How to prevent burnout: 11 simple ways to make self-care a priority

For many of us, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years in living memory: the sudden and unstoppable arrival of a pandemic; having to navigate endless complexity and uncertainty with little to no clarity about if or when things will return to ‘normal’; having to find ways to continue fulfilling your organisation’s mission whilst being impacted by COVID yourself; and doing all this as someone who, given that you work in the charity sector, is no doubt very purpose-oriented, caring and possibly prone to overextending yourself.

In other words, if ever there was a recipe for exhaustion and burnout, 2020 would be it.

I work as a coach and workshop facilitator at Bird, a consultancy focused on resiliency coaching and training specifically for the not-for-profit sector, and over the last few months my colleagues and I have worked with hundreds of people who are finding this year incredibly tough.

Therefore, with World Mental Health Day as our backdrop, I’d like to invite you to slow down for a few minutes and reflect on what you and your team might need in order to navigate the next few months without burning out.

This year, I think it’s wise to lower our expectations and not put pressure on ourselves to have ‘the best winter of our lives’ and to gently unhook ourselves from those kind of messages if we come across them on social media. This isn’t an easy season, and maybe all we need to do is accept that the ups and downs are all just part of the process.

Elloa Phoenix Barbour is a coach and facilitator with Bird

I’m a firm believer that we know what we need, so the following 11 tools are suggestions rather than mandates, and they might not all speak to you. Take what works and leave the rest.

 

  1. Rethink what it means to be resilient

At Bird, we talk all the time about letting go of the old school definition of resilience.

 

Being a resilient person is not about gritting your teeth, knuckling down and pushing through this hard time. I don’t think it’s even about ‘bouncing back’ or ‘bouncing forward.’

 

What if, instead, we thought of resilience with the metaphor of a healthy, robust tree in mind? What if resilience was about finding ways to have deep roots (so that our branches can reach high to the sky), about adapting to rather than pushing against our surroundings, connecting to the ecosystem around us, and working gently and unhurriedly through the four seasons?

 

This, for me, is a much kinder way to think about being resilient. In this paradigm, there are going to be seasons where we lose our leaves, and seasons where we flourish and blossom – but the important thing is not to expect ourselves to be in the midst of summer when everything around us is pointing to autumn or winter.

 

If you were a tree, which season would you be in right now, and what does that tell you about what you most need?

 

  1. Be on the lookout for signs of low resilience

We talk about these a lot in our Bird webinars, which we offer to charities through the Lloyds Enhance scheme.

 

There are many ways we can exhibit symptoms of being stressed and having low resilience. Here are just a few:

  • Exploding over the smallest thing
  • Blaming other people for what you’re feeling
  • Insisting that you’re “fine” when you know you’re not
  • Numbing out using food, alcohol, Netflix or social media
  • Withdrawing from social contact
  • Physical issues: headaches, skin breakouts, digestive issues – and those are just three examples

 

All of these are completely understandable responses to living in a state of ongoing uncertainty – and they’re also incredibly helpful messengers.

 

When the above symptoms start to outweigh your ability to laugh, your capacity to feel deeply connected to others, or your sense of trust that it’s all going to be ok, it might be time to do things differently.

 

  1. Rest

Resting is something of a lost art these days. When asked how you are, is your first response “busy”? Mine too. We’re all overcommitted, with little to no white space in our calendars, and we wonder why we feel so stressed!

 

But we are not machines. Rest is essential – particularly in winter, and particularly in a pandemic. It’s absurd that we’re trying to carry on with ‘Business As Usual’ when the world is in crisis.

 

Finding ways to pause and rest is a pretty revolutionary act. Can you pause in between Zoom meetings or in the midst of your work to just look out of a window? Or how about finding five minutes to have a screen free cup of tea, or even taking a nap?

 

I have taken to lying down on my living room rug for thirty seconds once a day in savasana or corpse pose – feet flopped open, hands facing skyward by my side – and just breathing. I remind myself, during these micro-breaks, that I am not a human doing, but a human being. It’s thirty seconds out of my day, and it makes a genuine difference.

 

  1. Tend to the basics

Shelter. Nutrition. Hydration. Connection. Rest.

 

Our core needs as humans, despite our individual differences, are the same. It’s obvious to say, but usually when I’m working long hours, I forget to look after myself in one or more of these core areas – and while I might get away with it short-term, it’s not a sustainable way to live longer term.

 

A caveat here: this is not about becoming ‘good’ or worse, ‘perfect.’ Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves reaching for junk food instead of veggies, coffee instead of water or struggling to sleep. If the basics are eluding you right now, know that you’re not alone and try to just make the next kind, gentle choice.

 

  1. Find small joys

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s fantastic 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Early on in the novel, the female protagonist, whose life is really quite awful, talks about finding ‘small joys’.

