Many of us have been there: a stressful day at work turns into a hectic month, a hectic month turns into a punishing year, and a punishing year turns into pure physical and mental exhaustion and maybe even complete career burnout. Beth Genly, a former nurse and lead of the coaching and consulting company Burnout Solutions, knows a thing or two about burnout—and how to keep it at bay. Her new book, Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back, co-authored with Dr. Marnie Loomis, explores the burden of burnout and how to deal with it. On this week’s episode, we talk with Beth about high-risk professions for burnout, how burnout develops, and how to prevent it with proactive, persistent self-care.
Brandon Laws: Welcome to the Human Resources for Small Business podcast. I’m your host Brandon Laws.
Hey, just a reminder. You can connect with me on Twitter. I’m @BrandonLaws. Connect with Xenium on Twitter, @XeniumHR. We’re on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect with me. I love it when people connect and reach out and just mention what you like about the podcast or don’t like. All that feedback is great and it helps shape our future podcasts because we’re going to keep this thing going because this is for your education.
In today’s episode, I interview Beth Genly. She holds her graduate degree from Yale University School of Nursing and now she leads the coaching and consulting company Burnout Solutions. This episode is all about burnout. I think you’re going to learn a lot about the subject. If you’ve never heard about it before or maybe you have, Beth is a wealth of knowledge.
Beth co-authored Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back, along with Dr. Marnie Loomis. Their book is releasing on October 8th, 2017. In this episode, Beth is just great and we talk about recognizing burnout and what to do about it and how you can help other people.
So this is a great discussion and I will get out of the way so you can enjoy it. Thanks.
Brandon: Hey Beth. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.
Beth Genly: Thanks Brandon. Glad to be here.
Brandon: Beth, you co-authored the book Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back. That’s releasing on October 8th. Is that right?
Beth: That’s correct.
Brandon: So I had a chance to read this and I thought it was very fascinating. I didn’t realize burnout was such an issue.
Beth: It’s huge.
Brandon: Yeah. I’ve heard it come up. But I just didn’t realize that people are going through this. I think you’ve laid it out very well in the book. Why did you write this book in the first place? Did you experience something that happened in your professional life that kind of drew you to this topic?
Beth: I’ve actually been through burnout three different times.
Beth: Once in grad school, once when I was in healthcare, and once when I was running a small business as an entrepreneur. Three different sort of styles of burnout, but miserable every time.
Brandon: Yeah. Are there high risk professions when it comes to experiencing burnout? I mean those are three different things – school, healthcare, business owner. What are common?
Beth: Well, burnout was originally studied in the helping professions. They thought that’s where they would find it and they sure did. Everybody from social workers to doctors to nurses to psychologists, to volunteers in “helping profession” organizations.
Brandon: When you experience the burnout yourself, how much time passes before you obviously address the burnout? We will talk about that in a little bit. But you address your burnout. Hopefully, you fixed all those issues and then decided, “You know what? This is an issue that people are going through. I need to do something about it to help people.” What was that whole thought process?
Beth: I will answer that in one second. I had one more sentence on who experiences burnout. They have studied a whole bunch of different professions since that helping profession’s initial thought in the last 40 years of studying burnout. It turns out that it turns up in most professions, from hotel managers, to banking and finance people, to even grocery checkers. It’s very, very widespread.
So for me, when I went through burnout, I did not know it was widespread. I couldn’t tell if my co-workers were experiencing it, although I suspect now many of them were. I felt awful. I felt like a wimp. I thought maybe I had some special character flaw beyond my usual ones that was causing burnout. I was afraid to talk about it. I was pretty sure there was a stigma attached to it.
So when I met Dr. Marnie Loomis, who’s my co-author and she said there were four decades of research on burnout, I said, “Oh my goodness. Let’s talk,” and that’s how it all started.
Brandon: So burnout – does it just happen? Like one day you’re not burned out and then the next day you are? Or does it slowly compound over time until you’ve reached a point where you just – you really feel the symptoms?
