“Stress is not always bad”: Charlotte Wiseman explores how to positively harness stress and bounce back from burnout

Published by Charlotte Wiseman on May 26th 2021, 9:09am

This article is based on two separate pieces written by Positive Psychology and Leadership Consultant, Charlotte Wiseman. Within it, Charlotte explores the issue of stress, how stress does not always connote negativity, and how pressure can be positively managed to help us emerge from our comfort zones. She also delves deeply into the burnout that can arise as a direct consequence of stress mismanagement and - based on her own experiences - discusses how we can bounce back from it.

With Stress Awareness Month having been as recent as April, it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the issue. Firstly, I would like to emphasise that “stress”, however negatively we may view it, is not always bad.

Stress is simply the physical and psychological response to pressure. That pressure can often lead to good outcomes, motivating us to get out of our comfort zone. However, if unmanaged, it can lead to less positive outcomes; overwhelm, lack of focus, poor decision-making, high blood pressure and burnout.

I have trodden this path and bounced back from burnout to discover greater career fulfilment and life satisfaction as a result.

Many people, especially business leaders out there, are close to burnout right now. My main message to those people is not to worry, and instead act now.

The period in my life where I was forced to tackle burnout inspired my research to learn more about the issue and about stress, and subsequently find ways to help others struggling with those very same feelings.

What I have discovered in this is that many people, when they go through those burnouts, breakdowns or moments of crisis, actually emerge mentally fitter. These moments are what drives them to act more in alignment with their values, to take ownership of their health and career, and, as a result, they are more fulfilled by their future choices. This is known as post-traumatic growth.

My Burnout Story

When it comes to looking after my own mental health, in the past I have made every mistake in the book. That is really what inspired me to do what I do today.

About 12 years ago, I was working in the fashion industry, as a designer. Following a series of events, my role suddenly grew, and I was soon managing and overseeing the menswear design and production of a global brand. From the outside, this looked like the dream job: I had reached the top of a career I had always dreamed of; I was travelling the world and being paid to spend a large part of each year in Bali. On the inside, likewise, I thought I was living the dream. I had always thought that if I had good physical health, a stable home, and a great career, that it equated to success.

So, I threw myself into this new opportunity. I loved my job, and I did it with joy. As I did so, it was quite easy for my five-day week to turn into six days a week, because I was working with factories around the world, and they were all open during the weekend. Equally, when you are working with different time zones, it is quite natural for an eight-hour day to turn into a 14 or, for me, often a 16-hour day. I hardly even noticed the change, and, before long this had become my "normal". I continued to look after my physical health through this time - making sure I slept well, had a healthy and balanced diet: I ran, went to the gym, and did yoga.

As I continued with this lifestyle, I never really thought anything was wrong. It was just life, as I saw it. It was not until one day, when I was out in Indonesia visiting a factory, that everything changed. I remember the day. I do not remember anything different about the day itself - it was a normally challenging day in the factory. But something was different as I walked out that night.

That night, I walked out of the factory and was suddenly hit by a "pang" of thinking:

“I can't go on. I cannot live another day like this. This isn’t living.”

I remember very distinctly standing at the side of the road, waiting for a taxi, looking up at a sign in the road and thinking to myself:

“I know I need to do something, but I don't know what I need to do.”

I remember wanting desperately to cry, yet, feeling like I did not even have the energy to cry.

Two people, who were visiting from the UK, came out of the factory and tried to talk to me. As I opened my mouth, I could not speak, I could not find the words to articulate what I was feeling. It was if I was gagging on my own words.

They were visiting from the UK and, as is so commonly the case, their suggestion was to go for a drink, “you just need to let off a bit of steam”. You might have experienced this yourself. It often seems that for the British, if it is before 5pm then a cup of tea will solve everything, and if it is after 5pm, then a pint of beer or a glass of wine is the cure-all.

