I find myself in a space where I would like to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately. The last couple of years have taught me some important lessons, and one of the biggest is around burnout and capacity.
Toward the end of last year, I found myself out of energy, making minor mistakes, being short-tempered, and just trying to support our company the best way I could. I was struggling to understand what was happening. The feeling was familiar, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was at the time. It wasn’t depression; I knew what that felt like; however, it did feel somehow related. No matter how much I wanted this feeling to go away, it just wouldn’t. I tried to will these feelings away (that always works, right?), I tried to smile more and just push through. I bet you can relate to what happened next – my struggle deepened, and nothing changed.
During this time, the teams I support were diving in and exploring the idea of capacity for our employees and our company as a whole; I identified deeply with these conversations. After some reflection, I realized I was out of gas and experiencing burnout. I had over-committed myself in my job, volunteer work, and relationships, and my capacity to take on new things was non-existent. What disturbed me was the idea that I needed to let go of some things and truly free up some space to function well again. If you know me, you know I say yes to many things. By saying yes to people, I show them how much I value them; I thoroughly align with our value of relationships. This has always worked for me, but suddenly it didn’t. I was experiencing burnout.
Identifying what was wrong was a start, but it certainly wouldn’t fix the issue. I had to do something; I had to act. The first step was recognizing what I could immediately give up or delegate. That was easy. Then I made plans to reduce my volunteer efforts and responsibilities. That was a slower and much harder process because people were counting on me, but I made a plan and started to execute it. Then, a few weeks later, I took a vacation. Not the kind of vacation where you check your work phone or sneak an email here and there. (I know many of you can relate to that kind of “vacation”.) This time I actually took a break. I let everyone know I would not be available or even reachable. My team laughed at me because they were ready to help me step away. They were invested in my mental health as much as I was. I turned my work phone off, set it in a drawer, and checked out for the week. I intentionally hit the reset button on myself. I did have a weak moment and checked my phone halfway through the week. But after that slip, I had to laugh at myself. I spent my time off doing things that fueled me. I was intentional with my time and prioritized relaxation.
Our company is amazingly resilient and dynamic and made up of people who, in my opinion, could overcome any obstacle thrown their way. My absence didn’t affect any of it. Our operations completed the work, problems handled, and the world went on. What did happen in my absence was even more powerful. My plans were working to free up my capability, and I could see a glimpse of the changes to come. When I returned to work, I had finally tamed the monster called burnout. I had energy again, my conversations were more fruitful, my mistakes diminished, and I felt productive again.
It’s been several weeks now, and I have realized an even bigger lesson. Burnout has shown up before, just not as often and certainly not as severe. The pandemic and its consequences have made burnout rear its ugly head more often and with more intensity. Prolonged stress is not a normal state for humans to be in. Previously, my strategy was just to let time go by, and things would fix themselves. It’s clear to me now that I have to be proactive in my mental health to combat burnout. I won’t be passive anymore.
“NO” is a complete sentence. That statement was profound when I first heard it. When you don’t have the capacity, learning to say no is something I hope we all can learn. It’s not mean-spirited, and it’s not disrespectful. Sometimes it’s what we need to maintain our health and well-being.
– Steve McBride