Beth: It sneaks up on you. The way that we describe it in the book is you can kind of think of it as a repetitive use injury and it’s an injury of the parts of you that deal with stress. So when overwhelming stress is a constant in your life, and you don’t have really good tools to deal with it, you get more and more and more miserable – fatigue being the most common prominent symptom.
Brandon: The example I think you used later in the book, which I hear a lot, is the boiling frog, right? You turn up slowly, slowly until it reaches a point where the frog doesn’t even know it’s boiling to death. I think that’s a great example for this topic – you may be experiencing all these things until it just becomes so overwhelming, right? I think that’s what a lot of people go through.
Beth: Yes. You end up feeling non-functional even as you’re pushing yourself to do more and more and more. So the other example that we use in the book is we have this lovely little drawing of a donkey whose cart that he’s pulling is so overloaded, that’s he just up in the air. He has been lifted completely up in the air or she, whoever it is, and just hanging there thinking, “OK. This is my life now, I guess,” and really wondering how it got there. That’s how it feels sometimes.
Brandon: It’s so funny that you mentioned the donkey illustration because I actually wrote that down to ask you about that. The fact that we reach a certain capacity where it’s too much and we don’t realize it until it’s too late. The example is that the donkey’s in the air, is because it’s over-levered and over-capacity, right? And it’s like, well, you need help. How do you get back down? Somebody needs to help you lighten the load, right?
Beth: From the point of view of a manager who is managing that donkey, so to speak, can you imagine how much good it would do for the manager to go to the donkey and say, “Look, you have not been performing up to your full capacity and I really need you to step it up again.”
Beth: While the donkey is hanging there in midair. If you don’t recognize the burnout, you end up with interventions that don’t help.
Brandon: How do you determine the distinction between burnout and just a regular stressful day?
Beth: Stress is a given, right? Life is full of stress and in fact, many of us choose very challenging professions on purpose because we like the challenge. We want to make a big difference and we go for things that are hard. That is a wonderful thing and it also means that some days are going to be frustrating or difficult or aggravating or whatever.
The difference with burnout is that you reach the point where you feel so tired, you can hardly – it feels like bone-deep weariness. You stop being able to connect with other people very well and you start wondering if there’s any point to what you do.
Brandon: Yeah. It’s so sad.
Beth: Yeah, it is. It’s miserable.
Brandon: What are some of the other warning signs? Obviously not wanting to get out of bed to go to work might be a sign. What are some other things?
Beth: Crankiness is a very prominent one. Isolation of someone who doesn’t normally isolate themselves. This may be a little harder to detect, but people who are – the word comes to mind “presenteeism.”
Beth: There was a point when I was working, when I was hiding in my office playing Free Cell and whenever anybody would knock on my door, I would turn it off and paste a smile on my face and function, right? When they went away, I go back to playing Free Cell and someone coming to tell me, “You can’t do that anymore,” would not have been enough to address the problem.
Brandon: So presenteeism, I hear this word a lot. I just want to kind of define it for people. It basically means where you’re present in the office, but you’re not like present in terms of like being productive. You’re just sort of there. You’re just kind of filling a seat. In your case, you were playing Free Cell on the clock.
Beth: Yes, yes. So presenteeism is often referred to as an issue of people coming to work ill, with a cold or whatever, where they can’t really function. The thing is that colds are contagious and burnout is too. So that’s something that’s not generally understood about it.
Brandon: Yeah, explain that. Burnout is contagious. How so?
Beth: Because we’re really tuned into other people’s emotions and other people’s behavior and when we are cranky and miserable and exhausted and dragging at work, we tend to complain about it. Often people exteriorize the problem. They say, “Oh, well, management this and management that and nobody cares,” and blah, blah, blah.
So the venting that can happen and the general misery can get picked up as a tone in the office, especially if you’re a manager, but also if you’re a person on the team. Which is not to say that management is never at fault, but there’s a lot that people can do as individuals.
