“I was working upwards of seventy hours a week. My phone never stopped. Even when I was at home, I was technically at work. But, I successfully lead my team through deal negotiations, presenting pitch after pitch – going over and above to earn my six-figure salary. Gradually however, I started to doubt my own ability to get the work done to the standard that was required. I was hardly sleeping – maybe three hours a night. I was becoming resentful of my colleagues who left the office at five pm. My fuse was getting shorter, while my compulsive desire for alcohol grew larger. After twelve years of mounting pressure, I sat in the boardroom and cried. I sobbed. I was exhausted, and I couldn’t continue…”
This is the story of Jeremy, a high-profile managing executive. Workaholism is broadly described as a compulsive work mentality. It is a maladaptive coping technique, similar to conditions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, disordered eating, compulsive gambling or codependency.
In some way or another, most people can identify with aspects of workaholism present in our own lives or those closest to us. This may not necessarily be a negative observation, as there are traits of workaholism that can reflect a dedicated work ethic and commitment to excellence. However, there are other elements of the condition that reflect an unhealthy and detrimental lifestyle that can result in devastating consequences – such as burn out.
“It often starts with long working hours, and a desire to exceed high expectations,” says Ruth Limkin, Chief executive officer (CEO) of The Banyans. “However, it can spiral out of control until the person’s working habits have taken control of their life.”
Burn out is a stress and anxiety disorder, characterised by emotional and physical exhaustion. It lowers a person’s efficiency and saps their energy, leaving them feeling like they have nothing more to offer. “Most commonly, burn out is expressed in a person feeling so depleted that they cannot continue to operate the way they usually do,” Ruth says. “It is more intense than normal stress.”
In an article by the Harvard Business Review, burn out is often fuelled by enormous underlying burdens, either applied personally or by superiors. Prolonged stress, unrecognised efforts, and difficulty in attaining success were also common contributing factors.
The presentation of the condition can vary widely depending on duration, severity, personal predisposition and additional lifestyle factors. However, there are a number of frequently described manifestations, both physically and emotionally.
People experiencing ‘burn out’ describe emotional symptoms such as depersonalisation, low self-accomplishment, and feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, and trapped. Physically, sleep disorders (such as chronic fatigue syndrome or insomnia), dizziness, chest pain, low immunity to sickness, and loss of appetite are all physical signs that may be characteristic of burn out[i].
Moreover, many people may try to escape the source of the pressure through illness, absenteeism, substance abuse, or other addictive coping mechanisms such as gambling or pornography.
Senior psychologist at The Banyans, Peter Hayton says, “Often, we see the negative impacts of workaholism on personal and professional relationships far before we see the physical symptoms of burn out.” Withdrawing from family or social life, denial of workload, quick-temper and frequent ‘venting’ can be behavioural signs that someone may be approaching a burn out experience[ii].
Peter recommends seeking professional help prior to reaching a point of exhaustion. “Prevention is often better than cure,” he comments.
Unfortunately, there is no umbrella protection against burn out, but can be prevented through the application of healthy lifestyle choices. This could include refraining from taking work home with you, spending an adequate period away from your desk for meal breaks, scheduling time for exercise and leisure activities, and going on regular vacations where you completely ‘unplug’.
“There is always a path of recovery if you find yourself burnt out,” Peter encourages. However, he adds that these types of stress injuries will not go away on their own.
“Here at The Banyans, we make sure that we uncover the underlying drivers, and then work with guests to resolve them.” The psychotherapy approach is partnered with medical guidance, nutritional analysis, physical therapy, meditation, good sleeping patterns and recreation.
Peter also reiterates the importance of having a support network that can provide adequate psychosocial support throughout recovery. This may include work colleagues, friends, family and professional therapists.
CEO Ruth Limkin promotes employer duty of care in addition to personal responsibility in avoiding burn out. “Although highly productive employees can go well above our expectations, it is our responsibility that we are not sacrificing their mental and physical wellbeing. Ultimately, they will become less productive if they experience burn out, so it is both good ethical practice and smart business sense to promote wellbeing.”
This could be as simple as having regular meetings with employees to discuss both achievement and dissatisfaction after a big project. It is also important to ensure that staff are regularly rotated out of potentially exhausting positions, and adequate time is provided to replenish their energy.
For more information on burnout, and how the Banyans are able to assist in recovery, have a private, non-obligatory phone call with our team on 1300 BANYAN (1300 226 926), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Levinson, H. (2017). When Executives Burn Out. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/1996/07/when-executives-burn-out [Accessed 27 Dec. 2017].
[ii] As above.