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Ask the Expert: Tips and answers to FAQ’s about burnout

In a series of 6 short videos, trainer and consultant Michelle Spirit provides tips and imparts valuable advice in answer to FAQ's about burnout.
If you prefer to read rather than watch, transcriptions are provided at the foot of this post.

In Equilibrium's Jan Lawrence puts the following FAQ's about burnout to our trainer Michelle Spirit:

  1. What are the differences between depression and burnout?
  2. Can you tell us some warning signs that a colleague may be suffering from burnout?
  3. What are your top tips on how to deal with burnout?
  4. Does gratitude have a link with burnout?
  5. Can you give us some motivational tips to help keep actions to reduce burnout going?
  6. Is there a top tip you offer when we are considering ways to protect ourselves from burnout?

What are the differences between depression and burnout?

Can you tell us some warning signs that a colleague may be suffering from burnout?
(1min 44secs)

What are your top tips on how to deal with burnout? (2min 59secs)

Does gratitude have a link with burnout?
(3min 17secs)

Can you give us some motivational tips to help keep actions to reduce burnout going?
(4min 53secs)

Is there a top tip you offer when we are considering ways to protect ourselves from burnout?
(1min 47secs)

Michelle delivers the following course in which these FAQ's about burnout and more are discussed. Facilitation sessions to help teams build resilience can also be arranged, please contact us for further details.

Managing Burnout Training - virtual, live interactive training

Recent feedback from a delegate who attended the above course:

"Very interesting and relevant at a time where a lot of staff and management are feeling burnt out."

If these FAQ's about burnout were of interest, you may also like to read our article Wellbeing at work - what are the signs of burnout to look out for?

Answers to FAQ's about burnout - written video transcriptions


Video 1 – Differences between depression and burnout

Jan:  Michelle, could you tell us some of the differences between depression and burnout?

Michelle:  Yeah, it’s a very interesting question, and it’s one I’m often asked in fact during training sessions because they do appear very similar, don’t they? So burnout is a risk factor, so it can increase the risk that someone’s going to experience depression, but the major distinction feature clinically is that burnout can be treated by removing stress from the person or the person from the stress. Depression can’t … you know, you can’t simply treat depression by removing stress from somebody, so that’s the major difference between them.


Video 2 – What are the warning signs that a colleague may be suffering from burnout

Jan:  Would you say there are any particular warning signs that would highlight that a colleague or someone, you know, that you’re working with, is suffering from burnout?

Michelle:  I think it’s very often the case that people become very cynical with burnout, they can become very detached, they can start to appear as if they’re having to do more to get some of those rewards we all get when we do a good job, so it just feels like they’re having to work harder to get the same level of pleasure from life, really.

You might see them giving things up, you know, if they cycled or had any interests in something, they’re not doing that. That might be another factor that you’d want to consider, but I think it’s this sort of separation, this, you know, cynicism and sense of being ineffective. Actually making much of a difference to anything or anyone, that’s the main thing that I would be looking out for in terms of, is that person experiencing burnout.

Jan:  Yes, so I suppose that signs are highlighted in terms of the way they’re speaking, perhaps, because they’ve not got much to say about things outside of work or they’re a bit flat, their tone might be a bit flat or … what do you think?

Michelle: Yeah, or you know, they’re not as willing to engage. You’re absolutely right, it’s just sort of the energy level. If you think of a sort of battery, you know, our phone, we’re always making sure our phone’s charged up.  Well, just imagine that you’ve sort of got point oh five per cent of charge left on your battery, you know, it’s kind of a human like that. So it’s sort of this sort of lack of energy, really.


Video 3 – Some top tips on how to deal with burnout

Jan:  And I wondered in all the courses that you’ve delivered if there are any top tips that really resonate with delegates around how to deal with burnout.

Michelle:  Yes, I mean, everyone wants this, don’t they, the practical solutions, and I think it depends on the nature of the burnout that the person’s experiencing. So if, for example, they are very cynical and there’s this sort of sense that they’re separate and alienated from other people, what can be really helpful is that they begin to be encouraged, or you yourself, encourage yourself to just do things for other people.