Brandon: Let’s hone in on the individual part because – your whole book, I think the meat of it is – you talk about what you call the “burnout shield.” You and your co-author created this and I think this is really a self-awareness check, if I remember right, and just what it’s meant to do. So you basically have all these assessments that you would take in different categories and then you would basically plot your points on this burnout shield. Explain that process and just what somebody is supposed to do with this burnout shield to help kind of fight the – for one, to recognize the burnout they’re experiencing, and two, to realize what their tendencies are in terms of self-care long term.
Beth: So we did exactly hone in on the individual because in many cases, businesses can’t change for financial reasons or there are policy reasons or – it’s just that the work we’ve chosen is indeed very challenging and very stressful and difficult.
So there are five areas to the burnout shield and all five of them are pulled from that 40 years of research that I mentioned. The first one is self-care, which is the one that people mostly mention for burnout. You know, eating better, getting more rest, watching your blood sugar, getting out and getting a walk, getting in nature, those kinds of things. That’s what people generally talk about for burnout. But we have four more areas.
The next one is reflection and recognition and that’s where you remember to reflect on your own values and what went well for you today, reflect on gratitude. That actually makes a huge difference in your brain functioning. And also recognizing yourself for a job well done or a job well progressing. A lot of the work that we do is never done-done and a lot of work that we do is long term projects that we can’t say, “Oh, I finished this today,” because it will be weeks or months, right? But we can say, “I moved this forward.” So that’s reflection and recognition.
The next one is capacity and I had a very interesting experience with a go-getter professional I was working with last week and she drew her burnout shield for me and four of her areas were either adequately protected or well-protected. Her capacity was just completely overwhelmed. She had filled her plate too full. So even though she was doing a lot of the right things, she still was doing too much and she just had to make some space in her life.
Brandon: Did she recognize that at the time or did it take the burnout shield to recognize that? Like, wow, OK, I’m over capacity at this point.
Beth: She knew she felt miserable. But sitting down to draw the shield – it wasn’t so much that she didn’t know she was over her capacity. It’s that she didn’t know what she should do about it. And in drawing the shield and saying, you know, I’m actually doing all the right things, but I still have too much on my plate, for her particular challenges at home or her health challenges, all of that, it’s going to be different for different people, right? So that’s the third area — capacity.
The fourth one is community, so reconnecting with mentors and friends and with people at work. And the fifth one is coping styles, which is kind of the hardest one to get your head around. But it can make a big difference.
Brandon: Love it. So when people end up going to the assessments, they draw their burnout shield. They realize what areas they’re lacking in. What do they then do with that information?
Beth: Well, the first thing is to notice what you’re doing well. Generally when people draw their burnout shield, they discover – you know, actually, I go running every day. I eat well, I do sleep well. It’s some of these other areas that are an issue. However their burnout shields’ shapes take place, it’s really important to recognize, hey, I’m doing OK in some of these areas, and give yourself credit for that.
The second one is knowing that I was so focused on getting stuff done that I dropped over the side some of the things that I used to do that reduce my stress. I could easily add back in my Wednesday night trivia game with my friends that I used to love, that I dropped because it seemed frivolous, but it actually turned out to be a huge stress reliever for me. So I will just add that back in, so that my life is a little more balanced.
Then the third thing is to notice on your shield where you really didn’t know that you needed to pay attention in that area or it has been a very long time since you have. And the worst area is the one that you’re probably going to want to try to expand a bit by taking some of these suggestions from the book.
Brandon: I want to hone in on a couple of areas of the burnout shield and we don’t want to go over everything, because I want people to read the book. There’s just a lot of great information in there. I want to hone in on two areas – coping styles and self-care. First coping styles. I find that when you’re having a stressful day, or you’re experiencing burnout, you may cope in various ways. How are you finding people cope with burnout?
Beth: There’s a lot of them but two of the basic ones – and people tend to separate out into this – are either emotion-focused coping or problem-focused coping. And they’re both highly appropriate in certain situations. But we tend to zoom in on one and use it in all situations. Many of us do. So for emotion-focused coping, it would be looking at how I feel about this, how I got myself into this situation in terms of my emotions, how other people are dealing with it emotionally, trying to find an emotional tone that you can take that would make the situation better.