 

I really loved this line and it’s stayed with me for weeks. It’s a powerful reminder of how tiny things – an uplifting song, a beam of sunlight breaking through grey autumnal skies, a hug from a loved one, the juicy crunch of a crisp October apple – can interject something sweet and much needed into our day.

 

Life is hard, but it’s not meant to be all hard. Our job is to pay attention and to let these small joys in when they appear.

 

  1. Turn up the volume on kindness – especially to yourself

Lots of us live with a very harsh ‘inner critic’ voice, which can very unhelpfully become even louder when we’re going through difficult times, adding an extra layer of suffering to an already hard situation.

 

In my work as a coach, I’ve never found anyone who has been able to eliminate their inner critic (and I’ve never managed to get mine to go away!), but what we can do is choose to turn the volume up on kindness – including to ourselves.

 

It’s amazing what a single moment of self-compassion can do for our frazzled nervous systems. At Bird, we love the work of Dr Kristin Neff, who specialises in self-compassion – you can measure your level of self-compassion here and check out the range of self-compassion practices she recommends here.

 

  1. Remember that this is going to pass

I recently heard someone describe this year as a marathon that you’re told will be over by a certain time, but which then gets extended indefinitely. That description hit home with a lot of people. So how do we deal with this ‘ultra-marathon’?

 

Well, I think it can be enormously helpful to remember that sooner or later, this weird, hard time will be over. Nobody knows when, and it can be quite demoralising to hope or expect it to be done within a certain timeframe, but it won’t last forever.

 

You will get through this.

 

  1. Take each day (or moment) at a time

The simplest wisdom is often the most powerful isn’t it?

 

In my early twenties, this one simple tool helped me navigate massive overwhelm as I struggled to come to terms with a decade-long eating disorder. If the whole day feels too big to tackle, just focus on the immediate here and now.

 

This quick 54321 meditation can help. Take a deep breath and look around you. Silently name:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell (this one is tricky!)
  • 1 thing you can taste.

 

Now, notice how you feel.

 

I love this tool because it’s very grounding and calming, and you can employ it anywhere, anytime, without anyone needing to know.

 

  1. Accept the ups and downs

So many people have been on the ‘Corona-coaster’, cycling through times when we feel good and times when we really don’t. This is completely understandable and completely human.

 

This year, I think it’s wise to lower our expectations and not put pressure on ourselves to have ‘the best winter of our lives’ and to gently unhook ourselves from those kind of messages if we come across them on social media. This isn’t an easy season, and maybe all we need to do is accept that the ups and downs are all just part of the process. 

 

If you’re having a hard day, try to remind yourself of this. Feel into whether there are any small steps you can take to support yourself, and know that this too, will pass.

 

  1. Get more comfortable saying no

This can be a really hard one for very purpose-driven, caring people, but this simple two-letter word is a vital tool in a person’s resilience toolkit.

 

So many of us overextend ourselves, taking on way too much, setting ourselves up to be seen as superhuman by others and then suffering from extreme stress when we find ourselves overcommitted, under-resourced and with a to-do list that will take us until 2022 to finish. It’s also pretty hard to be on the other side of that dynamic, constantly being promised things by someone who doesn’t have the capacity to deliver.

 

That’s why having clear boundaries and saying ‘no’ is kind. It lets people know exactly where they stand – and when someone well-boundaried says yes to a request, you can trust that they really mean it.

 

So I challenge you to find out what happens if you respond to a request that you simply can’t fulfil with a clear and honest ‘no’.

 

As the old reggae song by the Pioneers goes, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”

 

  1. Be vulnerable, real and honest about how you’re doing - and invite others to do the same

You are human, and life can be really tough, yet at work, it can be so easy to think that we just need to put on a good front and not let anyone know that we’re struggling. But as we explored earlier, saying “I’m fine” and ignoring what’s really going on will put you on the road to burnout. It also prevents people from stepping in and supporting you.

 

Being vulnerable – particularly with our colleagues – can feel scary, because there’s an inherent interpersonal risk involved. But it’s also, as Brené Brown says, the birthplace of innovation and change. It’s through being vulnerable that we can allow ourselves to be truly seen and understood – and that, I think, is the ultimate experience of being “in this together.”

 

In closing...

Burnout has serious implications for our mental, physical and emotional well-being, and ultimately, it is down to each of us to pay attention to our own well-being, develop supportive boundaries and monitor our mindsets and how we speak to ourselves.

 

So which of the above 11 ideas spoke most to you? What one tiny change can you implement today, and who will you share it with to help make that change real?

 

Personally, I’m concentrating on rest, and saying ‘no’ more. What about you?

 

Elloa Phoenix Barbour is a coach and facilitator with Bird, a consultancy that provides resiliency coaching and training for the not-for-profit sector. Find out more at birdmovement.com and connect with Elloa here.