Episode 96: Burnout

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“I think a lot of times what happens with my female clients is they will be on the edge of burnout and feel like they can’t do anything about it because it’s self-indulgent. Or they’ll get to a place where they are burnt out and they’ve already given away their energy to everyone else.”

“I have gotten much more ruthless about proactively avoiding getting to burnout rather than dealing with it once I notice it’s happening.  So I schedule my workouts in, I make sure I see people I care about a certain number of times a week or month.”

Coming up…anyone can burn out at work, but women seem to be doing it faster and younger.

Last year I did a show on women in their twenties. And we talked about the world being so much more competitive than it was when I graduated from college in the early ‘90s. And as I see it, one aspect of the current work world is that these young women with their packed resumes and multiple skills and incredible work ethics...they’re burning out faster than my generation did. They’re getting that don’t-care, can’t-do-it-any more feeling quite young.

I began to talk about this with Dana Campbell. She’s a career strategy and burnout coach. And she came to the work honestly – by burning out. Twice.

The first time she was still in her twenties…

“I was in management consulting at the time and I had just come off of a long string of traveling projects, traveling 5 days a week, working management consulting hours, very long hours, often on weekends…I mean at one point in that stint my then boyfriend said no way can you spend the night here because you received phone calls at 2a.m., 4a.m. and 6a.m.”

But it wasn’t just the insane hours. It was the work she was doing, the fact that at one point everyone was kicked off her team, and she didn’t feel safe either. She didn’t like or respect the people she was working for, or believe in what they were doing any more.

“The term for burnout that I use follows some really long-standing research that talks about it as three symptoms: exhaustion is the first one. The second one is cynicism.   And then the third one is negative self-evaluation. So you take someone who maybe was a high performer or is used to being high performing and all of a sudden it’s like, I can’t do this…”

That’s what happened to her at her next job. She was only working 35 hours a week. But still she had to drag herself into the office. She says she and the company were totally mis-matched.

I told Dana about a listener I heard from recently who said she’s on the edge of burnout. She teaches and does administration at a university. She said she loves her work, but state budget cuts have hit her institution. Everyone is doing more for less. But she says it’s not the extra work that’s running her down. It’s that the administration doesn’t seem to find her work valuable. 

AM-T: She says ‘burnout becomes more of a threat when I feel like I don't belong anymore, and what I do isn't truly valued. That sense of belonging and fit to the large culture seems key.’”

“And if you think about it, right, one of our base human instincts or needs is to belong. And when we feel that we don’t belong it triggers the stress response. We see that as an enormous threat to our safety and to our livelihood.”

True in organizations and society as a whole.

Dana sees these kinds of issues all the time with clients – she has corporate types, yes, but also teachers, even a church choir director.

She sees a mix of men and women, but her clients are mostly women. I pushed her on the gender aspect of burnout…

“So I think there absolutely is a gender component. So when the initial burnout researchers stared doing research, it was all on service-based professionals, so nurses, therapists, people who are really serving, and people have that tendency to want to be in serving fields…so already we have that tendency to wanting to give to others instead of feeding ourselves or putting ourselves first. But the other piece is that new research is proving the connection between burnout and perfectionism – perfectionism being basically the amplifier for your ability to go into a spot of burnout. And women overwhelmingly tend to exhibit – there’s two components to perfectionism, the first being the tendency toward wanting to be a perfectionist, the second is all around how you treat yourself when you aren’t perfect. And it’s that second category where women tend to be mean to ourselves, we tend to beat the hell out of ourselves when we don’t show up perfectly.”

And that’s because we are expected to show up perfectly…to be all feminine things to all people…and a good employee as well.

And that thing of putting everyone else first…

I have a lot of female clients where half of our work is identifying their true needs, and feeling OK with meeting those needs. So I think a lot of times what happens with my female clients is they will be on edge of burnout and feel like they can’t do anything about it because it’s self-indulgent. Or they’ll get to a place where they are burnt out and they’ve already given away their energy to everyone else, they don’t have anything left to turn around and fix themselves, or they just believe it’s wrong. There’s a lot of fear with taking care of themselves. I also have clients who very much live under the do it all label…you know they want to be mothers, to be professionals, to have a social life, and in order to prevent burnout quite often you have to shine a spotlight on one of those areas and downplay it. Meaning you only have limited resources, so at a certain point you have to start diverting resources to take better care of yourself so you don’t burn out.”

