In our race for more, we are reducing ourselves to less. And, for many of us, our health and wellbeing is the ‘less’, while the ‘more’ is an endless cycle of busyness, pursuit and stress.
We are under pressure from economic and financial uncertainty on top of exhaustion from the COVID-19 pandemic. These and other external events are contributing to high levels of chronic stress, burnout and mental health issues across the globe.
Each of these conditions drains our energy, engagement and ability to function well.
We are wired and overtired. Our busy lifestyles are keeping us in a constant fight-or-flight state.
And when we are stressed and in survival mode, we can’t perform well. Our brain prioritizes the resources needed to keep us safe from risks and threats and deprioritizes functions less essential to survival like perspective, problem-solving and innovation.
There is no such thing as work–life balance
Many of us still operate with an industrial-age model of work, which focuses on and measures success by effort, productivity and targets. We prioritize work first and then fit health, wellbeing, rest and recovery into whatever time is left.
The story we tell ourselves sounds something like this: “If I work hard and achieve my targets, I then deserve happiness and can then take some time for wellbeing.”
But this work–life balance equation is broken and backwards.
A popular misconception is that time off and a long holiday will reverse burnout. It won’t.
Many people describe themselves as burned out when what they really mean is exhausted. So, let’s take a moment to properly define it. The World Health Organization classifies burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
There are three components to burnout:
- Energy depletion or exhaustion. Mental, emotional and physical.
- Distancing or disconnection. This may look like mental disengagement, cynicism, apathy or negativity.
- Reduced performance. A loss of productivity and effectiveness, you are not getting things done in the way or at the speed and quality you usually would.
A popular misconception is that time off and a long holiday will reverse burnout. It won’t. We need to make healthier choices about our work environment and the ways we will and won’t work.
Better wellbeing starts with priorities
More than 10 years of research shows that when we prioritize wellbeing and happiness first, we have better performance, sales, creativity, relationships and resilience – and less burnout. We not only feel better, but we experience a performance advantage.
Imagine you are trying to fit a mix of big rocks, pebbles and sand into an empty jar. If you start filling the jar by first adding the sand and then the pebbles, you will not have room for your rocks.
When we prioritize wellbeing and happiness first, we have better performance, sales, creativity, relationships and resilience – and less burnout.
The big rocks symbolize the things that are the most important in your life: your health, wellbeing, family and friends. Even if everything was lost and only they remained, your life would still have meaning.
The pebbles represent the things in your life that are meaningful and matter but are not as critical, such as your work, home and hobbies. Then the sand is everything else, the fillers, the small stuff: material possessions, chores, watching television or scrolling through social media feeds.
Your big rocks are your guiding compass for your choices when you’re faced with conflicting demands.
However, too often we get caught up in a busyness treadmill. We are continuously rushed for time and not getting through our never-ending to-do-lists.
Boundary management involves making choices and being deliberate about the trade-offs.
A lack of clarity about priorities leads to weak boundaries and willpower. Working late on a one-off project to finish a report becomes a pattern of working late. Forgoing personal exercise time to ferry the kids to extra sporting activities becomes a pattern of deprioritizing our own fitness, and so on.
Boundary management involves making choices and being deliberate about the trade-offs. It means being specific about what you will do, and also being specific about what you won’t do. What are your non-negotiables? What will you be flexible with?
Five tips for preventing burnout
- Be clear on what your top two to three life priorities are.
- Invest in wellbeing as your enabler, not your reward for performance.
- Get clarity and alignment on what your top two to three work priorities are.
- Negotiate with time, resources and support when there are conflicting demands.
- Say no.
Fleur Heazlewood, author of Leading Wellbeing – A Leader’s Conversation Guide to Mental Health Mastery at Work, is a leadership expert, speaker and Founder of the Blueberry Institute. She works with leaders to create healthy, high-performing teams and organizations. Her first book, Resilience Recipes: Making Space for Wellbeing that works, won best Health and Wellbeing Book for 2022.