Podcast transcript: How to beat burnout

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The IT Pro Podcast Transcript : How to beat burnout

This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode ‘How to beat burnout’. To listen to the full episode, click here. We apologise for any errors. 

Adam Shepherd  

Hi, I'm Adam Shepherd.

Maggie Holland 

And I'm Maggie Holland.

Adam  

And you're listening to the IT Pro Podcast where today we're talking about burnout. Stress is a factor in all jobs, but it can be especially pronounced in IT careers. I'm sure at one point or another, we've all reached this age where our workload seems insurmountable, and the pressures we feel threatened to overwhelm us. While a certain level of stress is unavoidable, if they're not managed properly, these feelings can easily build up resulting in staff suffering from exhaustion and burnout.

Maggie  

And this can result in serious long term effects for employees' mental and physical health, as well as the loss of productivity and effectiveness. We're joined this week by VMware senior cybersecurity strategist, Karen Worstell, who learned the hard way that burnout is not something to be trifled with, and ignoring the warning signs can have serious consequences.

Adam  

Karen, thanks for coming on the show.

Karen Worstell  

It's my pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you.

Adam  

So Karen, to set the scene for today's discussion, what exactly is burnout? And how does it differ from what most people would think of as a usual level of workplace stress?

Karen  

Sure, I'd love to go back and refer to the World Health Organisation definition of burnout. And and I think that's helpful because it gives us a framework for figuring out what to do about it. Or the framework is basically, burnout is the result of unmanaged workplace stress. And it has, I think, probably three or four major components. One of them is this physical exhaustion. That's closely aligned with emotional exhaustion. There's a sense of futility that what we're doing really doesn't matter. And that comes from, you know, a workplace ineffectiveness. And then the thing I would say, that is my number one red flag that tells me that burnout is at work in the workplace is cynicism. That there's a sense this kind of irrational belief that nobody has the best interests of the company, or the people who work there at heart. So yeah, those things combined together can make for a pretty dangerous combination.

Maggie  

And it's fair to say, you know, we do we do live in a really busy world, Karen, we're all busy people both, you know, in our work and personal life, is there ever such a thing as an acceptable level of stress within a job?

Karen  

Well, sure, because stress is actually something that helps us strive to do better. And sometimes people have a different level of tolerance for stress. And I think, to some extent, it probably grows over time, you know, we have a stressful situation, we learn to manage it and cope with it. And it's a little bit of a double edged sword, because we grow our capacity for dealing with stress in a productive way. And, you know, I like to make the distinction between stress and distress. Right? If whenever I'm feeling in a, in a state of distress, I try to at least dial it down to stress. And, and my happy place personally, is living in a place where I've got a lot going on. So someone else might find that to be very stressful; for me, that's what I would consider to be helpful.

Adam  

So speaking of your own kind of levels of stress, I think it's fair to say that you've had some pretty extreme experience of burnout. Can you tell us what happened?

Karen  

Well, sure, actually, you know, I have to confess that I've done the burnout routine twice.

Adam  

Oh, wow. 

Karen  

And, and so yeah, I might need to learn, I might, I might need a reminder, you know, I'm doing fine now. But, but in my early days, I mean, I had a fairly significant challenge ahead of me, I was a really broke mom of toddlers. I ended up going to graduate school in computer science, while I had two small children. And, and what I, you know, in my typical fashion, going all in on something, I would basically be caring for children during part of the day, I'd be in school part of the day, and then I'd be doing homework at night. And I did that for two years. And even to the point of sleeping on the floor, so I wouldn't get so sound asleep, that I would miss my eight o'clock class and have all the things I had to do to get the children ready ahead of time. So I didn't really see the effect of that until after I was in my first year of my new job as a cybersecurity person at the Boeing Company and I kept getting, I kept feeling I felt I didn't feel great, I kept thinking that I needed to go to the gym or I needed to go do something more, because obviously, if I'm really exhausted and tired, I must need to exercise. And, and I ended up finally going to the doctor because I had this excruciating headache that I couldn't get rid of. And it turned out that I had mono and meningitis and strep. And I ended up using losing the use of my left arm for a year. And, and so I would put that in the category of like, work, you know, extreme physical exhaustion, for sure. And some, there was some emotional exhaustion component in that, absolutely, I did feel like I was in control of my life. So it wasn't like that kind of distress and burnout stress. But I don't have, I personally don't have a really good barometer for checking myself. And when I see something that's a challenge, I'm like, game on, like, I'm ready, like, I'm just gonna go for this. And I and I tend to do that. And I need people around me who know me well enough to go, ah, let's go somewhere else and do something, you know, like, take a break and kind of help me kind of check myself. So it's helpful that I have friends and family around me who know my personality. I did it again, I did the burnout thing again, at Microsoft, and that was kind of less severe, but more of a wake up call. I think there was a lot of emotional exhaustion going on there. And the circumstances that we had. I also, by this time, didn't sleep a lot. And so when that finally came around, I had this in this voices I heard at night telling me what a fake I was. And it was so vivid, and I got up. I remember getting out of bed and walking around the house and going, Okay, wait a minute, I'm not dreaming and these voices are following me. And now I'm talking back to them. So I called a psychiatrist who told me the next day, he says, you know, you're absolutely fine. There's nothing really wrong with you, you're not getting enough sleep. Then he wrote out three prescriptions and handed them to me and said, Welcome to Microsoft, you have no idea how many people I see here just like you. 

