The 6 Keys to Self-Care & Avoiding Burn-Out



Last week was #SelfCareWeek.

Self-care is something I talk about a lot in the context of my executive coaching. I call it self-leadership.

I work with many senior leaders who see no benefit in making time for themselves. It’s all about meeting deadlines, hitting targets and driving the business forward. They don’t believe they need breaks, recovery time or me time.  They “thrive” on the pressure.  Brilliant – until they burn out.

I work with other leaders who put everyone before themselves. It’s all about other peoples’ wants and needs. They miss lunch to help others, work late to support a colleague, put their own work priorities on hold to help someone else and so on. What a lovely trait – until they burn out.

Last, but not least, I work with leaders who literally can’t make time for themselves. They want to. They know it’s important, but they just can’t seem to make it happen. They work 12-hour days, don’t take any breaks and still never get to the bottom of their vast to-do lists. (I fell into this camp). Wonderful for the business to have such hard-working, committed people – until they burn out.

So, three very different ways in which leaders put self-care at the bottom of their priority list and risk burn-out.  Which camp do you fall into I wonder?

Don’t get me wrong. I know how hard this can be. I’ve already shared with you the camp I was in. However, unless you practise self-care, you will ultimately burn-out.

And if you’re saying to yourself:

“That will never happen to me!”

Think again.

Plenty of high-flying executives have thought the same and have come crashing down to earth with a bang.

What Is Burn-Out?

Most people think of burn-out as physical exhaustion.  The sense that you simply can’t go on any longer.  However, burn-out is much more than that.

In the 2019 International Classification of Diseases it is classed as an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition, and is defined as follows:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.  It is characterised by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and
  3. Reduced professional efficacy”

But what does that mean in reality? How might these three “dimensions” show up in your working life?  Typical symptoms might include:

  • Physical fatigue/emotional exhaustion
  • A sense of disconnection and detachment
  • A loss of passion for the work that you do
  • A lack of empathy for others
  • An antipathy towards your work or your colleagues
  • A crisis of confidence
  • A sense of a lack of accomplishment

Interestingly coming back to self-care, it is caregivers who typically experience the highest levels of burn-out and this is nothing new.  Records of Christian monks from the 4th century BC cited the issue of “acedia”- a Greek word which translates to “non-caring” – you literally have nothing left to give.

What Causes Burn-Out?

Most people think of burn-out as being caused by over-work and yet this is far from the whole picture.

Christina Maslach, co-author of the Maslach Burn-Out Inventory™ highlighted 6 areas that can contribute to burn-out:

  1. Workload
  2. Control
  3. Reward
  4. Community
  5. Fairness
  6. Values

Essentially stress is any tension caused in our system and burn-out is the result of long-term stress.

It can, of course, happen when we feel overwhelmed by our Workload and unable to cope with the demands placed upon us.

But it also often results from feeling out of Control and that is closely related to autonomy, empowerment and flexibility in the workplace.

Reward is interesting. In this instance, it doesn’t purely relate to money.  It relates to how rewarding we find the job that we do. What is the effort to reward ratio? Are we expending too much effort for the reward we get back, whether that be financial, emotional or social?

Community is huge.  Every piece of research around resilience cites the importance of having strong relationships and a good support network. It’s also about a sense of belonging – feeling part of a “tribe” as Seth Godin would say.

A lot of stress and tension is also caused when we believe something is unfair. Think of how you felt when you last witnessed something you felt was unjust or the last time you felt you were being treated unfairly. It triggers very strong negative emotions. Thus, Fairness unsurprisingly features here.

Lastly Values.  I do a lot of coaching work around values because we under-estimate what key drivers they are in our lives. When I’m working with people who are highly stressed it can often be because the work they are doing or the culture in which they operate means they are having to compromise their core values too often.

So, 6 areas that can contribute to burn-out but the key question is:

How do you prioritise self-care and prevent it from happening?

The 6 Keys to Self-Care & Avoiding Burn-Out

1. Pacing yourself.  However much you enjoy your work and thrive on pressure, your mind and body need some respite and recovery time.

  • Take a mini-break every 90 minutes
  • Have a proper lunch break a few times a week
  • Avoid burning the candle at both ends

2. Taking care of your body. Your physical health is of vital importance.  Think how hard it is to do a good job when you’ve got a minor ailment like a cold or a headache, let alone something major.

  • Eat healthily, regularly and stay well hydrated
  • Exercise regularly and manage your weight
  • Prioritise your health – make time for doctor’s appointments, health checks etc

3. Minding your head. Fortunately, mental health and wellbeing at work are now moving right up the agenda.  We’re all realising that mental health is as important as physical health.

  • Challenge negative dialogue and thinking patterns
  • Manage your emotions and your emotional state
  • Talk to people and seek out support in more challenging times

4. Setting boundaries.  We often have more control than we think we do.  Why?  Because a lot of the pressure we experience is self-imposed pressure.  Self-imposed deadlines, perfectionist tendencies, presenteeism and so on.

  • Set personal boundaries regarding work-time
  • Manage your social media use – don’t let it take over your life
  • Decide what takes priority when – work/family/friends/you

5. Managing your time well.  A lot of the stress I see in the workplace could be dealt with by more effective time management. I know it sounds dull, even basic, but it can have a major impact on your working life.

  • Be clear about your work priorities and diarise time to work on them
  • Effectively delegate and say no more often
  • Stay focussed, mono-task, don’t multi-task and minimise distractions

6. Being true to yourself. This is one of the toughest areas to fulfil.  I expect most of us have worked in industries/companies/roles which have made us feel lousy about ourselves.  Yet it is very hard to walk away from what you know or from what has got you to where you are today, even if it makes you feel unhappy.  However, it’s a huge stressor.

  • Do work you enjoy that plays to your strengths
  • Work for people you rate and respect
  • Act in accordance with your values and don’t compromise them

Thus, practising self-care and avoiding burn-out isn’t easy.  It’s not as simple as pushing back on work and asking for more support.  There are a whole host of things that could lead to burn-out over a prolonged period of time.  The good news?  That means there are a whole host of things you can do to avoid it too!

As a starter for ten, determine which of these 6 areas you do well and keep doing them.  Then choose one or two key development areas to focus on going forward. You won’t regret it.  Burn-out is no fun for anyone.

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