How to Maintain Calm and Avoid Overload

Learning skills to prevent burnout.

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Do the phrases Type A personality, overachiever, or chronic finisher resonate with you?

If so, you (and I) are not alone. The challenge with these identities is that they can lead to burnout. That was the experience of author Kandi Wiens, who shares in her new book Burnout Immunity about her own relationship with overachievement, rooted in self-doubt and insecurity she suffered after growing up in poverty on an Indian reservation. She experienced repeated incidents of burnout, until it put her in the hospital and she decided she had to make a change.

Burnout is defined by three markers, according to the World Health Organization: exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced productivity. Burnout Immunity offers readers a roadmap for five emotional intelligence–related skills that can help develop a kind of immunity to work-related burnout, protecting us from this common affliction and helping us find well-being inside and outside of work.

Self-awareness is: “the ability to accurately organize and understand our own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors,” writes Wiens. To help with one element of self-awareness, the book offers a burnout risk assessment, a short quiz to assess your level of vulnerability to burnout.

The assessment took me about seven minutes, and it provides a score (mine was Moderate Risk), a lens through which to read the rest of the book.

Awareness helps us first, simply, in recognizing what’s going on for us. It alerts us to our signs of distress, what’s causing that stress at work, and any toxic social interactions we’re having. Noticing these internal and external signals provides us with the data we need to make changes reactively, or to prevent stress proactively.

Self-regulation isn’t about restricting our emotions or responses but instead consciously choosing healthy ones. When we’re dysregulated by stress, we can experience the fight-or-flight response, which (when repeated over time) can result in mental and physical health issues like gastrointestinal problems and high blood pressure due to the regular surge of cortisol, Wiens explains.

Wiens highlights healthier ways to respond to stress. One way is to reframe the stressor more as a challenge than a threat. For example, if you have anxiety about public speaking, you can try to view it as a challenge you can overcome, because you have an important message to share. Another healthy response is to rely on connection and our social networks to support us through stressful periods. Focusing on what we can control, and trying to let go of what we can’t, also helps here.

Meaningful connections
When Wiens talks about meaningful connections, she isn’t just talking about relationships. We can also feel connected to our work and to our values.

When we engage in meaningful work that we value, that helps others, where our contributions are appreciated, we are more resilient and have better overall well-being, which serves as a buffer to burnout. However, too much of a good thing is possible; even when we are connected to meaningful work, we can succumb to burnout if we are not careful. Wiens suggests we be diligent in safeguarding our connection to work by creating boundaries, releasing non-essential commitments, and finding ways to recharge outside of work.

When our core values, beliefs, or guiding principles are misaligned with those of our organization, it can feel threatening because of the relationship between our values and our identity. Being asked to deny, hide, or betray our identity can cause a fight-or-flight response in the body. But when we are clear on our core values, they can help us recognize the environments we should stay in and those we should leave. Clues that there may be a values mismatch with your environment and that you should probably leave that environment include feeling uncomfortable or out of place, increasingly or even intolerably restless, or unhappy, pessimistic, or unmotivated. 

For readers who are not clear on their values, Wiens asks them to to reflect on things that are important to them, like fairness or compassion. If you have trouble unearthing your values, she suggests you “list seven things you want to do, be, see, feel, or experience in your professional life before you die.”

“Mindset determines how we take in information and categorize it as stressful or not stressful,” Wiens writes. Essentially, mindset is the filter through which we process potential stressors.

Reconnect and reimagine
A recurring theme throughout the book is that fixing the root causes of burnout at work is the employer’s imperative, not the employees’, a perspective I fully agree with! But if you find yourself feeling exhausted, cynical, and unproductive and are looking for immediate tools to help, you can support yourself to fully recover from burnout. Wiens’s prescription? Recover, reconnect, and reimagine.

Recovery shouldn’t only be reactive — when we’re so burned out that our body forces us to rest; instead, we should “regularly and consistently recover from our work stress,” Wiens says. The best way to do this is through self-care practices like microbreaks (taking small breaks throughout the day), having fun, and socializing, each serving as a way to recharge.

Burnout has a tendency to disconnect us from the things and people that are most important to us. Reconnecting with hobbies and habits that brought us joy prior to burnout, like art, gardening, or fishing, can be restorative and serve as a bridge to also reconnect with important people in our lives.

The last step is to reimagine a post-burnout vision for your life, a vision motivated by optimism and hope that there is a better way forward.

Burnout Immunity does a good job breaking down the science of stress and its impact on our brains, emotions, and behaviors, especially when it’s chronic, as is the case with burnout. The book offers a summary of leading research and books that deal with the topics of stress, burnout, and resilience. If you’re not already convinced, reading this book will compel you to take stress and burnout seriously and commit to addressing it.

However, most people are likely to pick up this book because they’re looking for strategies to address or prevent burnout. In this area, the book falls a bit short, sometimes reserving ideas on how to build burnout immunity to brief, prescriptive bullets at the ends of sections, with limited instruction on how to incorporate them or make the mental shift to embrace them. Still, readers will hopefully come away from the book motivated to experiment with new ways of working and living to help them stay happy and well.

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