So, we all piled into the taxi and they took me off for a pint. Later, as I sat in this café, staring at the untouched drink, I was finally able to cry. This was step one: being able to at least start to engage with my emotions again. We soon decided that a good night's sleep was going to be the next best thing, so they kindly took me home. I went off to my room and, later that night, I managed to get enough words together to call my doctor back in the UK. As I explained as much as I could of what had happened, she was very quick to say:

“You have to quit your job, come home and take time off. This is serious.”

And yet, I was very quick to say:

“No.”

I cannot tell you what inspired that decision within me that night, but, to this day, I believe it was the best decision of my life. For me, my work was who I was at that time. While I still had a strong network of supportive friends, I had pushed them aside for my job and I had stopped making time for my hobbies. If I had taken away my work at that point, I do not think I would have had the drive to get out of bed. My work was giving me a routine, a sense of purpose, goals, and a sense of achievement, and it was giving me social connection. This is such an important point. When we talk about mental health in the workplace, it is too often forgotten that our work is an incredibly positive contributor to our wellbeing. People can be quick to demonise work as the source of all stress, and that is not the case.

Furthermore, it is often assumed that if someone is going through a challenging time or experiencing low mental fitness, they need to take time off. While this is true for some people, it is not true for everyone. In fact, on the contrary, research shows that our work can be an especially important part of recovery from a mental health crisis. Beyond that, if we can learn as individuals how to manage our mindset and our behaviour, and our employers support this effectively, then the workplace becomes both a health-enhancing and performance-enhancing part of our lives. So that is what I started to do, I changed the way I worked.

I was lucky that my doctor supported my decision to continue to work and was able to commence online therapy with me the next day, followed by face-to-face therapy when I returned to the UK. This was all done through the NHS so, while it may not be the perfect service, it is important to note the support that they can and do offer so many. The support they were able to offer me was fantastic and I am eternally grateful for that.

So, I continued to work, never handed over any responsibility, never even told my boss until the day I left four years ago. I continued to work throughout my recovery, but I started to work differently. I made remarkably simple changes that had a huge impact, very quickly.

The topic of burnout seems to be on everyone’s minds right now, whether they are concerned for themselves, their team members, or their loved ones. Reports from McKinsey and other organisations are warning that the risk of burnout in employees over the next six to nine months is going to be at its highest, so we need to take action now.

Of course, this tale of recovery begs the question: what steps did I actually take to help me recover?

The first change I made was taking at least a 20-minute lunchbreak every day. This sounds simple and yet it was hard to commit to. I had not taken a lunchbreak in over five years at that point, and I always felt that there was more to do and there was no time to stop. What I found was that by taking a short break, away from my screen, my to-do list, and my phone, enabled me to reset my mind so that I was more productive and focused in the hours after lunch and throughout the afternoon. This article by Forbes will provide readers with more food for thought on this topic.

Secondly, I started practicing mindfulness each morning and evening for seven to ten minutes. Prior to this point, I was more than a little cynical about the benefits of sitting and doing nothing, which was how I saw mindfulness and meditation practices. However, after learning about the neuroscience of this habit, I reframed it as ‘attention training’ as that is exactly what it is. It facilitates more clarity of thought so that we can direct our attention, time, and energy more effectively. This reduces stress, improves decision-making, and helps in so many other ways. I explore mindfulness in more detail on my own personal blog if you do wish to research more into the topic.

Thirdly, I learnt to say "no". It is all too easy to blame our bosses, our colleagues, or external circumstances for the situations we find ourselves. At the end of the day, we are all in control of our own lives and we need to take ownership of that. I take full responsibility for what happened to me, it was the pressure I was putting on myself, my willingness to work those hours without speaking up, my lack of communication and boundaries that led me to that point. We all need to realise that we can all do anything, but we cannot do everything, and certainly not all at once. Sometimes saying no is the most helpful thing to do as it prevents us from letting someone down later or doing a half-hearted job. If you know you struggle with this, I recommend this podcast from Tim Ferriss to get you started on combatting the issue.

