How to thrive at work in burnout era

Spending close to 90,000 hours at work over the course of lifetime means we spend a large majority of our life devoted to work. Living in the age of perfectionism which is deeply adverse to failure, we are all at risk of risking burnout. We speak with business psychologist Susan Kahn to understand what burnout really means and how to prevent it from happening

5 MIN READ

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We spend, on average, one third of our lives at work. That amounts to 90,000 hours over the course of our lifetime, this is based on a forty hour work week. However, chances are if you are part of the new generation of flexible, freelancing remote workers you are available anywhere and anytime and actually clocking up more hours than that statistic. 

While we have greater freedom than ever before to choose the conditions in which we work, this is often overwhelming. Coupled with the fact that our technologically-driven always on culture means it is increasingly challenging to switch off from the pressures of work. As such, in the land of work-life balance, burnout is on the rise and it is having vastly negative impacts on our emotional well-being. This is why one of our five key pillars at Paradym is all about Success; what it is, how to achieve it and how to avoid burnout at all costs (in fact, we think burnout is a increasingly a problem across many areas of our lives, and over the course of Paradym journey will explore the concept of ‘emotional burnout’ across all five pillars).

These days there is very little respite from the pressure of work

“Work today is very demanding. Even if we’re in an environment where we have a supportive boss and colleagues who understand our life demands, there is very little respite from the pressure of work” explains business psychologist Dr. Susan Kahn. “There is no ‘off’ button for the incessant communication that technology facilitates. This is having a detrimental impact on our emotional well-being.” Sound familiar? Here is a list of eleven of the most common symptoms of burnout:

  1. Trying to proving something to yourself or others
  2. Increase your workload and efforts
  3. You neglect your needs and experience less joy
  4. You actively ignore or suppress needs and arising conflicts
  5. You “adjust” your values to your busy life
  6. Problems and conflicts persist
  7. Denying them is your only way out 
  8. Denial doesn’t help, so you withdraw yourself
  9. You feel lost and out of touch with your own identity
  10. You feel empty, isolated and fatigued
  11. Depression

There is a terrible fear of failure in the workplace

Although it has become the latest scapegoat for much of our ill-mental health, technology cannot be blamed for all work-related problems. For many of us, there are some much deeper psychological issues playing out in the workplace. Khan notes our very human aversion to failure as a fundamental barrier to workplace emotional wellness. “There is a terrible fear of failure. A very punitive internal narrative going on” Khan explains. “We continuously limit ourselves, abstaining from playfulness and risk-taking because we are so afraid of failing.” Khan explains that so many of us lack the confidence to push ourselves forward unless we are 100% prepared and all-knowing. Nonetheless, despite our lack of confidence there is still an increased pressure to be “racing up the career ladder”. It is these very modern workplace tensions that we, at Paradym, endeavour to help you move through. “Sometimes” Khan states “it is important to reflect on what success looks like for you.” And we wholeheartedly agree. 

So what does success actually look like? Firstly, it’s important to note there isn’t one, blanket standard for success. That is why at Paradym we believe choice as the most fundamental component to success. In order words, success is living a life that you’ve chosen where you can truly thrive. Because research not only shows that those who thrive at work do better but also, thriving has direct positive benefits to health and wellbeing.

Thriving is the joint experience of vitality and learning

But as another overused and under defined “buzz” word, it is hard to know exactly what we mean by thriving and how it can be achieved. Psychologically speaking, thriving is defined as “the joint experience of vitality and learning.” It can be used as an internal measure for growth and progress. It’s the feeling that you’re moving forward, that your work is valued, and that you’re growing both as a person and also in terms of your professional skill set. 

Being able to make a judgement on your own thriving in the workplace is essential because it can help to act as a thermometer which tells us if we’re doing too much and are close to overheating (aka burning out), or whether we’re too cold (and might need to rethink what we’re doing).

Dr. Khan talks about this termometer in terms of reserves. Often, when we are overheating or burning out we are running on empty. “We must recognise that we need to develop some kind of work reserves. Rather than feeling as though we must use every spare moment or evening to don’t work, we must learn to detach, take breaks and think so we are fully wired and charged”. That is to say, if we spend seven days a week working ourselves into the ground, it is unlikely we will return to work on a monday morning with that sense  of vitality and learning that is imperative to thriving. “I love the expression ‘the straw that broke the camel’s’ back.” Khan notes “The camel is such an incredibly resilient creature. Yet just one extra piece of straw when you feel depleted can destroy you.”

There are three key nutrients everyone needs at work: autonomy, competence and relatedness

So how can you prevent burnout and learn to thrive at work? At Paradym we follow the three key principles of Self-determination Theory (SDT). Self-determination Theory is an incredibly well-researched and robust framework which promotes well-being and a body of studies indicate its effectiveness in the workplace. In order to thrive when it comes to our professional life, SDT outlines three key human needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – that are particularly important. 

Autonomy – The degree to which you feel that you are free to make your own decisions and choices

Competence – Feeling that you effectively master the world around you and are able to do something successfully

Relatedness – Feeling socially connected to and accepted by others

Things to think about

Life can get so busy, we’re all juggling so many things. Taking some time to think about the bigger picture, and what you really want, can be incredibly impactful. 

  • Imagine your 90 year old self, write a letter to yourself today and describe the life you’ve lived. 
  • Review your letter, can you extract the areas you placed the most importance? 
  • How did your professional life fit in to your life overall?