For primarily emotional situations, such as grief or joy, that’s entirely appropriate. The problem-solving one is where you look at everything as how can I solve this and that is not appropriate in emotion-focused situations, right? It’s very appropriate in situations where you can back up and say, “OK. This is really upsetting me.” But there is actually an underlying problem. The upset serves to notify me that this is a problem that bothers me more than I realize. How can we address this? What are the components of the problem that could be addressed? People tend to fall into one bucket or the other and prefer it and they realize that hey, I can back up here and see if the other coping stuff fits the situation can be a great first step.
Brandon: So you mentioned that people tend to fall into one bucket or the other. But what it sounds like is that people – we should take it on a case by case basis. If there’s something that’s emotionally-driven, people should cope with that area as an emotional coping style, versus if it’s just an issue or a problem, to cope with it in a different way. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
Beth: Yes. That if you happen to be one of those people that tends to handle your life from one style, just realize there are two styles and see if the other one fits better in some of the situations you’re working with.
Brandon: What are some bad habits that people develop in terms of just coping in general? Maybe they don’t recognize if it’s an emotional or a problem-solving style. But what are some bad habits that people tend to have in periods of burnout?
Beth: I would say one of the biggest ones, which I’ve mentioned a little bit before, is venting. And I want to differentiate this carefully from verbal processing. There are many of us, and I am one, where I hardly know what I think or feel until I’ve had a chance to talk about it a bit.
So, verbal processing is just necessary for me to know what’s going on and where I need to focus. Venting is just complaining and it’s often a social style. People do it to be – as a way of connecting, actually. But it has a very bad effect on themselves and on organizations.
Brandon: Well, and you mentioned like there’s a contagiousness to burnout. Maybe that’s one of those things. If people are venting, wow, OK. I’m going to go ahead and vent with you. Then it just perpetuates.
Beth: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So walking away from those situations or changing the subject would be a great way, or changing your mental subject, if it’s you that’s venting
Brandon: The other area I wanted to kind of cover was self-care. I think this is where – I think to your point earlier, this is where people tend to default to. It’s like, OK. What do I need to do in terms of self-care to get myself back on track?
There are three areas I wanted to just talk about. You actually listed a ton of elements in the book, which I think were great. First, I wanted to talk about sleep. This is a huge one. I struggle with this all the time. You put a story in the book about early in your career as a nurse and midwife, you just lacked sleep, and I think you were just probably so mission-driven to a certain extent. You just wanted to help people and you were willing to get up at 2:00, 3:00 AM to go deliver a baby or whatever was needed. But you sacrificed your sleep. Talk about that story and what you did to kind of break that cycle.
Beth: Well, that was a very predominant issue for me through most of my career. So I’m not quite zooming in on which of the stories you’re talking about. But I had a car accident at one point. That was one of the issues that was kind of a wake-up call to me. So I had pushed myself so hard on the sleep issue that I ran a red light at 3:00 in the morning in an intersection that I thought was empty, but I got T-boned and luckily was not seriously injured. It was just luck.
So this is very common that people don’t get enough sleep, usually not in the crazy way that healthcare providers sometimes get into. But people stay up too late, they work varying shifts. There has to be a very conscious commitment to getting enough sleep and rearranging your life, so that sleep becomes a priority.
When you do that, you become a much nicer, much smarter human being.
Brandon: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts with several entrepreneurs who are like, “Oh, I only sleep three or four hours a night. I’m hustling. I’m killing it.” Do you buy that? Do you think somebody could really be productive on four hours of sleep?
Beth: You know, it’s surprising, but the research says no. The research is fascinating because they short people on sleep, even just making them have six hours of sleep instead of eight, and they do cognitive tests and reaction tests and judgment tests and they get worse every day that they have this poor amount of sleep. But when they ask them how they’re doing, those same people will say, “You know, the first day was tough. But then I got into the swing of it and I’m doing just fine. I know how to manage this. I’m OK.”
So there’s a cognitive problem that happens in your brain where you start sort of protecting yourself against your own incompetence, as it were. So there’s a huge sort of – you get boasting rights if you’re not sleeping much and pushing at crazy, crazy hours. But you end up making bad judgment calls and having accidents and generally getting in trouble with that. The older you are, of course, the worse it gets.