As I see it - and the research supports this view -, every working community can be a health-enhancing and performance-enhancing one. Our careers do not have to just be something we feel we “have to do”, they can be something we “want to do”. To get there, we all must commit to this. When individuals and organisations can work together towards this goal, it can very quickly become a reality, benefiting the employees, the business, its stakeholders, and the bottom line, as well as spreading beyond that into the community and society as a whole.

So, I ask you:

What is the main learning that you will take away from my story?

What one action can you commit to as a result?

Is there someone who you can reach out to share and inspire them to do the same?

Internal stigma

My moment of crisis was back in 2010. When I went through it and came through the other side, I discovered that I had something called “internal stigma”.

Internal stigma, if we frame it from my experience, is that while I had always been compassionate and empathetic to other people who experienced mental illness, I thought I was somehow “immune” to poor mental health - I thought I “should” be able to deal with this, I “should” be “stronger” than this.

Internal stigma is quite common, and well-evidenced. Most of us do not know we have it until we get a diagnosis. In hindsight, it seems bizarre that I felt this way. I would never have felt ashamed for pulling a muscle if I were overtraining at the gym, and yet, when overworking my brain and not giving it recovery time led to what a friend of mine calls “brain sprain”, I was unwilling to accept this. I somehow saw this as a “failure” on my part.

My curiosity to understand my experience first led to me doing a part-time degree in Psychology alongside my job, and eventually inspired my decision to complete an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology. I now combine this science of mental fitness and my own experience to teach others how to avoid the same mistakes I made.

CEO wellbeing and burnout

One area that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has become a core area of my research is Workplace Wellbeing and Burnout. In my latest study, I spoke to CEOs who had experienced a major crisis of wellbeing or burnout. Yes – it happens to CEOs too. In fact, studies show that at least 96 per cent of leaders will experience a burnout at some point in their career. It is suggested that this figure may be even higher as many cases are unreported due to their fear of professional and personal repercussions if they were to do so. When I met with these leaders who had experienced a crisis of wellbeing or burnout, I asked them about their experience and the events that led them to that point, as well as their top tips for other CEOs and future leaders to empower them to avoid this painful experience.

The tips these business leaders shared with me were:

1. Energy Management

This is all about building your self-awareness so you can manage your energy and time more effectively. You can ask yourself now, how do you feel on a scale of one to ten? This is something most of us rarely do on a day-to-day basis. Even when someone asks, “how are you?”, we reply “fine” without even thinking about it. Developing self-awareness is about doing this more regularly, perhaps before you start your day, once in the day and once before you close your laptop. In doing so, you offer yourself the opportunity to be proactive in managing how you feel so you can take positive action to improve your state of mind, your physical health, and your actions. Some other good questions to ask yourself are:

What is contributing to that number?

What emotions, thoughts or physical feelings are you aware of?

What small action will be most helpful to you right now?

Try to avoid judging how you feel, instead, simply notice, and acknowledge whatever is going on for you. This comforts our nervous system. When we push away certain feelings, perhaps saying “why am I feeling that way?” or “I should be able to deal with this”, we are fighting ourselves. This means the difficult feelings “shout” even louder.

Once you have been able to identify and accept how you feel, you can then take positive action to manage your mindset and mood. That could be by taking a short break to get outside or move your body, making a list or prioritising tasks to be done, delegating tasks, or asking for help, listening to some music, or practicing a hobby.

Learning what is most helpful in these moments is an on-going journey of curiosity and clarification. We need to keep experimenting to find our own toolbox of health coping strategies. If you do not know where to start, pick one from the list above. After you have given it a try, check in with yourself again, asking ‘has this helped’? Then learn from this to refine your future actions.

2. Values

Do you know that feeling when you do something that goes against your better nature or your morals? That nagging feeling that you might call guilt, embarrassment, or regret?

Most of us have had that feeling at some point in life. This emotion is cognitively exhausting. When we do not align our actions with our values, this is depleting and distracting. We need to bring our focus to what matters to us, to what gives meaning to our lives, and then do our best to live in alignment with these. It is for this reason that the companies who are excelling and thriving amid the current challenges are the ones who have a clear set of values which are articulated and understood by their employees. These shared values create meaning in the workplace and this is fundamental to individual and organisational resilience.

