I'm sure we all know someone who has had a burnout, or have even had one ourselves.
Sadly, burnouts seem to have become a norm in corporate world.
As a life, business and career coach, I offer burnout coaching (in Amsterdam and online). But before I dive into this blog post to share how you can use coaching to help with burnout, or help prevent burnout, I want to outline what I mean by ‘burnout’ and how it happens.
We often talk about burnout as an illness; a horrible thing that pops up to happen to us and stops us from being able to work. This is how I see many workplaces treating it too - like someone has suddenly become ill and must be signed off work to rest.
I argue that this is an unhealthy way to approach it.
Burnout is not ‘an illness’. It is one of the final signals from our body that our stress response has been overloaded for too long.
It is a symptom resulting from all the patterns, behaviours, processes that we have in in our day to day lives that are slowly breaking us down and damaging our capacity to handle stressors.
Burnout is the last straw after a series of cries for help that have not been tended to.
When someone has a burnout, they get signed off for a break from work (if their workplace is understanding - a lot of people find another excuse to take sick leave, or take a nice long holiday). They take the time out and return back to a more neutral state where they have more capacity to manage stress. “I feel like me again!” “I really needed that!” “I feel so much better!”
Of course, this time out is completely necessary. However, it is not the solution, because when people return to work, the go-to patterns and behaviours, the workplace expectations, culture and stressors that led to burnout in the first place are still the same.
They may not feel ‘burnt out’ anymore because their stress exposure has decreased, but the impact of being exposed and overloaded with the same stressors that burnt them out before can quickly build back up and lead to more burnout.
This cycle of burn and rest, burn and rest, burn and rest has, frustratingly, become normal. Like yo-yo dieting, you can imagine that it is really not good for us - and especially bad for our poor nervous systems that don’t know what to do with all this dysregulation.
It’s no wonder that burnouts are often accompanied by anxiety, panic attacks, stomach problems, body pains, headaches - the nervous system can’t regulate, so the stress finds other ways out in the body.
So, where does coaching come in?
I believe coaching is a way to interrupt the cycle.
Bringing awareness to the patterns.
Changing the behaviour.
Creating new responses to stressors before they become unmanageable.
Preventing burnout in the first place, rather than 'fixing' it.
Here are 6 ways coaching can help prevent a burnout:
1. Take space to process
When was the last time you were given space to think? Even when we are ‘doing nothing’ or have ‘alone time’, we are usually still doing something: cooking, eating, watching TV, listening to music, Whatsapping people, scrolling on Instagram.
One of the biggest benefits of coaching is that you are given space. Space for your brain to breathe. Space to process. Space to step back and take stock of what is going on for you.
Most of my clients say that it is just so useful to sit and talk with someone external and neutral, who is not in their work team, not in their friendship group, not in their family. It is a rare gift to talk to someone who does not impart their own advice or experience on to you (as useful and helpful as that is too!).
When we get this space, we can process things without the layer of expectation or suggestion from our usual ‘norms’. It becomes a space for you to connect with your life from your own internal experience and state. It gives us an opportunity to process in our own way, not the way that we think we ‘should’.
It gives us space to respond to our life, rather than react and go in to overdrive.
2. Learn what your boundaries are and how you can implement them (this is a more integrative version of coaching to help with burnout)
Have you got a problem saying no?
Does the idea of confronting your colleague about something make you feel incredibly uncomfortable?
Do you feel like you should take responsibility to look after the people in your team but are struggling yourself?
Do you regularly work outside of your working hours? Checking your emails whilst with your loved ones? Regularly canceling other plans because of work?
I know, I know. “But I need to do it!”, I hear you say. I understand, but if these things are happening on a regular basis, or they are ‘normal’, and they are impacting you, then there is probably some stuff to unpack.
In coaching, we explore what sits behind these things. We look at what scares you about saying no or makes you feel uncomfortable about asking your colleague to stop interrupting you in meetings.
Boundaries are there to create healthier relationships. By better understanding what boundaries you need in order to work and perform at your best, the easier it becomes to stop putting yourself, and allowing others to put you, in situations that you know you find overwhelming or less manageable.
3. Become conscious of the effect certain situations have on your body
How often do you get home from work and suddenly realise how exhausted you are? Do you notice just before a presentation how sweaty and hot you get?
