READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- What the term “burnout” actually means
- How “ICE” can help with your burnout, at work and at home
- Why we can’t wait around for our vacations as a cure-all
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and the New York Times bestselling author of Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. She recently joined Sheryl Ziegler, founder and Managing Director of The Child and Family Therapy Center and author of Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process, for a conversation about why burnout isn’t just a work problem, and how we can solve it for good.
Tasha: I would love to hear about your work on burnout, because it’s such a timely and important topic for women in particular, at work and at home. How bad is burnout right now, compared to 10 or 15 years ago?
Sheryl: Over the last decade, [in mothers in particular,] I saw these consistent symptoms of exhaustion, a chronic fatigue that became physical. Women would say, “I’m going to go see my doctor next week. I’m not sleeping well. I have insomnia. Maybe I should get my thyroid checked.” [In addition to] all these physical symptoms, there was this cycle of seeing women, stay-at-home moms or working moms, not happy in either one of those roles. With both of those groups, there are distinct questions and struggles that they have, and I have seen it consistently for a decade.
Right now, burnout is not categorized—it’s not in the DSM. It is in Europe, in their [psychological equivalent,] the ICD, burnout syndrome. In Europe, [people] can legitimately take time off for burnout, [whereas] we’re still debating if burnout is an extension of depression.
Tasha: In organizational psychology, we use a similar definition, basically “the build-up of stress over time.” I like to use the acronym “ICE” for people to think about [if they’re] experiencing burnout. The first thing you notice is you’re being more inefficient, “I,” than usual. You’re more cynical than usual, “C,” and you’re completely exhausted, “E.” These things show up in distinct ways in the workplace just like they do at home.
There is quite a bit of research and data in the organizational psychology world on burnout and how prevalent it is. I was looking at some studies recently and came across one that stunned me. It said that 50% of people across all professions—from nonprofit to medicine to anything else—are burnt out. That’s a 32% increase from 20 years ago. If we just think about that and about how people are being pelted at home and at work, this is really a serious epidemic for us.
I agree that burnout isn’t depression. It’s the build-up of stress over time. In the work world, researchers have found a few things that are most often causing burnout. With burnout, you’ve got a mismatch between what you want or what you’re expecting and what you’re seeing at work. One example is workload. If I am consistently working 80 hours a week and I don’t want to or I can’t physically, that’s going to be a constant stressor that’s going to lead to burnout. If I really want to be connected with the people that I work with, but they’re all keeping to themselves and I don’t have that social support, the stress over time of it can lead to that feeling of chronic inefficiency, cynicism, and exhaustion.
“With burnout, you’ve got a mismatch between what you want or what you’re expecting and what you’re seeing.”
Sheryl: What you said was perfect—“you’ve got a mismatch between what you want or what you’re expecting and what you’re seeing.” For me, it’s the vocation of motherhood. What I imagined my family life was going to be was all of this greatness, and now that I’m in it, it’s all of this hardness. It’s humbling. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t feel in control of my kids. I’m running around all the time. I’m trying to work and I’m trying to do all these things. This isn’t what I imagined. I think that’s a big part of it. There’s disillusionment in motherhood that women just don’t expect.
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Tasha: You talk in your work about the burnout cycle. What is that cycle? How do we stop it, both at work and at home?
Sheryl: When we’re looking at the burnout cycle, we’re looking at women who are getting exhausted from not sleeping very much. They’re staying up late. They are craving connection, so they seek out social media. They seek out the bottle of wine to feel relaxed. Then they start getting a little bit more disconnected with friends, a little bit more disconnected with their spouse. With their children, they find their reserve of being able to handle stress becomes less and less.
In a workplace, it’s a little bit more acceptable to say something like, “Phew, I’ve just been feeling really burnt out,” or, “That project totally burned me out.” It wouldn’t turn heads. But within motherhood that’s just not a term that is used or accepted. I think a woman might feel some shame in saying, “I’m in this cycle where I can’t sleep, so I take sleeping pills,” or, “I’ve been feeling really sad, so now I’m taking antidepressants, and now I’m doing these dysfunctional things to get through the day.”
“There’s disillusionment in motherhood that women just don’t expect.”
Tasha: You brought up how it might be a bit more normalized to bring it up at work. I absolutely agree, and the problem that I see is people toss around that word, “Oh, I’m really burnt out,” and yet they don’t address it. They don’t do anything to stop that cycle. Right now some people are almost wearing their burnout as a source of pride, [evidence that], “I’m so important and I’m so needed, and I do so much for this company.” The problem that I see is not necessarily identifying [burnout]. It’s managing it. That’s where I think so many people can, with just a couple of simple tweaks, start to break that cycle.
Sheryl: I totally agree. At work, you feel like the employee of the year to be able to say, “I stay up so late, or I answer emails around the clock.” It’s the same thing with motherhood. Saying “I slept three hours last night, I haven’t taken care of myself, and I’m wearing the same clothes,” is not seen as something to fix. It’s seen as, “This is validation that I’m doing a good job.”
Tasha: That’s exactly it, and that’s what makes it so difficult to break. What have you seen helping moms address and reduce their burnout?
Sheryl: First and foremost, the moms who come out the other side of burnout do it by connecting with others. Connecting is the number one suggestion to disrupt the pattern of burnout.
Within that, there’s little things: stop saying, “I’m so busy.” It says, “Don’t ask me out for coffee. Don’t ask me what I’m doing. Don’t ask me to take a walk.” Really, the person saying they’re so busy is craving connection, validation, experience sharing, but she’s blocking it by letting the world know that she doesn’t have time for it.
Also, if we look at fight, flight, or freeze as stress styles, it’s helpful to know what yours is. We can all do different things at different times, but we generally gravitate toward a stress style. So much of addressing burnout has to do with awareness and being present and attuned.