So, how can you ensure you start to put your values into action? A simple way is just to think of a person you admire. Then ask yourself, which of these values or qualities do you admire in them?

Then, once you have made a list of values you admire, ask yourself, what five qualities would I want someone to notice in me? Then ask, how much am I demonstrating these values in my day-to-day life, at work, at home, elsewhere? You can use a scale of one to ten for this or any other measurement that works for you.

Now, pick one of these qualities that you would like to bring more into your life and think of as many ways as you can to use that strength in your current workday. Some ideas could be:

Cultivating curiosity by reaching out to people in other departments to learn about them or their roles.

Training your staff in teamwork by sending each of your fellow team members a short note to thank them for their contribution to the team.

Stretching social intelligence by taking a little more time to listen to others than sharing your own views.

After that, you may start to think about other areas of your life and how you can build these strengths in your personal life, your hobbies, your relationships, or your health habits.

Once you have a strong list of ideas, your challenge is to focus on using this value in one new way each day for the next week. At the end of each day, check in and make a note of how you used it and what impact it had on you, your day, or your colleagues.

3. Connection

The final piece of the puzzle is connection. In the last 12 months, most of us have seen and felt the impact of being physically distanced from our communities. While we have a wealth of options to stay in touch digitally, through video conferencing, messaging and social media platforms, there is no replacement for face-to-face conversations and human touch. Do you even remember the last time you shook someone’s hand, for example?

I see human connection as an immunity booster for our minds. Positive interactions keep us motivated, mentally resilient and enhance our moods. Sharing your feelings and experience with others is also an important first step in overcoming moments of burnout.

So, as you sit here reading this, I would encourage you to write down the names of three people you could call in a challenging moment, three people who could help you to stay accountable to the positive actions you have committed to while reading this, and three people who you feel would benefit from reading this article so that they too can take action.

A parting word

The CEOs whom I spoke to all shared one more piece of advice that I would like to share with readers: they said that it is easy to blame external circumstances, people or factors beyond our control for our actions, or perhaps inaction. They called for us all to stop doing this and take ownership of our own wellbeing, lives, and careers, which is what I was able to do during my moment of crisis. To do that, we do not need to change jobs, escape to an island retreat, or start new careers. We just need to take small actions each day.

I take full responsibility for what happened to me. It was the pressure I was putting on myself to overwork, trying to be the superhero, to do it all on my own, failing to address the impact that was having on my productivity and health that led me down that path. It was my willingness to continue to work those hours, pushing aside the things that mattered to me, like friends, family, laughter, and learning, that accelerated my decline. It was my lack of communication with those around me that culminated in my moment of crisis.

While companies need to be aware of the pressure that they are putting on people, we as individuals need to ensure we are prioritising our needs, values, and relationships. I never stopped doing my job as I worked through recovery. Instead, I changed the way I worked and lived. Many of the CEOs I spoke to also took this approach. Remember, mental health is unique to each one of us, so some people may need to take time out, others may not. What I want to emphasise is that burnouts or crisis points do not require that we retire from life. They require that we reassess our habits and commit to living differently. We need to commit to living in a sustainable way, that is at a pace that we can maintain every day for the rest of our career. Change your daily habits and you can transform your life.

I do not care much for the phrase “burnout”. Perhaps what I experienced was burnout or the signs of a breakdown. What is more important is that for many people, when they go through those moments, and they do take action to make changes, they come out stronger. While I recognise that the moment itself was painful, I also recognised that it was the catalyst that got me to where I am today.

So, I ask you now as readers:

What is the one thing that will help you to improve your Energy Management?

Which one value will you commit to bringing into your life this week?

Who can you reach out to now, to inspire, for support, or for something else?

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Authored By

Charlotte Wiseman
Leadership & Wellbeing Consultant at Charlotte Wiseman Leadership & Wellbeing Consultants
May 26th 2021, 9:09am

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