Inclusive Growth Show

How to Avoid Burnout in the Workplace

January 23, 2024 Toby Mildon Episode 119
How to Avoid Burnout in the Workplace
Inclusive Growth Show
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Inclusive Growth Show
How to Avoid Burnout in the Workplace
Jan 23, 2024 Episode 119
Toby Mildon

 In this episode, I was rejoined by one of our previous fabulous guests, Rachael Edmondson-Clarke. Rachael returned to talk with me about burnout and steps we can all take to look after our wellbeing, spot burnout in colleagues, and the real impact that burnout has in the workplace.

If you're enjoying this episode and looking to boost equity, inclusion, and diversity in your organisation, my team and I are here to help. Our team specialises in crafting data-driven strategies, developing inclusive leaders, designing fair recruitment processes, and enhancing disability confidence. With a blend of professional expertise and lived experience, we're ready to support you on your journey. Reach out to us through our website.

If you want to build a more inclusive workplace that you can be proud of please visit our website to learn more.

Show Notes Transcript

 In this episode, I was rejoined by one of our previous fabulous guests, Rachael Edmondson-Clarke. Rachael returned to talk with me about burnout and steps we can all take to look after our wellbeing, spot burnout in colleagues, and the real impact that burnout has in the workplace.

If you're enjoying this episode and looking to boost equity, inclusion, and diversity in your organisation, my team and I are here to help. Our team specialises in crafting data-driven strategies, developing inclusive leaders, designing fair recruitment processes, and enhancing disability confidence. With a blend of professional expertise and lived experience, we're ready to support you on your journey. Reach out to us through our website.

If you want to build a more inclusive workplace that you can be proud of please visit our website to learn more.

 In this episode, I was rejoined by one of our previous fabulous guests, Rachael Edmondson-Clarke. Rachael returned to talk with me about burnout and steps we can all take to look after our wellbeing, spot burnout in colleagues, and the real impact that burnout has in the workplace.

For this conversation, I chatted with one of my fabulous previous guests on the Inclusive Growth Show, Rachael Edmondson-Clarke. It's definitely worth going back to listen to that previous episode which is all about inclusive leadership. Today, though, we're going to be talking about burnout, which is a very important topic relevant to the wellbeing of people in any workplace. Many people face burnout and in the work that I do with diversity and inclusion leaders and practitioners, the topic of burnout comes up a lot. I actually hear that diversity and inclusion leaders or practitioners can feel overwhelmed with the amount of work that they need to do and they're not given the resources to really do what they need to do within their organisations. It leads to a lot of frustration and a lot of burnout. 

This means, unfortunately, we do see a lot of diversity and inclusion leaders and practitioners changing jobs quite frequently and leaving their organisations because of the pressure they are under. So, I was looking forward to catching up with Rachael and learning from her again.

Before we dived into the main questions on burnout, I asked Rachael to reintroduce herself for those people who haven’t already heard our previous episode together.

I help leaders to change behaviours for increased and sustainable high performance. I am healthily obsessed with my work and I have been for more than 20 years now. It's my soul's contract, I absolutely love what I do. It manifests in several ways, whether that be consultancy, coaching, facilitating, or speaking. I think it's probably relevant for the audience today to note that I'm also a certified health coach as well. So, this is a topic I am very passionate about.’

There’s going to be lots to learn from Rachael, so I was excited to dive into the questions. Firstly, I asked Rachael if she had any personal experience of burnout that she would be happy to share with the audience. And if so, what she might have learned from that experience. 

‘Absolutely. There was one time, and I remember the specific afternoon, and it all hit me. I was in my glass-fronted office. I was preparing my things ready to go into the boardroom, and instead of walking out the door, I found myself lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling tiles because I'd collapsed. I didn't know what was happening. I couldn't think and I couldn't breathe.  

I later realised that I had absolutely hit that burnout wall. It was what I'd been doing for a number of years. I'd adopted habits that had left me depleted from working long hours, disappointed and annoyed at myself for not taking better care of my health. I felt very guilty as well because I was also neglecting the most important relationships in my life.