Brandon: So you do probably think it’s entirely possible that there’s – one out of a hundred or a thousand people could function OK on four hours of sleep. But for them to say, “Oh, everybody can operate on four hours of sleep,” is probably – it’s not true, right?
Beth: That’s correct. That’s what the research says, that there is somewhere between one in a hundred and one in a thousand and most people think it’s more like one in a thousand who actually can function well on four hours of sleep at a time. But most of the rest of us will flunk those objective tests.
Brandon: Let’s talk about food. I’m always interested in hearing what people say about just food intake; what kind of foods you should be having to either fight burnout or to prevent it altogether. What do you recommend?
Beth: Well, nutrition is a little bit fraught as a topic I think. But there are some basics that you can certainly pay attention to. One is that people who are go-getters, who are really pushing themselves, tend to eat very irregularly. They work straight through mealtimes and when your blood sugar drops and also when you get dehydrated, again you get into these cognitive areas where you’re more at risk of making a mistake or having an accident or getting ill.
So just managing your blood sugar well enough to not fall into these big dips, and of course if you have a blood sugar issue such as diabetes or hypoglycemia, it becomes absolutely critical. So that’s the first thing. And managing your blood sugar means eating healthy food, not candy bars.
Beth: The second thing that I am kind of obsessed with because it made such a huge difference in my life is eating enough fruits and vegetables. There is a tremendous amount of research that says that your immune system is far more competent when you are eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies every day. And that means ten servings a day of fruits and veggies and different colors as well.
So challenge yourself to eat fruits and veggies at every meal and every snack. It’s not always possible to do. But every time you can, you’re doing your body a favor. And that makes a huge difference in being able to function in difficult situations.
Brandon: I’m vaguely remembering this being in your book, but forgive me if it wasn’t. In your profession as a nurse, you talked about when you’re burning out towards the end of your shift – it’s the middle of the night, and you’re a healthcare professional so you know that you need to eat healthy. But yet, you go to the vending machine and you get a sugary snack and it’s like you get a blast of sugar. You’re going to be good for like 20 minutes and then you’re going to crash.
It’s not just healthcare professionals that experience that; I think we all do it. We just want to blast the sugar or caffeine or whatever it is. What can we do to fight that cycle of going to a sugary snack for just a burst of energy, even if it’s temporary?
Beth: Well, the first thing I want to say about that is to recognize that, besides the burst of energy, sugar and chocolate both have anti-pain effects that are very temporary. But they do have them.
Brandon: I didn’t know that.
Beth: Yeah. So anti-pain, anti-depression. So it actually gives you a boost in a number of areas very short term. Then it drops you and then you have this cycle that’s even worse and that also is hugely challenging for your immune system to be eating that way.
But I think it’s helpful to actually know why those things are so incredibly tempting in a moment when you’re already very stressed and pushing hard.
So what I recommend is that you do some thinking about how you can have snacks in your office that you can grab, that are high fiber, high protein, made with healthy foods. You know, starting with an apple, and maybe some peanut butter that is not loaded with palm oil. These can help you get through a tough time in a way that keeps your blood sugar level rather than making it spike and drop.
Brandon: Good point. I like that. OK.
Beth: There’s also a lot of healthy snack bars out there. You have to look for them a bit. A lot of them are just loaded with sugar and fat. But there’s a lot of healthy ones. They’re not the same as a healthy meal, but they’re better than a candy bar.
Brandon: I want to touch on physical movement. It’s just kind of like the last piece of self-care. So physical movement, a lot of people nowadays, they sit in an office all day. I’m one of those people. I sit most of the day. I try to get up as much as I can. What do you recommend, just to make sure that you’re getting moving and getting the blood flowing and you’re not having a sedentary lifestyle all the time.