That’s exactly what my second guest has done. But it hasn’t come easy.  

Stacy-Marie Ishmael was born and raised in Trinidad. She started her work life in the UK and now lives in the US. She’s in her early 30s and she’s a journalist. If you’ve been listening since the beginning you’ll have heard her on a couple of early shows. Right now she’s on a break from the regular work world – she’s doing a fellowship at Stanford University.

Before that?

 “It was a slightly more stressful environment. I was a news editor at BuzzFeed News and the managing editor for mobile, which meant I was responsible for launching and shipping and running the BuzzFeed news app and the team that managed the BuzzFeed News app and the BuzzFeed News newsletter.”

In short, great colleagues, a lot of pressure, endless deadlines.

AM-T: “It’s my perception that women are burning out younger. A lot of women in 20s and early 30s have already experienced some form of burnout. What do you think? When you speak to your friends and your colleagues what are you seeing and hearing.”

“I think there are a couple of things that are playing into this, which is one, that we are finally out now of a major financial crisis but it’s had some long lasting effects. So people now in their mid- to late 20s, who in another era would consider buying a house for example, have a different understanding and experience of the financial system and in some cases didn’t get the kinds of jobs they thought they’d get, and in a lot of cases are faced by significant amounts of student debt and student loans. And there are all these calculations that are generationally distinct partly because of what was happening in the financial system when they were graduating or getting into their first jobs. I think that’s an underestimated effect that is in fact very stressful – you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, you have these societal expectations that don’t line up with your bank account.  You don’t have a 401k. if you’re in the UK you probably do not have a final salary pension. So that’s what I’ve seen, that people are much more stressed out and have much heavier financial stresses.”

And stress often leads to burnout. The other thing she sees a lot – this misconception so many young women have that you just have to work hard, and better pay and promotions will naturally follow. Spend long enough in the workplace and you realize that is far from true. But most of us don’t start our careers knowing this. After all…

“These are high achieving people who have been conditioned by their parents, by their schools to expect that if they do good work they’ll get rewarded for it and they’re not being rewarded in the same way. And that again is something that’s stressful.”

AM-T: “I imagine that you must have been burned out in your last job, but tell me what’s been your own experience of burnout in the last few years. Have you experienced it? Have you experienced it more than once?”

“My last job was stressful, yes, news is stressful, shipping new things is stressful, building teams is stressful. But I don’t think about burnout in terms of stress. I think of burnout in terms of not prioritizing things I want to do enough. So for me I get burned out when I spend too much time, too many hours, too many mornings and evenings doing things only for other people, only for the team, for other people’s deadlines, and skipping yoga or not running or not being able to see my family because I’m spending all my time at work. Which isn’t always correlated with how stressful that work is…right, there are definitely times you’re in the office till 7p.m. and you’re like, this wasn’t a stressful day, why am I still here? So I’ve really figured out and it took me a while, what the early warning signs are and how I can combat them…but I 1.17 was once so properly burned out it took me several months of spending most of my time learning how to make ketchup to really recover from that. For me the symptoms of burnout are, I’m naturally a very curious person, I like getting things done, I like hitting targets, beating expectations – but when I’m burned out I just stop caring.”

She can’t get motivated by the things that usually galvanize her. We’ll talk more about symptoms and solutions in a minute.

Some people quit when they’re burnt out. The lucky ones can quit without anything to go to, others seek another job. But Stacy is skeptical that leaving your job is the answer.

“I don’t think that quitting a job is a solution to burnout.  I think people quit jobs for other reasons. I mean sometimes your preferences change, the country you want to live in changes, your family circumstances change – because unless you figure out how to deal with burnout as a concept, as a thing, it doesn’t matter what job you’re doing.

So let’s say you work in a media industry, tech, advertising, you think that your burnout is related to your industry, sometimes that’s true, so you maybe switch job, but unless you’ve developed the coping mechanisms to identify what does it feel like to be burned out, why do I feel like this, what can I do about it? – it doesn’t matter what you are doing, it will happen to you again …unless you maybe quit and take up professional surfing…so I have gotten much more ruthless about proactively avoiding getting to burnout rather than dealing with it once I notice it’s happening.  So I schedule my workouts in, I make sure I see people I care about a certain number of times a week or month, I say no to a lot of stuff because I know if I say yes to too many things in a week I fall into this hole of exhaustion that makes other things harder, and that is a more effective strategy both short-term and long-term, than waiting till I can’t go to work any more and then I’m like ugh, I’m done.”