I was like the runaway bride, because, and this is a while ago now, before I was married, and by the way I’ve been married 10 years now, but we delayed our wedding first for six months. Then we delayed it for a year because of the work and the work pressure. As you said in your introduction, Toby, there is a very real sense of the pressure and the workload that is on people. Thank goodness, my gorgeous husband is patient with me. 

That was a long time ago now, but there have been times as well when I've come close again but never as bad as that. I guess I've learned a number of things along the way. Have you ever experienced anything similar, Toby?’

I admitted I've never ended up on the office floor since that would involve falling out of my wheelchair, which would be quite painful. But when I do look back at it, I think I've probably experienced milder forms of burnout. Even in my current role, I think I get close to it fairly frequently because I've got a really busy schedule, with lots of demands on my time. But one thing I do is, every two months, I have a quiet week. It's not a holiday, I don't necessarily go anywhere, but it's just a week where I don't schedule meetings. 

If I can go away, I might go away briefly or I might just stay at home and just potter around Manchester, go to art galleries, go out to coffee shops, that kind of thing and just try to have a restful week. That's something that works quite well for me. 

I asked Rachael, ‘What were some of the habits that you mentioned that led up to that kind of burnout episode that you had?’

Disrespecting a lot of things that would sound quite basic. Things like working massively long hours. Sleep was a big one. Food as well. I frequently remember just walking around the office trying to shovel something in my mouth because I just didn't even have the time to sit down to be able to have a meal. And as I said, neglecting the most important relationships in my life and not being close to people that I care about and who care about me. That I think also has an impact in terms of how we feel. 

It wasn't a sudden thing, it was something that came up over weeks and months, maybe even longer than that. Then this was slowly, slowly, slowly creeping up, getting worse and worse and worse and worse. And I was ignoring it, ignoring it, ignoring it, continuing to try and push on through.

I’d say to yourself, "If I can just get through this, then it will be all right." I was constantly just desperately trying to stay on top of things but I was never really feeling like I could come properly up for air. Ultimately, it wasn't until my body eventually just went, "That's enough. That's enough. You can't do this anymore." And I found myself on the office floor.

 I think the things that I've learned and what's different now to where I was way back then is I'm so much more aware now. I recognise that things aren't right before I get anywhere near that level of burnout. It's interesting listening to what you said there about every so often, being able to take a quieter week, because I think being able to regularly restore ourselves is so, so, so important.

Burnout is this cumulative stress that hasn't been managed. If it gets its hooks into you, it can be completely debilitating, which is what it ended up being for me. If you're not taking steps like you are, Toby, it can get so debilitating that even if you were to slow down or take a break or even a holiday, that might not cure it because you are in a state of absolute exhaustion. 

I think it’s being aware of those signs and working out what you need to do, so that things don't get really, really bad.’

I asked Rachael where she thinks the habits she’s just described came from and what were the underlying beliefs that might have formed those habits.

The beliefs that have probably been instilled in me from a very young age are around hard work, and trying your best. I think I also felt a great deal of responsibility as well. I cared deeply about my work, as I do now. There were times when I felt like the weight of the business was on my shoulders and that it was my responsibility to sort everything out. I think those were some of the key beliefs. I also think the fear that potentially drives us is that fear of maybe not being good enough. It drives you to want to do more and to do your best. It can be very, very, very, very dangerous.’

That underlying belief of, “I'm not good enough” is really common and it's something I've uncovered in my own journey. I've had therapy, and it's almost when you have that underlying belief of not being good enough you can develop damaging habits and behaviours that are not loving and not nurturing to yourself.

Thinking about Rachael’s experience of lying on the office floor on your back, I am reminded of a good book called The Body Keeps the Score, which was written by somebody called Bessel van der Kolk. It just reminded me that our bodies are a very good barometer for what's going on in our minds. I don't know if it was related or not, but back in 2010, I spent two months in a coma because I got pneumonia. It could be related to my disability because I've got respiratory issues, so I am particularly prone to chest infections and pneumonia and things like that anyway. But looking back at it, I was working really hard. I was doing a job at the BBC, I was a chair of a national charity, but I was kind of standing in for the chief executive who had resigned. Maybe in hindsight, it was my own body saying, “Enough's enough.” 

Now Rachael and I have talked about signs to look out for, but I wanted to know what common signs are there if people are concerned about the wellbeing or burnout of people within their organisation and what the impact of that might be.

