You NEED X amount of water. If you’re not getting it you might feel that you need several diet Cokes a day. Maybe you NEED social time with your friends but if you’re not making time, you may fill the hole with a nightly glass/bottle of wine and binge-watching Netflix into the early hours.

So, notice when you feel compulsions: when you’re filling a hole and then work out which need isn’t being met. And do something about it.

Stop what you’re doing

The next step after watching out for – and noticing – the signs is to stop what you’re doing. Now. Not later.  Yes, I know it’s not convenient. And I know it’s probably not going to go down well with your boss/co-worker/ business partner. But that’s not actually your problem right now. And besides, they already know (remember…you’re not actually hiding that stress and exhaustion as well as you think you are.)

Do you know what will be even more inconvenient than you taking a week off now? You taking five months off later. That’s what I had to do in the end. Avoid that if you can.

Ask for help

I have a theory – completely untested and unproven – that the people who are the least likely to ask for help are the ones most likely to burn out. Don’t wait until you’re forced to ask for help. Don’t wait until you’re in that state of ‘vital exhaustion’ and can no longer function. Ask for help now. Help with work; help with housework; help with family; help with chores. Just ask for help so that you can have a little more time to take care of yourself (still not selfish by the way).

As well as these lessons you’ll also want to think about setting boundaries and learning to say ‘no’ (it’s a shorter word than yes and really easy to use when you get the hang of it!) but more on that another day. Avoiding burnout isn’t rocket science. Don’t wait to learn the hard way. After all, if you burn out, who will lead your campaign? Run your business? Fulfil your purpose? Depriving the world of your vision and the change that you can bring about? Now that WOULD be selfish.

Let’s change the world….without burning out!

Sara Price
Sara Price
Sara has spent over 20 years in PR and lobbying working for some of the biggest brands in the world. Her focus now is on supporting visionaries to change the world through the power of great communications. Sara’s career began in the UK Parliament developing an in-depth understanding of the corridors of power. She then worked as a political advisor to UNICEF where she witnessed the power of individuals and organisations to effect global change. Sara sat on the UK Board of one of the world’s largest PR agencies, H&KStrategies, and in 2010 co-founded the award-winning independent communications agency: Pagefield. Over the course of her career, Sara has developed communications programmes for some of the most famous brands in the world from Kelloggs to Airbnb; she has advised organisations as diverse as Lunar Mission One and SheDecides; and created multi-national campaigns for Global Peace Ambassador Prem Rawat. Sara is also a coach, mentor, trainer and soon-to-be published author. Her vision is a world in which everyone with a big dream to make the world a better place feels inspired and empowered to do so. Sara’s enterprise, Actually, exists to fulfil this vision: offering training, advice and support to social entrepreneurs, charity leaders, campaigners and businesses with a social purpose enabling them to change the world.


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Mary Schaefer

Sara, you are acknowledging a very important issue. I think it’s more prevalent than we realize. From my experience we are good at hiding burnout or “trying” to hide it, to our detriment. From experience I can relate to the symptoms you describe. Thanks for getting my attention today, to shore up some different parts of my life.

Joanne Victoria

Great post and greatly appreciated. ?Thanks, Sara!

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