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Enough is enough: recognise the signs of burnout

As a leader in my game, I travel a lot. My work life is an ongoing flight ticket to Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. It can be exhausting, and pretty stressful. Whenever I’m in the plane I tend to enjoy the “taxi” part of it the most. That easy steady ride down the runway, just before take-off. It’s like my brain regroups itself, and braces for an accelerated lift into the skies.                     

In 2017, I was at the top of the leadership log with a mission to matter and a title to uphold at my company. It was a random day in June, things were good, the coffee was good, my hair looked good – and my manager called me into her office. 

She sat me down and got straight to the point: “Kerry, you have burnout.”  

“I have what?” 

She was mistaken; obviously. I was fine – of course; not a thing wrong with me. Red flag number one – “not a thing wrong with me”. This is what happens with us when we’re going full throttle, we’re always “fine”. We’re always okay – because the truth is – we’re too busy, too exhausted, too apathetic not to be. And so, we miss the signs.   

And clearly I had missed the signs. I was terribly agitated, I was exceptionally snappy, I was apathetic a lot of the time – and I was disengaged. I was in complete denial of my body and mind breaking down on me. I grew up in a home where my mom suffered from depression and my dad didn’t believe in it – so my whole life I was caught in the middle of an interesting narrative that vouched “this could happen, but it will never happen to me”.  

But it did. Silently, and aggressively. And I didn’t even realise it. What happened to the days when your stress was obvious to yourself, when a mental breakdown physically manifested itself in front of you. It takes a company now, or a best friend or a close encounter to pick up on your red flags, way before you do. This is dangerous – and it’s infiltrating our workforces.

Related reading: https://medium.com/thrive-global/10-years-ago-i-collapsed-from-burnout-and-exhaustion-and-its-the-best-thing-that-could-have-b1409f16585d 

When my manager at the time booked me off for “burnout” I thought my career was over. For a self-confessed A-type leader, this was a living hell. I rendered myself useless, helpless, jobless. Mostly, I was ashamed. I felt like a failure to my team, and I beat myself up because I didn’t see it coming. Do we ever see it coming though? Mostly, we don’t – because we’re going too fast. Going faster is slowing us down – and this is the premise of a broken economy. 

With an increased demand for instant gratification and unrealistic productivity we’re all flying our planes on autopilot hoping someone else will land us softly. But what happens if there is no one in our cockpit to help raise our hand? What happens when everyone around us is also too busy to notice the stress alarms we’re sending off. Some of us get lucky, but many of us don’t. 

According to research professor and author Brené Brown, we live in a world where “time off” is regarded as “courageous”, it’s quite whacked to think that as a human species we’re dealing with such a tarnished perspective on what it truly means to achieve a work-life balance. There is simply no time to take it easy and with Covid-19 in the mix we’ve jumped the queue straight to Survival 101.

Honestly, who has time for a tantrum now? Let alone to stop and ask for help? None of us. We just keep going. And when we can’t go anymore, we’re ashamed to say so until we eventually crash and burn. In my books – and I’ve learnt the hard way – asking for help is not only necessary, it’s an unmatched leadership quality.   

Interestingly, did you know that before an airplane takes off at 280km per hour it must taxi? The direct meaning of which is: “to move on the ground under its own power”. It must taxi – not maybe, not might – must! Before a plane can take off successfully, the taxi part of the ride is non-negotiable. It must approach the runway slowly. Slowly, and with precision. If a plane doesn’t taxi, it can never take off – and we are just the same.

We tend to think the harder we push the more we’ll achieve and the more we’ll contribute to our performance and our teams. But burnout loves the over-performer. And here’s the bitter pill: the harder you push, the weaker you become and the less value you add – to your work, yourself and your relationships.  

My solution: “Call Taxi”, my code phrase for “Woah! Slow the hell down!” 

Think of it as the slow before the real go. Calling Taxi on your life is the red flag before the white flag. It gives us permission to stop – pause, assess, take a breath. Sleep. Rest. Hydrate. Cry. Our ability to taxiour own runways sets us up to take off, to shift altitude, to fly high. It’s the best we can do for ourselves – and our employees – before we are all a stressed mess and rendered helpless to our company, our family and ourselves.

In a world blinkered to the real stress activators, how do we recognise them and how do we know when to “call taxi”? Here are my top six for leaders and employees – how to spot a burnout trigger, how to navigate it correctly and how we can help each other avoid “10-days of helpless”.

1. Call Taxi when: there’s a jam on the runway

Burnout really starts with our inability to practically assess the runway. Often at times we take too much on, which leads to a bottleneck of stress, which leads to over promising, under delivering and eventually – rehab.       

2. Call Taxi when:  Facebook starts competing with HR

Facebook is a great place to share memories but a really bad place to get your news. The rise of “I read it on Facebook” is quickly becoming a manager’s worst nightmare – and Human Resource’s biggest competitor. With social media becoming the authority on all things Covid-19, the increased stress of public opinion – especially in the workplace – is resulting in acute employee anxiety. Burn the book – at least between working hours. 

3. Call Taxi when: ‘Always On’ becomes a way of life 

If the ping in your life starts at 6am and it rounds up (if you’re lucky) around 9:30pm, call taxi. With increased access to technology, we are always on, meaning we never take a break, meaning even if we’re not at work, we’re still at work.  

4. Call Taxi when: you’re running too fast

The frantic rush we find ourselves in has become a counter-productive time bomb. Head for the Slow Lounge – where it’s calmer, cooler, easier and slower. “Slowing down to speed up” is one of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisest adages. The need to do more and constantly tick off will kill you long before take-off. 

5. Call Taxi when: the conversation turns vaccine on you  

Vaccine diversity has become a thing. A big thing. A thing we talk about all the time. Making the choice to be vaccinated or not is a huge stress activator – and convincing people to see it “your way” will only exacerbate the pressure. My advice — disengage and change the conversation.   

6. Call Taxi when: you secretly know you should

The biggest problem with burnout is our silence and the stigma it carries. We are ashamed of our inability to perform, to be exhausted. We think it’s weak to raise our hands and ask for help; we think it’s weaker if we take some time off or if we are prescribed a little help from science. Many of us feel it’s a cop out. Oh, how wrong we are. You are stronger when you ask for help. You are stronger when you have a support system. And guess what — your lift off will always (always) be faster, steadier and healthier when you slow it down – even if just for a bit.   

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