It doesn’t matter how insignificant or small that might be, it might be just making somebody a coffee. You know, you might offer them a word of encouragement, or notice something about what they’re wearing, you know, these general things that we all tend to do day to day.

You know this has been found, researchers found, that that just sort of lowers that level of cynicism, starts to engage us back in life again, connect up with people.

If they’re having that sort of inefficacy, you know, I make no difference, what’s the point, it’s about what do I need to do to build a sense of self-worth. So anything that’s going to validate that person’s sense of value, their personal value, can be really useful. So maybe it’s just like going to a workout session or it’s just finishing a project, you know, getting a tick in the box, having achieved something.

So again, you know, small steps, but once I think we’re aware that these are the two major factors, cynicism and inefficacy, we can begin to think about, well, what can we do for ourselves or others that’s going to help either re-engage them or give them that sense of meaning and achievement back in their life.

Jan:  Yes, that’s really interesting because it’s losing that connection.

Michelle:  Yeah, connections are hugely important. So, as you know, I do a lot of teamworking sessions and this can be a major benefit, because if we can re-engage people in that sense of team, you know, that is a very effective way of tackling burnout.

The other thing I’d say is just get bored. Sometimes it’s just about offering someone time off work and just allowing them to get bored to recharge. So that they can, you know, re-engage with their home life, maybe family members, friends, and encourage them to do that, that can be quite helpful as well.


Video 4 – The impact of gratitude and its link to burnout

Jan:  You mentioned cynicism, Michelle, and I’m wondering about gratitude, because that word is talked about quite a lot and the impact of gratitude. Are there links between the two?

Michelle:  Absolutely. I think if we can frame this as training the muscle of our attention. Gratitude is a way of framing our … you know, those neural pathways, where is our attention at, to things that are actually okay in life.

We are naturally predisposed to think of the negative, to be aware of the negative, because that keeps us safe. So we shouldn’t feel bad about that but, in our highly complex world, our brain simply gets overloaded with all the things that could happen, might happen or have happened; so simply bringing to our attention five things that have gone well for us in a day can be a highly effective way of combatting some of that cynicism.

And there’s some very strong research to back that up, actually. So, as an individual, just keeping a gratitude diary. If you’re having a meal with your family or loved ones, what went well today? You can ask that question, you know, what good thing did you do today, so you’re sort of focusing that attention on the what’s okay stuff. This can have a transformative effect on people.

I do remember a boy, he seemed like a boy to me, but he was probably early twenties, on a training session. And afterwards he said, you know that thing you talked about with the gratitude stuff, it completely saved my life. I was in a very dark place about a year ago, and my counsellor said to me, just keep that gratitude diary. And he said, on my way here today, I saw a bird land on a tree and I thought, that’s great, that goes in my gratitude box. Now I need to only find four.

So the idea is that you’re finding new things every day, you don’t just go through the same old thing. So it’s very powerful, this, and I think as a manager or a leader, we can start leading the way in this, so we’re not always relentlessly looking at task orientation, what we’ve got to do, what do we need to achieve. Actually let’s just pause and just think about what’s gone well, you know, an appreciation of our colleagues, for example.

So I think there’s an awful lot that we can do around that gratitude piece that can help combat burnout, but also prevent it from happening in the workplace. Because, of course, burnout is something very closely associated to overwhelm in the workplace rather than outside of the workplace.

Jan:  Yes, and it’s … when you’re talking about it there, it sounds … it feels like it would be quite contagious and brings its own energy and grow.

Michelle:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We are emotionally contagious, We catch the emotions of others like we catch a cold, so said Daniel Goldman, you know the chap who had ideas around emotional intelligence. And it sort of builds that energy, you’re absolutely right, it just builds that energy between us of positivity and optimism, so yeah, it’s a good point.


Video 5 – Motivational tips to keep actions to reduce burnout going

Jan:  I guess a lot of people who are experiencing burnout might need to see quite a quick fix, and I’m just wondering how people can keep motivated to keep new habits going, and if you have any tips on that, Michelle?

Michelle:  Sure. I think the sense that they’re taking control and they’re doing something productive and positive in and of itself is quite helpful. But like the great James Clear who does a lot of work around habits says, you know, an election isn’t won by having 100 per cent of the vote. So it’s about just being sure that the majority of things that you do are pointing in that right direction, rather than that sense of you’ve got to do absolutely everything to transform your life.