Adam  

Wow. 

Karen  

And, and that was the moment for me that I woke up and realised that so many of us in this tech industry love what we do, right? Really pour ourselves into it too. Maybe too, too, too far. But that we're actually resorting to medicating ourselves in order to be able to do our jobs. That was when I was like, Okay, I have to figure out what's wrong here and change this.

Maggie  

That's a lot. I mean, you've I guess, you know, you've talked us through the the two particular burnout situations you found herself in, and there's definitely a lot of it in the tech industry, you know, as we're finding out, but at what point did you really feel that you had tipped over from a regular level of stress to being burnt out? And how important do you think having that support network that you've mentioned is?

Karen  

Oh, yeah, the support network is critical for me. Just because I, I enjoy the challenge. And so for me, the challenge is part of the fun but I, there's a there's a thing when I worked on the F22 aircraft at the Boeing Company, one of the things that really impressed me about it was that that aircraft can out-fly its occupant. That means that, you know, the aircraft is fully able to, to do manoeuvres that will kill the person who's the pilot, because the body can't withstand the kinds of forces that this that this aircraft is set up to do. And I think to some extent, there's the metaphor there is, some of us are in that category. There's some of us who have a really finely tuned stress barometer, and says, I'm taking a break, I'm feeling really stressed. And there's others who are - and it may be people at any level of the organisation - who just go for it all of the time. That's kind of the work ethic we were raised with or whatever it might be. And the override mechanism that we have in place to get this stuff done overrides all the signals our body is sending us that says I'm exhausted, I'm thirsty, I need to rest, I need, I'm, I'm you know, all of these signals. And burnout is kind of accumulation. We use the word so loosely, but it's kind of an accumulation of these things over time. That gets to the point where we lose our ability to really function. It could be physically functioning like it was for me. It could also be that there's this emotional like loss of interest in life, it feels like depression, right? And in fact, it could could be and would need to get checked out by a doctor. But having that support network around you is, you've got a set of objective people who are like, Yeah, you're doing it again. And let's go, let's go take, you know, let's go do something. Let's go take a break, let's go to the park. Let's go, you know, let's go take a weekend. And, yeah, that for me is, that's a lifesaver for me.

Maggie  

So a bit like taking a reset, really, because I think you're right. And and we're all guilty of this at different points in our life of pushing your boundaries, and then you lose where those boundaries are. So it's really useful to have that external sort of support network that can come and say, Hey, I think you need to come and have a walk or come and you know, have a sit in the park. Let's go to the library, let's just do something different to give me that reset.

Karen  

Right. And, you know, I think the other thing I've heard in some organisations is where, in fact, I was speaking to a former colleague, we used to work together. And since then have been working on different technology tracks for a number of years. And I had an opportunity to speak with him last year, and he said, my work literally broke my heart. And I was like, I thought, oh, that sounds that sounds that sounds like what do you mean, and he is he at the age in his mid 50s ended up having to have a heart transplant.

Adam  

Oh, my God. 

Karen  

Because of unmanaged workplace stress. And never really having that, having that work ethic that just assumed that do it more, do it more, do it more, push harder, push harder. There's something in us sometimes some of us that's essentially says, if you're telling me to take a break, I must be doing it wrong, I'll need to work harder next time. Like, right, so our tune, or we hear things differently than what other people expect. So they, when he talked about what had happened to him, his his question was, and now I see my wife doing the same thing that I did, and I'm trying to help her stop. But when I talk to her about, I think, you know, you should take a break, the way she hears it is, you're not up to the job, you're not able to do this job, it's too hard for you, you're gonna need a break. And so we have to be cognizant of the fact that everybody's wired a little bit differently. And we all bring a different set of beliefs and about the world, the way the world works, and about work and about our own worth. And, and when we don't have the ability to, to hear the way somebody is intending for the message to be sent. You know, it gets our wires crossed. And certainly I'm one of those people. I I think I've learned by now hopefully, but but early days, I just knew that it was like going to be up to me, I had to make this happen. I had to get this done. And no matter what it would take, I would get it done. And there's goodness in that. But there's going there's also the flip side of that coin, which is going too far that it hurts us.