Rachael replied,Well, I think changes in behaviour is one of the things to look out for in people. Are you noticing an increase in persistent tension, stress level, or anxiety? I think difficulty in concentrating, perhaps becoming snappy or withdrawn are other things I think to watch out for as well. You might find that people withdraw into themselves. For me, there was a neglect of self-care and an over-prioritisation of the workload. And also, I think there’s just this sense of not enjoying things anymore.

In terms of the impact that it has, it's massive. It's huge. We've already talked about how it can impact your health. I've alluded to how it was impacting my relationships. It also massively impacted my career as well. If I go back to my own example, after that day, I did seek out help. I did speak to my then-director to say, "Something needs to change."

The thing that we ultimately decided that needed to change was that I was actually going to step down from my post. That then brought a whole host of other challenges. It wasn't immediate and I was able to help plan and structure the team and what that was going to look like going forward. But to take that step backwards in your career can have these huge impacts and it can be life-changing, it really can. 

All that's without us getting into the productivity, the performance challenges that it creates on a business level. I'm talking very much there about what it does for an individual, but the impact is huge then in terms of for a business as well.’

My next question was about some of the steps that we could take to prevent us from getting to the stage of burnout.

‘Well, there are a number of things. If you feel you might be approaching burnout, it's very tempting to see that it's your problem to fix. And yes, your organisation might support you. But I believe that there's a shared responsibility. There’s the leadership of the organisation creating a positive work environment and work culture that can contribute to positive mental health amongst your workforce. And being able to speak out about it is really important. Being able to talk to your leaders about manageable workloads and what that looks like. Being able to have clear roles and responsibilities, I see that being a big challenge sometimes for things like this. Communication or lack of good communication and good communication channels. 

Probably one of the biggest things, and I appreciate that people might not necessarily be able to entirely control this, is the support that we get from our direct managers and leaders. Where there is a lack of support, that is massively influential on us as individuals. If you don't have that support from your leaders or from your direct leader, then please seek that support elsewhere, whether that's inside or outside of your organisation, because none of us can do this alone. I think it's so important to be able to feel as though you have got somebody who has got your interests at heart, who cares about you and what you're doing, and that you are able to talk to.’

I wondered if Rachael has been noticing any of the major trends or patterns in the corporate world that are contributing to people's burnout and how she thinks organisations should be addressing these challenges. 

It's these unmanageable workloads that people have to try and deal with and complexity and lack of clarity. I think the other thing that I just want to recognise as well is that even our senior leaders are expected to be managing so much. And so often, we're asking leaders at all levels to develop skills of empathy, compassion and kindness to be effective. Although those skills are essential, it's really easy for those leaders to get stuck trying to balance that emotional intelligence and holding employees to a standard of performance as well. It's not that it's wrong to do that, it's right to do that, but are we equipping leaders at all levels to be able to do that? I know the answer is typically, no, we are not. They don't know how to do it and they don't know how to do it well.

It's interesting. I was reading some stats the other day, and according to Slack, burnout is most significant in middle management. It's on the rise globally, and it's happening most in that middle management tier, where potentially these people haven't been equipped with the knowledge, the skills, the understanding to be able to balance those two things of being able to have that high emotional intelligence but also holding employees to a standard of performance.

The other thing that I think comes up as a concern for managers is that they think that they've potentially got to be some sort of therapist, and that's not the case at all. Let's take that pressure right off now. If you are a manager and you are trying to support people within your team, then ask the questions and listen and help them get the support that they need. Be the broker for the resources that that individual needs. And remember that just by listening, just by being there and holding space and listening to somebody, that is so enormously helpful, never underestimate what that can do for somebody.’

For managers, I think developing coaching skills is just one of the best things that you can do—creating that space, holding the space for somebody, being an active listener. One of the great things about coaching is that as a coach, you don't have to do the fixing. You enable and empower your coachee to arrive at their own conclusions, their own solutions, and go and seek the support that they need.

Returning to something I mentioned at the top of the show, about particular burnout amongst diversity inclusion professionals and practitioners. I asked Rachael, ‘What do you see as some of the practical or proactive things that diversity and inclusion practitioners can do to look after their wellbeing whilst maintaining their commitment to the work?’