So you know, it’s the very process of thinking, right, I need to do something here.  Even if it’s just taking notice of simple pleasures. Just watching a film that gives you great joy or, you know, meeting up with a friend. Just these tiny, tiny things can make such a difference. They feel tiny, but they’re very significant in terms of combatting that burnout. I think as well just make them very easy to access.

I know some people – this is apparently true – they are going to bed with their gym equipment on! That’s how they go to bed.  And they get up, I’m out of bed and I’m off for my run because I’m already ready. Or they’re putting their trainers by their bed, so we make it very visible what we want to do. We make it easy to access and we make it fun, and these three factors are quite significant in terms of yes, it’s hard to sort of, you know, I’ve got to keep doing this day after day to notice much impact, but it actually doesn’t take that long. Even just saying, I need to do something, can start shifting … I mentioned those neural pathways.

So it doesn’t have to be, ugh, it’s going to take me six months and I can’t be bothered. Actually, just grasping the nettle and doing something can have a really, really positive impact. So think of that oil tanker analogy or metaphor, never sure about the difference between those two things. But you change one degree today, and in six months’ time, it is in a different place. So it’s about thinking, what do I need to do to be there in six months’ time, rather than, I need to transform overnight and there’s 100 things I need to do today to fix myself. It’s just not possible.

So it’s about making that commitment to do that little thing every day that will eventually make a big impact. Rather than that sense of, right, you know, it’s a like a tsunami of effort I’ve got to apply here because I’m experiencing burnout. Doesn’t really work out like that.

Who do you want to be in six months’ time? Just have a think about that one. Is this decision you’re making to stay in bed today or you’ve decided on your connection stuff.  In six months’ time where will that end up if you don’t do that and if you do do that, so you begin to see that there are choices.

Jan:  And just one small little nudge towards that direction.

Michelle:  Absolutely, just those little small nudges. Yeah, definitely, and just accepting and acknowledging it’s tough and it’s hard.  Observing that, you know, as if you could see that, and yeah, this is hard, this is tough, this is difficult, this is my experience right now, you know, acknowledging it. We know that bringing this into our consciousness can make a big difference.

Jan:  Rather than fighting it in a sense?

Michelle:  Yeah, so what happens then is we go into either a state of denial or we start adopting really unhelpful coping mechanisms. You know, drug or alcohol abuse or even self-harm or overwork, okay?  So that’s another one we just relentlessly continue, because this is just too much to handle to even acknowledge it.

So just the mere process of accepting and acknowledging can be really helpful, and I think sometimes that is where colleagues and friends can come in, because they can have that, you know, are you feeling okay, I’ve noticed that ..., is everything okay? Tell me what’s been going on recently, you know, these very like beginnings to conversations can sometimes open a door to help somebody recognise that things have really shifted for them in a not helpful way.


Video 6 – Top tip when considering ways to protect yourself from burnout

Jan:  And what’s the most important thing when you’re considering ways to help yourself?

Michelle:  I think the most important thing is that self-care isn’t a selfish act and it should underlie everything you do from here on in, if that’s possible, and that you should try and plan at least two things every day under that principle of self-care. Even Superman or Superwoman had to put their cape in the washing machine from time to time, so what two things are you going to do every single day to look after yourself.

Jan:  And what kind of things would you say are examples of self-care, Michelle?

Michelle:  Prioritising sleep, rest, having at least 15 minutes of complete relaxation every day to decompress. It could be just as simple as a relaxing bath or hot shower, getting out into nature, walking, exercise of course, swimming, reading in bed, allowing yourself to do that, cooking, eating really nourishing food, gardening, talking to others. Doesn’t have to be people you know, can be simply somebody at your local supermarket, that can make a difference in terms of that connection.

Get creative, make things, listen to things that give you joy, watch things that make you laugh, just staring, listening to music, playing a game. All those things are really good in terms of that principle of applying self-care to your life.

End of transcript


This Ask the Expert Q&A video series appeared in our Winter 2021 newsletter, if you would like future editions of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter to be sent directly to your inbox, you can sign up here.


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