Have you ever had one of those days where you’re completely exhausted? You sleep through your alarm clock and have to drag yourself out of bed; you can’t concentrate at work, so you stay late, but still don’t finish everything you need to do. When you finally get home, you’re too tired to talk to anyone, so you crawl into bed, turn off your light and then… your eyes ping open and you’re wide awake until the wee hours. Have you ever had a day like that? A few years ago, I had months of them.
The newspaper I worked for was restructuring, making redundancies, and everyone was on edge. I had a new manager who didn’t know me and the threat of redundancy hanging over my head. I felt like everything I did to show them my value, to try and explain how useful I was, fell on deaf ears. I also felt like a failure. There were people all over the world going through far worse than I was and yet I was falling apart; I felt pathetic.
We throw the word “burnout” around to describe being a bit tired or a bit stressed, but what it really means is still up for debate. The official definitions generally have it as a form of mental and physical exhaustion, caused by prolonged stress or overwork, which leaves you unable to do your job properly. What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that burnout isn’t an inevitable result of stress.
As much as we demonise stress, it’s actually a really important part of our lives. We operate on a sort of stress bell curve. We need a certain amount of stress to get us out of bed in the morning; a bit more to make sure we perform to our best at work and give significant time and attention to our loved ones. Add even more stress and we actually find ourselves outperforming what we thought we were capable of – it’s why athletes find themselves performing better on match day than in practice. When we’re at the peak of the bell curve, we feel stressed, but we’re thriving on it.
After a while, however, performing at this level of stress becomes too much for us and we start to fall down the other side of the bell curve. And, as we do that, we find ourselves getting closer and closer to burnout. Luckily, there’s a very simple way to stay on the other side of the bell curve and that is to boost your resilience. When you do that, you minimise the effect that stress has on you, letting you handle more of it for longer.
For me, cultivating resilience came through looking at life as though it was an adventure story. Most adventure stories follow the path of the hero’s journey and it turns out life does, too
In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth explains that boosting your resilience requires four things. First, we have to find something we’re passionate about. We then have to practise it, we have to find a purpose for it (this is, usually, some way in which it helps others) and, finally, we have to have hope. All of which can be hard if you’re working in a job you hate.
However, even if you’re in a job which you really cannot see the purpose of and are despairing that you’ll never get out of it, you can still boost your resilience by employing the strategy of practice.
When we start a new job, we’re often overwhelmed, but also excited about how much we have to learn. However, as we get better at this job, so our rate of improvement slows and we feel like we’re plateauing. It saps our enthusiasm. Duckworth says this is the part where we have to look for micro-improvements – small ways in which we can stretch ourselves and then celebrate this growth. When we do this, we cultivate hope and resilience, and fight off stress.
For me, cultivating resilience came through looking at life as though it was an adventure story. Most adventure stories follow the path of the hero’s journey and it turns out life does, too. The most important part of the hero’s journey is realising that, at some point, everyone hits a wall. When that happens, we have to stop trying to change the situation and instead go back to simply doing the things we are good at. The best part of the hero’s journey is that, when we do this – and this is true for every adventure story ever – a mystery stranger appears from the mists, turns our fortunes around and puts us back on the path to success. Sounds too good to be true, right?
When I hit my burnout point, I looked at what I was good at. I stopped trying to convince my boss that they shouldn’t make me redundant and instead I wrote a list of people I’d like to interview. The first woman on the list said yes. She was open and funny and it is still one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. Unbeknownst to me, she was also the former mentor of my new boss. When the interview was published, she emailed my boss and sang my praises. I kept my job and started sleeping again.
If 2017 is anything like 2016, it’s going to be stressful, so start looking now for the things you can do to nurture your resilience. It might be looking for small wins or working out what you’re good at and doing more of that. It might be spending time with friends and family, going to a yoga class, spending an evening a week learning a new skill or just taking five minutes each day to walk outside and breathe deeply. Whatever you do, start doing it now – your future self will thank you.