Adam  

What would you say is the biggest barrier to staff recognising, admitting and addressing signs of burnout in themselves?

Karen  

Because we think it's a sign of weakness. That, that that we assume, by by our nature, that everyone else must be doing it just fine. I'm the only one who's not able to make it happen. I can't afford and in the industry that we're in, especially in the cybersecurity community, there's a sense that if you are struggling emotionally, or in any way with mental health or any other kind of emotional issue, that somehow you're not fit for duty. And so and so we have to have that conversation about you know, getting to the point where we can talk about these things at work and make it okay to not be okay. Right? That literally someone could come up and say this is kicking me this is just kicking me down the down the road. I can't quite keep up with this and have people around going I get it. Me too. Like let's let's figure out what we need to do to get you through this rough patch.

Adam  

And I think security in particular is one sector that has kind of historically had a big problem with that, you know, we've covered, you know, on the site a range of cultural issues in relation to security with this kind of overworking as standard operating procedure mentality being one of the key ones. Do you think that security has gotten better about supporting mental health and trying to curb this trend of burnout at all in recent years?

Karen  

Well, certainly in; Yes, definitely, It's better. I look over the span of my career, and in the early days, there would be no conversation about mental health at work, right? That just wasn't no, no, no conversation about wellness, right? That was your own problem you had to deal with. So we've got groups like Mental Health Hackers, and other communities that are very focused on trying to raise the level of awareness about what this looks like, and, and what you can and what you can do about it, but also a group of people around that says, hey, this happened to me, this is something we should talk about, because it's going to affect so many of us, we're all, we're all in this together. And everybody's going to interact with the stress level in a different way. Everybody's got a different level of tolerance. It's not great. It's no longer the best thing to get in the elevator, at the workplace in the morning and say, Well, hey, I only got two hours of sleep last night, you know, oh, that's nothing. I haven't been to bed for two days. I mean, I used to hear those conversations. And they were kind of like a badge of honour. And so instead of doing something, touting something that's so incredibly unhealthy, I think that we've gotten to the point where we're, we're recognising that in order for us to be our best at work, we have to be well, right? Well people do really great things, and, and they do it sustainably. And that's the conversation, I think, that the whole workplace at least acknowledges, if not puts in place.

Maggie  

Definitely. And I think you're right, Karen, I think some some organisations have definitely got better about, you know, having the conversation and allowing safe spaces, really, for employees to talk. I think that's the thing is some people don't want to talk about it. You know, everyone's different, as we've said, so if you're a manager or you're a colleague, and you suspect that a member of your team is fast approaching or just approaching burnout, what advice would you give in terms of how they can proactively address the situation? Are there any kind of key warning signs that you think people should be on the lookout for and ready to, to help provide that safe space, that talking environment and that support?

Karen  

Sure, I would, I would say for a manager, for someone who's you know, walking around and keeping a pulse on the organisation. If you, you know, first of all, cynicism is a huge issue, and cybersecurity is well known for our cynical humour. Right? And so, you know, cynical jokes can be actually really funny. And so I'm not trying to, I'm not trying to say we shouldn't do that. But when cynicism, this irrational belief that says, you know, management doesn't know what they're doing, management doesn't care about us management, blah, blah, blah, whatever that might be. That's irrational thinking. And unless you're in a totally, truly dysfunctional setup, where you should leave, right, most management is trying to make things happen, but we don't have a good, we don't see everything, we can't possibly understand everything that goes into making some decisions that don't look like they make sense to us. But when you have an organisation that you hear this undercurrent about, about how screwed up the company is and how they don't care about their people, that is cynicism at work, and it is really a very strong red flag that burnout is active in the organisation. So cynicism is in fact, while while it's really dangerous, and it's very contagious and spreads in an organisation around the watercooler, they, the signal is people are putting up a defence mechanism to something in the environment that's really causing them distress. Find out what that is and make it okay to talk about it. And do and management can do a lot of things. First of all, acknowledging that there's some challenges, being empathetic is goes a long way to saying hey, this is this is I get it, this is something that happens and let's see what we can do about you know, that together. But the other thing management really has an opportunity to do and I saw this at work at one of my former employers when we did an overhaul on IT, it was a very hard project but we took away barriers. We made it easier for people to get their job done. We tried to look at process that said, you know, these are the ways people are doing their job, they're doing their job in isolation, and they're handing off whatever they produce, like kind of throwing it over the fence to the next person who has to figure out what to do to pick it up, and whether it's useful for them or not. And there was like a lot of that kind of frustration about not being effective at work. And so we changed the processes radically and streamlined the organisation to the point where our software teams started deploying defect free code, and we got rid of break fix in the organisation. So people were getting their lives back. And that was all process work. So this is an opportunity, I really think, for management. Look at, like, if you hear that, that red flag that's all over the place with cynicism, there is probably something that you can do about the organisation to make it a better place for people to work. And it's not only just about wellness activities, and you know, I had another workplace I was at where they always did an employee Happy Hour, which really wasn't solving anything. Yeah. Fixing, fixing the Yeah, medicating it, maybe, but fixing, fixing the fundamental issues that are causing people frustration, and making them feel unproductive? That is something that we can all we can all get behind and do something about. 

