Burnout is real, but misunderstood
Former Google exec and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has a point when she says that burnout prevention has little to do with work-life balance (“getting three square meals or eight hours of sleep”) and more to do with finding your rhythm. I would add that it is about creating meaning in what we do and building a “community” that can support us when we are far from home. None of this has to do with balance which is not exactly what most humanitarians have or want in their life.
Burnout feels much more like an “existential crisis” than too much stress. If you are experiencing burnout, priorities need to be reviewed and your lifestyle may have to change. That’s why a holiday is not the answer. Recovering from burnout takes time, and while sometimes we need to hit rock-bottom before waking up to our needs, there are some ways to avoid getting to that low point of total exhaustion.
How to prevent burnout?
I’ve addressed at length what organisations can do to prevent staff burnout. While a healthy work environment is the key to burnout prevention, we both know that’s simply not a priority in humanitarian organisations. So what can you do to keep you sanity?
Preventing burnout has to do with a few simple, yet essential things that you may want to weave into our life, no matter what stage in our career you are. Here’s three tips:
1. Making space for what is meaningful to you, at work and beyond in order to avoid resentment. Watch out if you are giving up too much in order to accommodate other people’s priorities.
2. Keeping your expectations in check to avoid going from idealism to cynical disillusionment.
3. Learning to give up what seems like “opportunities” and jump out of the pot before becoming a boiled frog – if you’re in the wrong job, relation, country, organization, etc. get out quickly. In highly structured and hierarchical organisations it’s unlikely that anyone will be transformed by your good intentions or by your vision, and you will end up jaded and burned-out. Learning to say no or walk away from soul-sucking projects and people is an essential skill that will spare you unnecessary suffering.
Finding your way
While research clearly illustrates the difference between stress and burnout, and the importance of a healthy organizational environment to prevent exhaustion, self-help articles are often misleading in telling us how work-life balance is the answer, finding time to pause is the key, and self-care is the way. Nevertheless you need to be aware that if you are resentful at work and disillusioned by your organisation, no amount of yoga, mindfulness or rye bread will spare you from burnout. We said it before: self-care is simply not enough.
Finding your rhythm and uncovering what really matters to you will help you to avoid physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. On the other hand, if you are already experiencing burnout this is your chance to craft a different life: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that burnout is beautiful, but I know that it does provide an opportunity to redesign the way you want to live. Don’t miss it.