February 2020. We saw reports that 20% of Australia’s woodlands had been consumed by wildfires. We all watched helpless as forests burned. A fitting prelude to what has been, so far, a really shit year of constant fire-fighting. Now we’re six months into 2020, we’re still facing challenges, but the flames are dying down. However, we risk replacing fire-fighting with total burnout.
Some of you are relating to this already, some of you are perhaps sceptical about burnout and some of you will have already closed the window and moved on to another article because talking about mental health, about self-care, about how you feel is really uncomfortable, and that’s okay.
Recognise the symptoms of burnout
Before we get too far, what is burnout? This article in Business Insider gives a really good overview and points out some of the symptoms to look out for. In non-specialist speak, it’s that really lousy feeling of falling out of love with what you do; it’s like being dumped by your own enthusiasm. Burnout disrupts your work, your sleep, your relationships and it can have a very serious impact on your health. In all seriousness, if you’re identifying with a lot of the warning signs of burnout, then seek some help. Speak to your boss, your colleagues, your doctor and try and find some solutions.
If, like many of us, you’re not sure how to tell the difference between normal, healthy work pressures and potentially dangerous burnout, BBC Workplace has another helpful article. It reminds us that sometimes a bit of stress at work is actually helpful, it’s a good motivator, it’s the fizz that keeps our jobs interesting. And yes, every now and then, we’re all going to face a deadline, or a big project, or an ambitious target that’s going to occupy our every thought for a few days, and that’s fine. If that feeling doesn’t go away, persists or becomes chronic, then you’re looking at burnout, and that’s bad.
For those working in the tech industry, there’s a tool that can help you figure out where you are on the spectrum. The Burnout Index is aiming to collect data on burnout in the tech industry to help the community have sensible discussions and organisations make informed decisions.
When keeping going has to stop
So why now? Well, three months ago I shared some thoughts on coping with the lockdown; Stockpile kindness. Things were grim. We were all naive. We tried our best to keep going despite everything, and through sheer attrition we managed it, broadly speaking. But the Herculean effort it took to keep the wheels turning took its toll. It took all our reserves. Constantly innovating, constantly problem solving, constantly not allowing ourselves to stop through fear of the real weight of our situation settling on top of us. Our stockpiles, in short, have run dry.
But, it’s all okay, right? Our offices are starting to reopen, our shops are serving customers again, I can even get a haircut now, hell, some of you can even get on a plane. But before we race to get back on the roads, let’s give ourselves a little MOT, a checkup. Our tanks are empty and, if you aren’t already on the cusp of burning out, I promise you that hurrying to “get back to normal” will take you to that cusp.
Take your time
Go calmly, go quietly, go slowly. Take time to think about you and your relationship to work. How can you build a new working pattern that is sustainable, and even nourishing? If you were able to pick up a new skill during lockdown, maybe you discovered the joy of sourdough, or learnt to embroider, think about how you can incorporate this into your new routines.
It will take us generations to replace the trees that were lost in the Australian wildfires, but we can start to repair the damage fire-fighting the pandemic has caused right now. Kindness is now our most important commodity. Keep what you need for yourself, and share as much as you can.