Tasha: People say, “I’m so different at work,” or “I’m so different at home,” but we’re really the same person managing different kinds of stress. When I’m coaching executives, I tell them, “Ultimately, you’ve got three choices if you’re burnt out or unsatisfied. You can keep doing what you’re doing, you can change something, or you can get out.”
No one is going to address this for you. If anything, your boss is always going to want more. Your coworkers are always going to want more. If you want to stop the cycle, you have to do it.
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Sometimes it’s as simple as taking charge of your calendar. In corporate America, so many people are completely ruled by other people’s Outlook invitations. [A solution can be] as simple as asking, “Why do you want me in the meeting?,” and being willing to push back or come up with an alternate approach, so you’re not in meetings every single moment of every day and then taking your work home and working all night, while simultaneously trying to juggle everything that’s happening at home.
“People say, ‘I’m so different at work,’ or ‘I’m so different at home,’ but we’re really the same person managing different kinds of stress.”
Another thing is if you can’t take a vacation, take a micro-vacation. That could be as simple as making an appointment during your lunch hour to go get a massage, or taking a 15-minute walk outside. Those things don’t seem like they’re particularly impactful, but they’ve been shown to really reduce our stress. If we commit to it and make it a habit, it can go a long way to address burnout.
Mindfulness has been shown to be a really powerful way to chip away at burnout. What do you see people doing to help them make mindfulness part of their daily routine?
Sheryl: There are a lot of women who want to lose weight. Starting with mindfulness around what we’re putting into our bodies, what we’re eating and drinking, is often where the most impactful results are. Once we bring attention to that, there is a startling shift [in awareness] that I have found to be one of the most impactful of all of the suggestions.
“If you want to stop the cycle, you have to do it.”
Tasha: The way the work world is set up almost taunts you if you try to practice mindfulness. If you don’t have a door to close, go somewhere where you can be undisturbed. Maybe go to your car. Maybe go to a conference room. Just spend five minutes focusing on your breath and trying to actively notice the thoughts that you’re having, but also to not allow yourself to get sucked into them. That’s something that I think many people can accommodate. We don’t have to go to a five-day long silent meditation retreat. We can take five minutes here and there and have a helpful impact on our lives. You’re going to be less stressed out. You’re going to be more influential. You’re going to be a better communicator.
In the process of writing my book, I discovered that I personally was not built to meditate. At first, I was very frustrated with myself. I’m so type-A that even when I tried to meditate, even when I went to a weekend-long meditation retreat, it just didn’t feel like the right way for me to manage that stress or harness my thinking in a productive way. I was heartened to learn that mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. I think for busy moms and for busy leaders and professionals, it can be freeing to say, “Oh, I can get all the benefits that these people are talking about when they meditate, but I don’t necessarily have to do that if it doesn’t work for me.” I’m curious, in your world, how much are you seeing non-meditative mindfulness?
Sheryl: I love the distinction. If I feel that resistance [from someone I’m working with], I just say, “Okay, let’s just be mindful during the activities that you currently do. You don’t have to change anything. The only thing I want you to change is your awareness of how you’re talking to your children, of what you’re making, of what you’re feeding them, those kinds of things.” For me, working with busy or overwhelmed moms, it’s a really great start.
Tasha: I love the research by Ellen Langer on mindfulness. The way she defines it is the process of drawing novel distinctions when noticing new things. When you’re in a strange new city, for example, you’re noticing everything around you, what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, the people that you’re encountering. But in our day-to-day lives, we’ll drive to work and not even remember how we got there. We do that to numb ourselves, where we are so stressed that we feel like if “I just check out, then that will make me less stressed,” but there’s a lot of research that shows that has the opposite effect. Bringing ourselves into the present moment as much as we can really goes a long way, no matter what we’re doing.
Sheryl: You [write about] the distinction between relaxing and mindfulness, and how [relaxation] does not have the same long-term benefits in truly getting you to a calmer place.
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Tasha: There’s one study that is really illuminating about the difference between relaxation and mindfulness. It was a study that a group of researchers did with unemployed people who, understandably, were very stressed out. They had just lost their jobs. They sent half of them to a three-day mindfulness meditation retreat and the other half to what the researchers told them was a mindfulness meditation retreat, but was really a relaxation program.
Both groups thought they were practicing mindfulness. They engaged in many of the same activities, but only that first group was really using mindfulness, being actively aware of the present moments. If they were stretching, they were noticing the physical sensations in their body, whereas the other group, the fake mindfulness group, was told to just relax or check out while they were stretching.
At the end of three days, both groups said that they felt refreshed and better able to manage the stress that they were experiencing, but one group was wrong. The researchers actually scanned the brains of both groups. For the relaxation group, their results told a really different story. They were not as focused and not as calm physiologically. That shows us we can lull ourselves into this false sense of treating burnout, when we’re really contributing to it even more.
The researchers, four months later, measured signs of inflammation in the participants’ bodies. The fake mindfulness group had increased this inflammation measure more than 20%. They were 20% more stressed out in that way, but the mindfulness group decreased by 20%. If we can just be a little bit more mindful and check out a little bit less, it can have an impact for months and months.
“Bringing ourselves into the present moment as much as we can really goes a long way, no matter what we’re doing.”
Sheryl: Everybody needs to know this. In the States, we rely on vacations as our stress relief. We’ll be looking six months down the road for the next vacation and feel like we’re hammering it out. We’re just grinding through until we get to go to Hawaii in December. We can’t wait for something in six months that might help us. We’ve got to take charge today.
Tasha: I think that’s where we might even be able to start to experiment with some of these mindfulness techniques and see how much they help us, and then bring them back to our day-to-day lives. That’s the name of the game. Small change that you commit to over time gives you a big impact.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.