Many of us spend lots of time in our heads thinking about things like: how to make sure the next presentation is amazing, what our manager will think of our work, how we can be more visible, how angry our colleague actually is that we haven’t done our timesheets, whether it’s acceptable to take a lunch break today. The list goes on…
Life doesn’t just happen in our heads though. It gets integrated, or digested, if you will, by the body. When we don’t take time to become conscious of how our body responds to stressors, it can easily start to accumulate the stress, get stuck, and lead to more problems. And we often don’t notice what’s going on with our bodies until it shouts at us.
When we take time to observe where we feel certain thoughts or emotions, we give the body opportunity to work through it. This is why people love things like: massages (relieve build up of tension), yoga (create space to breathe), boxing (release pent up anger). We are giving the body a way to work through and move through whatever we have experienced.
So, in coaching, when a client talks about something that is bothering them or on their mind, I often ask what it feels like in their body and where they experience it. By naming it, you make the connection and give your body the opportunity to digest it before it gets too much.
4. Become aware of your patterns, behaviours and self-beliefs that may be contributing to the problem
This is a deeper one, and one of the most transformational opportunities coaching can offer.
There is no doubt that workplace cultures and structures play a huge role in setting people up for burnout. However, we also have to look at what our role in the situation is too.
For example, if I believe I am more valued when I help people, I may go for roles where I think I can really make a difference, then say yes to everyone because I want to be seen as helpful, and then start to burn myself out.
This is not to say that you need to change your values or compromise on what is important to you. It is to say that when we become aware of our whole belief system and approach to work, we can start to identify the things we can experiment with or do differently in order to look after ourselves and protect our energy.
5. Explore what kind of work environment will support you and your wellbeing
Not every work environment will suit you. Sometimes you will be able to adapt or ask others to support you, and it will work out. Other times, it won’t. And that’s ok!
We operate in worlds and industries that are constantly telling us who we should be, what we need to do if we want to succeed, what we should do differently if we want to get a pay rise, how long we should wait before we have a certain title etc. When we follow this as gospel, rather than putting our own needs first, we can start to abandon ourselves and tiptoe in to burnout zone.
Remember that we have other parts of our life that aren’t work. As those parts change - e.g. a breakup, having a baby, moving countries, moving house - our needs and capacity for stress at work will change. So, the type of work environment that worked for you when you were in your 20s and single, might be completely different to the type of work environment that would work for you when you’ve had 2 burnouts and moved away from your family.
In coaching, we can look at the various components at work that would set you up for success. We can explore what you value, what skills you want to use, what opportunities you want, and what you need in order to thrive and have your ideal work life balance.
6. Learn how you can communicate
So, it’s all very well and good exploring and learning this stuff about ourselves, but what do we do with it? How do we implement it? How do we start to communicate it (well) to the people we work with? Even if you work alone, how do you communicate these things to the people around you so that they can also support you?
In coaching we can look at what you are used to happening when you communicate, or try to communicate, with your team. We can look at what gets in the way of you communicating how you want to, what scares you, how you want to be perceived, and what you can do when it doesn’t go to plan. We can practice scenarios of what you might say, how you might say it, or how you could respond to various scenarios.
This step is ultra important in preventing burnout because we often keep the thoughts and feelings that precede burnout to ourselves. We fear that people will think we’re being sensitive, weak or dramatic. We tell ourselves it’s not that bad - we should just get on with it and get the job done.
I believe that creating good communication is one of the biggest preventors of burnout because it means that we can get support and find solutions sooner.
Perhaps some of the points above have resonated with you. If so...
If you’re an employee reading this, companies often have training budgets. Can you ask them to cover some coaching for you? Can you ask them to support your professional development?
If you’re an employer reading this, where do your work systems, processes, and company culture support people? Where do they let people down and leave them at risk of stress overload? Who do you offer coaching to? Everyone who needs it? Or just the high performers?
If you are your own employer, where are you over-stretching yourself? Where do you need support? Did you know that coaching can be claimed as a business expense?
As always, I am here for you if you fancy a chat. You can book a no-obligation call.
I also offer my life and business coaching services in-house at companies.
Get in touch!