‘Take a break’
How I learned that telling your overloaded friend or colleague to take a break, without helping them actually do it, doesn’t help.
Just under a year ago a friend and colleague came to stay with me for a week. He knew me well enough to notice that something was very wrong.
I might have been able to run a trail marathon, but I couldn’t focus long enough to make a cup of tea, write a coherent email or keep track of what my colleagues were saying in meetings.
My body was still up for any challenge I could throw at it, but my brain wasn’t able to do even the basics.
There has been surprisingly little research done on the cognitive effects of long term stress, but what little there is shows a correlation between burnout and “significant cognitive impairments and decreased BDNF*”
Sometimes you don’t see burnout coming
Burnout is generally measured using three scales:
- Emotional Exhaustion (feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work)
- Depersonalization (an unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one’s service, care treatment, or instruction)
- Personal Accomplishment (feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work)
I’ve experienced all three of these during periods of extended work stress, and I’ve also learned to recognise them and take steps to change the conditions of my work to avoid full burnout.
But in this case I think I’d become so accustomed to feeling emotionally overextended and exhausted by my work that I didn’t really notice it.
Also, I was still feeling deep satisfaction with the work we were doing at ActionStation (if not always satisfied with my own competence, unsurprisingly given that diminished cognitive function) and a strong empathy for the people we were working with and for (at that time, specifically, I was focused on people trying to access mental health services).
So I didn’t recognise my burnout for what it was.
Thankfully, my colleague Phil did and he convinced me to take a three week break.
On first glance, this seemed like a really bad idea. It was almost May, and we had a general election coming up in September. But Phil knew me well enough to use the one argument I couldn’t resist: that it wasn’t fair on my colleagues to keep working with them when I couldn’t even follow their discussions in our weekly campaign planning meeting.
Getting out of the burnout trap
Phil did something that no-one else had done. He didn’t just tell me I needed to take a break. He helped me arrange things so that I could take that break. He went over all our work plans for the coming three weeks and helped Laura and I work out how it could all be managed without me (by moving deadlines, and bringing in additional help).
This was HUGE. It was the thing that made all the difference. This is the biggest lesson I learned through all of this. If you can see someone who needs a break, don’t just tell them they need to take a break.
I’ve done this myself. Plenty of times. I’ve looked at an overloaded, exhausted person and said to them: ‘Love, you need to take a break!’ Then, when they don’t, I’ve even sometimes assumed that they somehow like being overwhelmed. They feel important or needed, or they enjoy being the martyr.
What I haven’t always done is ask them: why can’t you take a break? And then, instead of jumping in to tell them why all their reasons are flimsy, actually listened and believed them when they tell me that other people depend on them, that some important things will fall over if they stop doing them.
This is my new commitment.
When I see someone who obviously needs a break, I need to get alongside them, ask why they can’t take a break (there are almost certainly real, concrete reasons) and then ask permission to get busy putting things in place that will overcome those barriers.
Because exhausted people are not just martyrs. We’re often trapped by our own fatigue. We’re too worn out to find the creative solutions needed to take the break we need to be able to be creative again.
So Phil helped me get out of the the burnout trap. And I took a break.
I went to Bend, Oregon and ran trails with Lauren Fleshman. I came home and sat on my couch watching old movies on Netflix. I did nothing except take care of myself for a week, and at the end of that week, I was ready to get back to it. And get back to it, I did.
Laura, Rick, Eliot, Ann, Silvia and our amazing campaign team all supported me to manage my health during last year’s election campaign.
With their help I worked smarter rather than longer. I went for runs almost every day. I ate well. We did great work, and my brain came to the party and allowed me to analyse and remember complex policy positions long enough to get through live interviews.
But recovery from burnout is a long, slow process.
Recently I’ve been struggling with focus and concentration again, and I realised that for the third time in 8 years I’m back in the start-up phase. Starting something new requires a tonne of cognitive effort and emotional energy.
So I’m grateful that I’m doing this with my co-founder Jess, who reminds me that we’re in this for the long haul and that slowing down to get there healthy and happy is the wisest choice.
The basics of recovery from burnout are simple:
- get plenty of exercise
- eat well
- drink water
- prioritise sleep
Of course that all sounds much easier than it is, especially since burnout often overlaps with depression. But with the help of a friend who takes you for a run or a walk, or a house guest who preps the veggies for a week of healthy meals it’s possible. I’m better today than I was a year ago. And getting better every month.
The overwhelm is real
I’m sharing all of this, because people have often spoken admiringly of how much work I was juggling for those years when I was still working on La Boca Loca and launching Boquita as well as running ActionStation.
But it’s not really something to admire. It WAS too much. I wasn’t doing it because I felt admirable for doing it all. I genuinely didn’t feel that I had a choice. I couldn’t see my way out of it all for too long. When people told me to do less, I felt trapped and angry.
I want to talk about how many of us feel overwhelmed because we actually are doing too much. And how we can all help each other, not by just telling each other to do less (which really doesn’t help when you feel trapped by all that needs doing), but by working together to find concrete and achievable ways out of those overloaded situations.
And I want to give a very big shout out to everyone who has helped me get through the past year. Love you all!
*BDNF is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a neurotrophin essential for neuronal development and survival, synaptic plasticity, and cognitive function. So kind of a big deal in terms of cognitive function.