Hero to Burnout In 2.5 Seconds

We all agree it’s been an interesting (read unprecedented) year, and that it just seems to keep coming.  Years are funny like that – time marches on, waiting for no man.  Around March, we were still looking at the approaching ripple that was changing the world and wondering what it would mean for us.  Schools were closing, some countries were still reporting their first cases, and we all assumed it would blow over by May.

We hunkered down as the world ground to a halt and did our first three weeks on the couch, taking full advantage of the shutdown.  We re-communed with our families and enjoyed the unscheduled break.  Some of us tried hard to keep up with the multitude of media and varying opinions, seeking answers in a bid to form our own thoughts about why our world was closing down.  Many of us came to the conclusion that no one really knew, or that the possibilities were too bizarre to process, and we managed our stress levels by switching it all off.

We ate too much, we slept, we celebrated the effects on our planet of the absence of humans during lockdown.  It started to become apparent that it wasn’t going to blow over as quickly as we thought, and we started working from home.  We cancelled August’s holiday plans as they weren’t looking likely, and those of us who were privileged enough started getting our kids into online schooling.  We started talking about the “new normal” as if we had some idea what that might look like, and we worked as if we knew how to prepare for it – knowing that the world would start turning again at some stage and wanting to be ready for it.  We protested things that had bothered us for centuries with the renewed zeal of humans trying to take final control of our out-of-control nations.

We hustled.  We organised.  We found new ways to do things and new ways to absorb content.  We set up family Zoom calls that spanned continents, and expanded our businesses globally because all of a sudden, we could see that far.  We juggled home, school and work like no one’s business – because suddenly it was all happening within the confines of our living space.  We reconfigured.  We owned it.  Ripple, after ripple, after ripple of change.  We displayed every ounce of resilience we’d been built for.

And now….the next wave is here.

In the last week or few, a new ripple has started to set in – the next wave we need to learn to handle in this unprecedented year of psychological tests.  I’ve felt this wave in myself and I’ve seen it in a number of the teams I work with, lying just below the surface.  I’ve seen it in my son, as 5 months of online schooling led into two weeks of exams written at the neighbour’s house.  I see it on LinkedIn, especially in the aviation community, and I see it in this year’s school leavers.

As what we thought was a short term reconfiguration and sprint turns into a marathon of unknown length and routing, tolerance levels are flagging for many and other psychological effects are starting to set in.  Some are mourning changes and losses that they could never have envisioned.  Some have lost livelihoods they’ve trained for all their lives, or family members before their time.  Some have lost the dream of what this year was supposed to be – everything they’d earned over a high school career – sport, and tours, and dances, and awards, and selections that will affect their tertiary education in unknown ways.  Many are staring down the barrel of exam results they’re not sure will count, if the exams are written at all.  It’s starting to set in that some changes may be for the long haul.

Many are overloaded – having powered their way through the last few months of changed configuration – doing what needed to be done without realising how little breath they were drawing or how much the gaps had closed up.  Gaps where we’d normally drive to work, or to a client.  Gaps where we’d visit someone else’s desk, or go away for the weekend.  Gaps where every family member went in their separate directions to do what fulfilled them, and then brought that renewed energy back to the family space.  Gaps between meetings as we transitioned from one space or client to another.  All of these gaps have closed up, and whilst it’s allowed us to feel super productive and in control for a period, we’re starting to realise it’s not sustainable.  For many, their smiles are starting to slip as the reality of the fuller implications of this year set in.

And as those smiles start to slip, many are starting to exhibit signs and symptoms of burnout.

This burnout may look like a fixed smile with very tired eyes, or being out of decision-making capacity by Wednesday.  It may look like sorrow or depression.  It may look like a young teen getting antsy, or dropping balls they were doing so well at juggling.  It may look like aggression or anger, or for many even despair.  It may look like waking up at 0240 consistently, or being overwhelmed at work where you’re otherwise organised and would have caught the errors before they slipped by.  It may look like powering through “We got this!”, with a side helping of “Oh, good Lord, I’m tired…”.  It may look like immense gratitude for the fact you’re still standing when so many have been retrenched, that gratitude tinged with anxiety about the levels you need to perform at to safeguard the job you’ve kept.  It may look like behaviour or actions that are designed to gain control – the next level of control that seems so evasive this year.