I think the two go hand in hand. I don't see how you can be fully committed and performing well in your work if you aren't looking after yourself from a health perspective. That's probably been one of the biggest shifts that I've had. And it probably won't be a surprise to learn that my health coaching came after the story that I shared with you at the beginning of our conversation today. You've got to ask yourself, “How important is your health?” You've got to decide. And for me, it's foundational because, without our health, you've got nothing else. So, the number one thing for you to do every day is to take care of yourself. If you want to perform at your best, you've got to look after you. 

If I'm to ask you, “What intuitively do you know that you either need to stop, start, or do more of?” people already know. Because it's for your health, for your wellbeing. People do know this. But what happens is, as we push it back, we push it to one side, we ignore it, we push on. It really is about looking at what those healthy, positive self-care habits are that you can implement daily so you are constantly restoring yourself. Whether they're around sleep, whether it's around hydration, whether it's around the food and the nutrition that you're getting. Is it about movement or daylight or exercise or connection? And it’s about finding ways to integrate that restoration as part of your daily life so that you don't necessarily have to be, "I've just got to get to the weekend to get the break." Instead, for example, you can say to somebody, "Do you know what? We were going to do a Zoom call or a Teams call today, but would you mind if we just took this onto the old-fashioned telephone? I want to get outside; I want to get some fresh air. I want to do a walk and talk and do our meeting, and I'll catch up." That way, you're getting the connection, you're getting the movement, you're getting the daylight, you're getting the fresh air, and you are then integrating things that help you restore.

So, I think it is about looking at things like that which easily fit into your day. This is where, when I'm working with clients one-on-one, it's about looking at the specifics of what works for them, their lifestyle, where they're at. There are so many different solutions, but it's being conscious and taking action on those things so that you can seamlessly build it in.’

As we started to bring our conversation to a close, I was curious to find out from Rachael what one thing she does now that has a really big impact on her wellbeing. 

The biggest thing I changed when I started my health coaching, the number-one thing I did was I drank more water, as basic as that sounds. The habit that I have got into, which serves me so incredibly well, is that I have a big 700-millilitre bottle of water. I put it by my bed full before I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I do in the morning is I drink that entire thing. With drinks like teas and coffees, the thing to be mindful of is the caffeine. There is nothing better than water in terms of hydration. 

One of the concepts that I've found useful and that my clients have found useful is the concept of crowding out. So, if you're fancying a cup of tea or a cup of coffee, but you suspect that you've not hydrated enough, it's not about denying yourself that cup of tea, just have a big glass of water first. Then if once you've had that glass of water, you still want the cup of tea, fine, go for it, have the cup of tea. But it is this concept of crowding out to help you build those good habits, rather than feeling like, "Oh, I'm off that," or "I'm denying myself that." And that can be helpful.

That was the thing that made the biggest difference to me initially, but then there's been so many things since then as well. Whether that be from a nutrition point of view, I start my morning on a smoothie, it's like a vegetable and fruit smoothie. And I love it, and it keeps me sustained for a long time right through until lunch. Having snacks and things to hand that are healthy because again, I go back to when I was disrespecting this stuff and when work was really, really busy, I would grab what I could on the go, and it wasn't necessarily the healthiest thing. So, carrying around bags of nuts or things like that that you can have with you because it's so easy to go for the biscuits that are in the meeting room.’

I agree with Rachael there. As a vegan, I find that helps me because I'm a lot more conscious about what I eat. So, if there are biscuits in a meeting room, they're not usually vegan which is actually helpful because it prevents me from eating lots of rubbish. It is easy to have a very unhealthy vegan diet. Chips are vegan. It's not a failsafe, but it does help.

Anyway, it's been wonderful to catch up with Rachael again. Before we sign off for this episode, I asked Rachael, ‘If anyone is worried about their own wellbeing, maybe they feel like they're approaching burnout themselves, what should they do to look after themselves and avoid getting into that difficult situation?’

‘Please talk to somebody sooner rather than later. Talk to somebody, and let them know that you think this is serious and that you are not coping with where things are. Have that conversation because from there, you can make things better. But please don't just try and keep pressing on.’

For further information and resources to support your organisation’s diversity and inclusion journey, or to get in touch with Toby and his team, head on over to the website at