Why burnout is so common right now

Resilience expert says these two factors could be why brokers are feeling so stressed

Why burnout is so common right now

The pandemic has come with many health warnings around the impact of lockdown and the risk of COVID itself. But another major warning has been around the risk of burnout, and while working long hours can contribute to this, it’s not the main reason the condition has become so prevalent. According to author and leadership strategist Andrew May (pictured), there are two major reasons why burnout has become increasingly commonplace during COVID.

The first is because we have had no downtime for almost two years.

“It’s the accumulation of everything,” he said. “COVID has come on the back of droughts, floods, economic downturn, we’ve had bushfires, we’ve had Royal Commissions. It’s been one thing after the next.

“There’s been no downturn. In a normal cycle of a year, we have periods of stress and periods of recovery and the system balances out. You bounce back when you have time to recover and grow and nurture – all those wonderful things that downtime gives us for body and brain.”

The second reason is screen time and the impact this has on our brains.

“The way we are communicating is all technology,” said May. “Now we’re moving back to a hybrid model, and we’ll start to have meetings with people. For brokers this will be fantastic because people who are extroverts love meeting with people and getting energy from interactions with others.

“But, throughout lockdown, it’s all been on technology. The research shows that online meetings are twice as cognitively draining as face-to-face meetings.”

But the impact of screen time doesn’t end when our working day does, said May. Many people use technology for leisure time, which doesn’t give the brain an opportunity to switch off.

“From early in the morning until late at night we are on our technology, whether it’s Instagram, news feeds or online meetings, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t delineate – it is working for hours and hours a day,” he said. “The brain’s in Beta brain waves and not getting the opportunity to recover in Alpha. You combine both of those two things and so many people are going, ‘I’m out, I’m fatigued, I’m overloaded – there’s got to be a better way’.”

In his coaching work with Dr Tom Buckley, May said it had become clear that burnout was a topical issue.

Read more: Why brokers should be cautious about burnout

“The topic of burnout just kept raising its head,” he said. “Leaders were asking us about it, employees were saying they felt burnt out. We could see it was really important we explored this, so we looked at three things. One is we looked at the definition of burnout, the second is we looked at the signs and symptoms of burnout and the third is we went into this wanting to give people some practical tips.”

May said they came up with five ways that brokers and other busy professionals could avoid burnout even if they were working long hours.

  1. Purpose alignment

The most important thing brokers can do is define their purpose, said May. This doesn’t just relate to professional purpose, but it also relates to having a personal purpose.

“People with a clearly defined purpose live longer,” he said. “People with a clear purpose don’t have as much illness, they’ll bounce back faster and tend to be much more fulfilled in the work they are doing.”

If you know your “why” and you go through a difficult time, it is more likely you can stay your course rather than give up hope and energy, he said.

  1. Active recovery

Having a wine or beer after work and watching Netflix is not considered active recovery, said May. Alcohol and screen time both keep your brain in Beta and don’t allow your sympathetic nervous system to relax.

“You need to switch your body into parasympathetic, or the relaxation response,” he said. “We want to see a corresponding shift in brain wave pattern from Beta, which is awareness and engagement, to Alpha, which is that relaxed state.

“A way to do this is to create “a bookend” that signals the end of your workday and the transition into leisure time. Getting into nature and disconnecting from technology are key. Examples include cooking, gardening, meditation, yoga or a walk in the park. Playing sport or board games is also helpful.”

  1. Restorative sleep

Sleep is vital for recovery, memory, and hormone balance. It’s also important for sales skills, such as understanding cues and effective communication.

“You could almost say, improve your sleep, improve your sales output,” he said. “In fact, I’ve seen that in some teams we’ve worked with.”

It’s important to get off technology at least 30 minutes before going to bed and limit caffeine in the second half of the day. May pointed out that a parent wouldn’t give their child caffeine and an iPad right before bedtime. He said adults should treat themselves in the same way.

  1. Physiological capacity

If you don’t have a buffer of physiological capacity to fall back on in moments of stress or disruption, it is less likely that you will have the resilience to get through tough times.

“It’s all about building your physical reserves,” said May. “You need a margin because you don’t know what’s coming up.”

May and Dr Buckley set a benchmark for their clients to be five years younger so they have a reserve for whatever life throws at them.

“If you’ve got a finance broker who’s overweight, has sleep apnea, who’s drinking every night, has terrible energy levels, eats rubbish processed foods, doesn’t prioritise self-care and then their life tips upside down with COVID, how is that person going to respond compared to someone who does the opposite?” he said. “I’m not saying you have to be an athlete, just work on getting your heart rate up with interval training a couple of times a week, do some resistance training and move the body every single day. When you exercise, ideally go green and get outside.”

  1. Social connectiveness

May said this has been a challenging thing to teach during COVID. While he encourages people to get off their technology, technology has been the only way to stay connected for many people during lockdown.

“But the opposite to connectiveness is loneliness, and loneliness does everything from driving up cortisol levels in your body, it accelerates aging, and it is also seen to be as much of a risk factor as smoking is to overall wellbeing,” he said.

Read next: How to avoid post-lockdown burnout

He said brokers have a real focus on inputs that lead to performance and that these inputs are in large part client meetings. Applying the same methodology to non-professional relationships can help professionals prioritise social connectiveness outside of work alone.

But the single most important thing brokers should remember when they feel under pressure from working long hours is to be mindful of the way they respond, said May.

“How you frame pressure is the most important thing,” he said. “We all have stress, and when you have more stress, it’s really important not to catch yourself going, ‘oh my god, I’m so stressed’. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

He said it’s better to acknowledge that you are going through a “high pressure situation” and then ask “what can I do to help me get through this?”

“So, being proactive - not just saying ‘stress is bad and I’m going to go downhill’,” he said.