On Wednesday March 18, Blackbird and SafetyCulture held a webinar on identifying the warning signs of professional burnout and strategies to beat it. In 2019, the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as a workplace issue. It is defined as "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

These are the key takeaways provided by panellists psychologist Liam Casey, wellness facilitator and founder Rajesh Bhardwaj and nutritionist and yoga teacher Maya Butti.

Signs of Burnout

  • Feeling cynical or resentful about your work life.
  • Feeling exhausted and disengaged before the work day begins.
  • Changes in sleep or appetite.
  • Changes in substance use, including caffeine and craving sugar.
  • Procrastinating easy tasks.
  • Getting angry at small things.
  • Headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath.

Stress Vs Burnout

Burnout is a condition of chronic workplace stress that is characterised by work-related cynicism, a loss of confidence and exhaustion at work. Common among entrepreneurs, it can leave you vulnerable to clinical depression. Chronic workplace stress decreases overall cognitive performance from decision making. It activates our hormonal, metabolic, immune and cardiovascular systems and can alter the body’s response to inflammation.

“Stress can be energising. Stress is our body going into survival mode, it gives us a shot of adrenaline that can help us focus and help us work harder than we normally would. There’s also a sense of competence within chaos. Burnout on the other hand is really deflating.” says Liam. He identifies a warning sign of burnout as waking up and feeling instantly negative about the day ahead or finding mediocre tasks you used to have no trouble with have suddenly become difficult and unmanageable. “People seem to think low-grade chronic stress is normal when actually it’s not,” says Maya. “You should actually feel quite energised and happy [at work].”

How to Prevent Burnout

Working in tech and startups often comes hand-in-hand with long hours, relentless deadlines and ups and downs. That’s not going to change. So if you love what you do but you’re beginning to feel the fire is slowly going out on your motivation and you’re not managing your stress levels well, the panellists say it’s on you to take control of the situation. Your workload might not slow down, but you are in control of how you manage your stress and to set your boundaries.

Re-balance. Liam recommends writing a list of the things that give you joy and a list of the things that deplete you. What’s the balance of these things in your day to day life? Find ways to tip the balance.

Legs up. Maya suggests deep breathing or meditation. “After a long day, it's quite challenging to just come home and meditate. Something so simple that you can do is lay with your legs up the wall for 10 minutes - it’s like an instant reset.”

Double up. Rajesh advises tackling more than one area of wellbeing at a time. He says connecting with others is key to wellbeing. One tip is to combine exercise with friends before or after work.

Prepare. Maya shared that burnout can cause nutrition deficiencies, fatigue and disturbed sleep. She advises batching two or three healthy recipes for the week ahead and also suggests limiting caffeine to once or twice a day before midday. Maya says to avoid sugar as it can increase your cortisol, leading to a crash. “We want to avoid the up and down.”

Go bush. Rajesh says that being in nature is a great distresser. “Just turn off the phone or leave it. You might need it to go to the place but then turn it off. And then just go for a walk, for a couple of hours with rich natural biodiversity.”

I’m already burnt out. Now what?

Reach out. Psychologist Liam recommends seeing a professional. “There are lots of great blogs out there that have general advice, and try all those, but if you find you’re still not getting anywhere it could be useful to talk to someone who's experienced in managing this.”

Keep calm. Maya advises acknowledging that you’re burnt out, but realise you will find the steps you need to overcome it. “If you’re stressing about what you’re going through, it’s just going to spiral out.”

Managing work and burnout

To manage burnout, it is important to understand your company’s expectations of your output and hours and ensure open communication around your workload.

For managers and business owners, Liam stresses the importance of being finely tuned to stress in your team in general. “If you do notice changes it might be worth taking an individual aside to say I’ve noticed these changes, what's going on,” he says.

Liam adds that team leaders should be setting boundaries on behalf of their employees. Try and manage your expectations around contacting employees outside of business hours.

“Check in with employees about whether they have the capacity to take on tasks before delegating. And find out how each individual employee feels most valued,” he says.

How to tell your workplace you need time off

What you choose to communicate with your team when you’re going through burnout will depend on your company culture and your relationship with your colleagues. Liam says the important point is that key people in your team know, such as your manager.

“Try to talk about it in really clear and factual ways. For example - ‘I’ve been struggling with this,’ says Liam. “If you are going to be putting some changes in place, you should communicate with them by saying, ‘I’ve been experiencing some stress, burnout. To manage that, these are the changes that I am making for myself.”

Research links from panel:

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