 She says quitting a job just like that is a luxury, and it is. But as Dana said earlier, there’s also the feeling a lot of us have that we can’t give up on something…no matter how exhausted, cynical or negative we may feel…

“There is a part of my brain I suppose that hears my parents’ voice being, like, suck it up. And so I don’t think I allowed myself to stop doing something just because I was burnt out. I think I only allowed myself to stop doing something when a number of other conditions had been met.”

 That talk about quitting raised the question of options, or the lack of them.

AM-T: “We talk about this as if…the context in which it is discussed is generally the context of educated professionals, and having just produced a show on class, if you’re working in a factory doing the same thing for 30 years you may be burnt out but you’re not necessarily going to be able to do anything about it the same way somebody else who earns $100,000 a year might be able to.”

“For sure. There’s a lot of things tied up in this. It’s not just about the financial resources about doing it, it’s about the societal perception of doing it. In the same way creative professionals like to tell themselves oh I’m so busy, like it’s a status marker. We think of burnout as a status marker. We think about stress as a status marker. We think about complaining about how many meetings you’re in as a proxy for, well, you must be busy and important. And sometimes that just means you’re a bad manager and you don’t know how to delegate. But these are the kinds of stories professionals like to tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about how we’ve chosen to spend our lives, but they don’t have anything at all on their face to do with why people get burned out and the context in which that might happen.”

And speaking of context, when Stacy got burnt out in her last job, she says it was tied to the amount of emotional labor she put in on a daily basis. Something a lot of you will probably recognize.

“One of my responsibilities as manger is making sure my team is OK, and making sure my team is ok is doing a lot of that kind of emotional work which gets exhausting – and that is something female mangers are expected to do at much higher rate and more profoundly than men in most contexts.”

AM-T: “Yeah, that’s really interesting, I’d love you to tell me a story, can you just pick one example, can you actually tell a story…”

“Yeah, I mean 2015, 2016 is a super tough time in news, right? You’ve had the Paris attacks, attacks on Brussels, you had the EU referendum by the UK, you had a really, really ugly campaign that started in the primaries where a republican debate would include jokes about genitalia size…it was just a very unpleasant environment for people having to write about these things all the time. And if you are in a newsroom and you’re from say an under-represented minority, so say you are a Muslim reporter, and you are seeing a significant uptick in anti-Islam sentiment based on some of these news events, and you’re running the social media channels…and people are saying ugly things on social that you have to moderate and are responsible for, or you just have to read in your job, that is horrifying experience.

And one of my responsibilities as a manager and news editor is to realize there are people on my team who are disproportionately affected by the kinds of things that we have to cover, by the kinds of things we need to send push notifications about, and to build in time to sit with those people and say look, I know this is hard for you, are there specific things I can help you with, are there kinds of stories you need a break from? Do you need this afternoon off? Talk to me, what’s going on? And that’s something I had to do a lot.”

 And some readers of her weekly newsletter, Awesome Women – we noticed when she was feeling overwhelmed. It came out in what she wrote. She says that’s the great thing about doing the newsletter – readers are often better than she is at recognizing when she’s pushing herself too hard.

“And so sometimes, and you’ve definitely done this, like if I write a newsletter and it seems like I’m really stressed out, I’ll get a bunch of email saying you need to take a break, have you gone to yoga this week?” [laughs]

AM-T: “That’s why I thought of you for this show, because that sounded like a great job you stepped into but boy did it ever sound stressful and taxing.”

“Yeah, and that’s the key thing, you know. I have extremely high achieving friends who are running big things and saving lives who rarely get burned out because they are so much better than I am at taking care of themselves…and setting up situations where they don’t have to take care of those around them all the time. And then I have friends who are in jobs that on their face are much less stressful. One is a jewelry designer, and she’s burned out constantly. Because she is much less good at saying no to things and at recognizing when it’s time to take a break. So despite what people in, with the C suite titles would like to tell themselves, it’s not so much how important you are, how much you get paid, or how many people report to you, that is the primary determinant of whether you get burned out. It’s mostly what are your coping mechanisms and what do you do once you recognize that you have a problem.”

Stacy-Marie Ishmael. Problem recognized.

Thanks to her and Dana Campbell for being my guests on this show.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

You can give feedback on this episode at The Broad Experience.com or on the show’s Facebook page. I’d love to hear if any of this resonates with your experience.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.