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Douse the flames of early burnout

Recognizing signs of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion is the first step in returning to your natural flow state.

Douse the flames of early burnout
Are you having fun in your work and life? If not, you might be on a path toward burnout.

Are you having fun in your work and life? If not, you might be on a path toward burnout. Anyone who’s spent time camping in the woods will likely recognize Smokey Bear’s admonition: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” As the incidence of burnout rises steadily in our profession, it’s important that we learn to become more aware of the early signs of burnout. With this increased awareness we’ll be better equipped to make the changes needed to keep ourselves (and perhaps others) from going down in flames.

According to two of our VetPartners colleagues, Tiffany Schaible and Melissa Supernor, burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. Clearly, we can’t expect to be at our best as human beings if we’re at risk or are actually experiencing the symptoms of burnout. Burnout is antithetical to the “flow” state that we’ve been exploring in this column.

My Brush with Burnout

“If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” — Guy Dauncey

Earlier this year, I (Jeff) attended a business conference where Kim Jordan, a co-founder of New Belgium Brewing, shared Guy Dauncey’s quote, which she said represented a key element of her company’s culture of engagement. The quote resonated with me and got me thinking, “How much fun am I having right now?” My honest answer: “Not much.”

Realistically, for some time I had been feeling a declining amount of energy for my work. Metaphorically, I was on a high-speed treadmill where I was endlessly working but not going anywhere. I sensed that maybe I was following someone else’s formula for success, not my own, and I was tired of doing things (especially related to marketing my business) that I thought I “should” be doing but didn’t necessarily want to do. At some level, I was beginning to realize that the path I was on was not sustainable.

No surprise then when a few weeks later an online article by Shelly Tygielski caught my eye. (Read “Is It a Bad Day or Is It Burnout?” at http://bit.ly/2Zr096j.) Tygielski wrote, “Burnout is something that creeps up on you.” I wondered at the time if it might be creeping up on me.

Here’s how she contrasted a bad day from burnout: “What makes a bad day (or collection of days) differ from burnout is that you know in your heart you can bounce back. Even in these tough patches, you can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and you can resume (albeit not always easily) your life and still derive enjoyment from it. Burnout is not so kind. Genuine burnout leads to an inability to successfully function on a personal, social and professional level. It steals hope. It squashes motivation. It, quite literally, sucks the life out of you.”

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

Tygielski’s explanation made me sit up and take notice. As the article went on to describe the three telltale symptoms that almost all burnout sufferers face, I made a mental checklist:

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion: An emotional lack of energy that can manifest itself physically. Basic tasks and even things that would normally provide joy become chores. Check! Physical exhaustion was less of an issue for me, but I was feeling a deficit in emotional energy.
  • Feelings of self-doubt, ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment: Having a perception of being inadequate but still going through the motions. There is no zest, no pleasure and, often, performance suffers. Check! This one rang true for me. Making a positive difference has always been important to me and I couldn’t see that I was having any kind of significant effect.
  • Detachment and cynicism: A tendency to retreat into yourself and become pessimistic. A feeling of hopelessness transitions to one of helplessness with an accompanying attitude of “Why bother?” Check! As much as I hated to admit it, I could feel more and more of this outlook creeping into my life.

After conducting a self-assessment, I thought that soliciting my wife’s perspective might be a good idea. I explained the nature of the article and openly wondered if I might be experiencing some degree of burnout. I began sharing the checklist one item at a time. As I read the first two symptoms, I added “Check” after each one. When I read the third one, detachment and cynicism, before I could say anything else she jumped in with an emphatic, “CHECK!” Diagnosis confirmed!

As a consolation, at least one thing in Tygielski’s article was encouraging. After sharing her burnout experiences, she stated, “If you learn to recognize the onset of burnout, you can minimize the effects and possibly prevent it.” I realized that navigating my way out of burnout would involve being willing to make some changes. I was ready.

How to Extinguish the Fire

Here are some practical tips for recognizing the flame and extinguishing the fire of burnout:

1. Know your early warning signs.

Make Smokey Bear proud by paying attention to the small, quiet voice inside of you that whispers, “The trajectory that I’m on is not sustainable.” As always, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

2. Make work less central.

Hustle less and avoid busyness. This was a big one for me. “Go faster. Do more. Hustle. Hustle even more.” Sound familiar? These are the prevailing messages we hear in our Western work culture. That, coupled with the fact that many of us, especially men, derive a large part of our identity from our work, produces a predictable recipe for workaholism and burnout. The entrepreneur Andrew Thomas provides a contrary view: “The antidote to ‘always hustling’ is ‘slowness.’ It sounds crazy, but slowing down can be the difference between success or failure, or between thriving and burning out.”

3. Get off the treadmill and take time for yourself.

This will look different to different people, but it involves disconnecting from your daily routine in some way for varying realistic periods. It might mean being in nature, sleeping more, reading, exercising or simply not doing anything. For me, it meant taking a three-week sabbatical from everything, including work and family, so that I could stop focusing on all the things I was doing and reconnect with who I wanted to “be.”

4. Commit to a daily meditation or centering practice.

This will help you reduce daily stress, become more in tune with your emotions, and hear what your heart, mind and body are telling you. See some of our previous columns at http://bit.ly/2lSHE8A for ideas on how to do it.

5. Lean on your allies.

This is not the time to go it alone. Reach out to the people in your inner circle who you know have your back and discuss your burnout concerns with them. Also, consider professional help if you sense this is something beyond the scope of your personal support group.

6. Try a digital cleanse.

Take a short or long break from social media and other digital distractions. Ninety-nine percent of digital distractions are just noise anyway, so consider replacing them with silence and solitude so that you can get back in touch with what’s important and regain your balance.

Are you having fun in your work and life? If not, you might be on a path toward burnout. But hey, join the club, we’ve all been there! By recognizing the flames and being willing to make changes, you, too, can extinguish the fire and return to your natural flow state.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders, a company offering leadership and coaching services. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.