Beth: Well, I confessed in the book that I am one of those people that is not a natural exerciser. I don’t really enjoy it all that much. But as a nurse, I have to say that the research is absolutely incontrovertible. So the first piece is just moving where you sit, even – you know, moving your shoulders, having a little 20 seconds of dance moves right where you’re sitting. It can do an amazing amount to shift your mood and your energy. It’s worth just building that into your day.
Brandon: I’m doing that right now.
Beth: Yeah, there you go. I just did it too and it really shifts my energy. I feel all of a sudden happier.
Brandon: I had a big smile on my face as I was doing it.
Beth: Yeah. There you go. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes. We were made to move whether we get used to this sedentary lifestyle or not. The second thing is there’s a lot of talk about interval training. Even very sedentary people who haven’t moved in a long time can do interval training. What it means is when you go out for a walk, you speed up for 20 seconds and then you slow down again until your breathing normalizes. Then you speed up again for 20 seconds and then you slow down again until your breathing normalizes. This is hugely beneficial to your system and not hard to do.
Then the last thing is to find some app, if you’re game-focused. There’s a ton of them out there. I have friends who adore Zombie Run. I’m a Pokemon freak, to tell you the truth. I will walk way out of my way to catch a new Pokemon, and it’s silly, it’s absurd, but it makes me take extra steps. So I’m happy with it.
Brandon: Yeah, I love that. So people listening who are HR professionals, small business leaders, they maybe experience burnout themselves. But they may be supporting a lot of people who are dealing with this every day and may or may not know about it. How do we as those people, HR professionals, small business leaders, how do we play a role in supporting others that are on the verge of burning out, or if they’re already there, what can they do to help?
Beth: Well, there are several good things. The first one I would say is opening up the conversation. Burnout is quite prevalent in many professions and people are very afraid to talk about it. Sharing some accurate information about what burnout is and what it is not can be extremely valuable to people. A great relief.
It’s amazing how much people can feel better if they realize, “Oh, I’m not a wimp. I don’t have a character flaw. This is a natural response to overwhelming long term stress.”
The second one, of course, as HR professionals, is looking at policies and culture behaviors that may be promoting burnout. So you talked about this entrepreneur who was boasting about, “I only get four hours of sleep at night.” If that person is leading a team, that person is setting a tone for their entire organization, which is counterproductive.
So taking a look at that tone setting. Because people tend to do what their managers do, not what they say they should do. This is a fat one.
Beth: And then looking at things like does the company have a policy of restricting after-hours communications to emergencies?
Brandon: But I could never not take care of an emergency at night.
Beth: Well, that’s what I’m saying is – you would want to take care of an emergency but you don’t need to be responding to relatively routine emails in the evening and that kind of thing, and also to really leave people alone on their vacations. They should not be working on their vacations.
Brandon: Yeah. I think both sides have to play a role in that. It’s like somebody who’s taking a vacation, they should learn to shut it off and separate. But then the other people need to be able to respect it. And I think the behaviors go both ways and I think they could each learn from each other a little bit and learn tendencies. I totally get that though.
Beth: So that’s why we focused on the individual in our book because there is so much on both sides. And there’s a lot out there about what organizations can do to reduce stress for their employees. And less out there on what we can do if we choose a high-stress profession to keep ourselves functional and happy.
Brandon: Well-said. Beth, I really enjoyed this conversation. Your book –
Beth: I did too.
Brandon: Save Yourself from Burnout, it releases on October 8th. What can people do right now to go get it or preorder it or any other resources just to learn more about the book?
Beth: Well, for preorder, if you go to SaveYourselfFromBurnout.com, we actually have some free bonuses. If you buy an individual copy, there are three free bonuses that you can get for preordering and if you buy a bunch of copies for your organization, then you get some free quality time with me and your organization, which is really quite useful. So check out SaveYourselfFromBurnout.com. Also, on that website, we are offering a four-page handbook that’s a quick start handbook that has some of the concepts that we’ve been talking about today, to help people get started. If stress is overwhelming them, they can download this free handbook and a video that goes with it and get started in about 15 minutes.
Brandon: Beth Genly, thank you for being part of the podcast. I really wish you the best success with this book. Thanks for joining us.
Beth: Thanks so much, Brandon.