It may start to look like all the colours of the spectrum because everyone has chosen to handle the preceding number of months in their own way, and no one knows what it’s supposed to look like, so it’s hard to tell if you’re doing it wrong.

What seems a given is that this year is going to continue to present in new and imaginative ways that are going to require our flexibility to deal with.  Along with that comes a growing knowledge about how we as humans, perform under prolonged uncertainty and stress.  Each of us will do it differently, but there are some common threads that can be helpful to ensuring the longevity of our sanity, survival and success.

Breathe – acknowledge that you’re only human.  Acknowledge that we’ve not done this before, not navigated these waters or this sky before.  Acknowledge that full throttle is the way to power out and away from uncertain terrain, but not a sustainable power setting for a longer flight.  Acknowledge that the gaps we used to breathe in before have closed up, and you may need to schedule some gaps in your day to day operations if you’re to continue to perform at a decent level.

Manage your stress levels.  Remember that no one else can feel them but you, and that how our stress presents is very personal for us all – therefore it’s our personal responsibility to manage it.  Take responsibility for making sure your system has what it needs to continue to deliver over an extended period of time without becoming depleted – and that includes your brain and your psychology.

Reach out – check on each other.  This is not an isolated event and it’s pretty much a given that it’s affecting each one of us somehow.  Give some latitude to others where you can, and consider that many small slips or issues may be the result of prolonged uncertainty and burnout.  Many behavioural abnormalities or presentations may currently be people seeking control where they otherwise feel they have none.  Acknowledge those people and remind them that they count.  Be vulnerable – if you’re the one able to say “yesterday was not a good day for me – I struggled”, or “I need help with this decision”, or “can we walk through what we’re supposed to be doing one last time?” – the chances are becoming more excellent by the day that another team member will then feel able to express their own concerns and vulnerability too.

Don’t forget your people in your striving.  We’re all trying to find a way forward.  Without gaps.  Without space.  Often without recharge.  Definitely without certainty.  Whilst wanting to do the best to stabilize those we love may be a driver for many – our striving can leave little room for those same people.  Remember to take a breath with the people you love.  Remember to check on them too.  It’s likely that anything they were struggling with before will be exacerbated now.  Remember that your foundation is the most important thing, and that more often than not, is rooted in relationship.  Safeguard those relationships, be they at home, at school or within your team.  If we keep our foundations strong, they act like a base camp from which we can explore outwards and return to for sustenance.  If we allow our foundations to crack without attending to those cracks, we are setting ourselves up for catastrophic failure at some stage.

Celebrate where you can.  Celebrate people.  Celebrate achievements and milestones.  Those celebrations may not look like they were supposed to, but that’s no reason to allow them to go past unmarked.  Acknowledge each other’s successes and stage gates – especially those that would mark the passage of time to new chapters, such as leaving high school.  These are the things we measure our progression and the passage of our lives by.  They don’t require “fancy”, but they do require acknowledgement.  WE require acknowledgement as people.

This year has been a game changer.  It has been a clarifier in terms of what’s truly important to us.  It’s been a fast-forwarder of decisions in many cases, and a shuffling of priorities.  This year has been both a pause and a speeding up of time.  It’s been a tester of character and of intentions.  It’s been a reconfiguring of each of us and of our trajectories.  In order for us to move forward, we must acknowledge ourselves and each other.  We must acknowledge our needs and our limits, and we must cater for both.

Check yourself.  Check your team.  Breathe.  Manage.  Reach out.  Acknowledge.  Celebrate.

By Christen Killick

August 31st, 2020

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