Maggie  

Absolutely.

Adam  

I think that feeling of feeling like a cog in a machine is one of the real big contributors to burnout, particularly at a kind of department wide level, organisation wide level. But in addition to the kind of organisational burnout that we've talked about, there's also burnout on a more personal level that isn't necessarily completely related to how the business works, and how your your processes work, but might be a combination of, you know, factors that are more specific to an individual. But what happens when an individual employee or team member, when you feel like they're approaching burnout, and you're, you're worried that they might need some more support to try and avoid that, but they won't acknowledge that they are approaching a crisis point, you know, for all of the reasons that we spoke about earlier in the episode. What do you do at that point?

Karen  

Wow. So you're basically describing a scenario where a manager perceives that there's an issue, and, and the employee has barriers and resistance to hearing that. I think that's kind of in a nutshell, right. And it could be so so this, that, I think, to some extent, it's really on the, let's say, the manager who has perceiving the problem, you know, to just make sure that they, the employee knows that they they notice them, that they have not concerns in a judgmental way. But you know, like, as a human being, like, I just want you to know that I'm, I'm available, I see some things, I don't know what's going on in your life right now. But I'm here, if you want to talk about it, and just want to make sure that you know that there's resources available, if you feel like you want to reach out to some of those things. So there's EAP, I hate giving the EAP ticket, just as a, as a automatic response. And I think a lot of managers probably feel more comfortable with that. But the truth of it is, is that the number one attribute in the workplace that is making a difference is empathy. 

Maggie  

Yeah. 

Karen  

And, and it's so important to be able to sit with someone in a room, and just going, I get that things are hard right now, you don't have to talk to me about it if you don't want to, but I'm here for you. I'm with you. Right, we've all been there. And make make it so take, I think we can do a lot to kind of take the stigma away. I'm not sure why an employee would say, I don't want to talk about it, or it's really not happening. But those are defence mechanisms. And they're protective for some reason. So empathy is the way to draw people closer together. And and if there's a way to make that relationship open, where an employee will share with a manager. That's great. Now, I will say that most of us as managers were never trained to be able to do that. Right? That's terrifying to be honest. Like, what if somebody comes to me and gives me a real problem? I don't know what to do. I'm going to be afraid that I don't respond well, I don't know what to do about it. I don't want to just give the management response of oh, okay, here's the EAP phone number. Give them a call. Right?

Adam  

But also you don't want to overcorrect. You know, you don't, you don't want to say like, Okay, I think this person is kind of approaching a kind of burnout situation. So I'm gonna take some of their workload off them, for example, make it a bit easier for them to manage. And then they feel like that they've had responsibilities taken away from them, which is just not going to help.

Karen  

It's going to make it worse. Because they're going to assume that they need to work harder, that they can't, that they're being punished. Not being helped. Yeah, there's going to be a group of people that are never going to see that as a good thing. We actually had a marketing director at one point, not not at VMware, but at a prior job. And she was in that situation. And I watched the CEO actually cut off her Internet access and her email and send her home for two weeks. And the she was insanely upset. Like, this was no and no surprise, right? I'm not consulted, not talked to, just this unilateral action. That was a big overcorrection. Right? His his head was in the right place in caring about her. Right. But it didn't send that signal at all.

Maggie  

It sounds like in that particular example, and I'm sure there's many examples of that exact thing happening, of overcorrection, around the around the globe, of the thought was there, right? But the action, you know, was was without consultation. And without actually that empathy or listening and solving a problem that perhaps didn't exist in the mind of the employee, and you know, going too far the other way of, you know, making them feel like they're being punished and sent home like a naughty school child, which no one wants. Right?

Karen  

Right. And you and then the whole dynamic that kicks off is, what did other people know about this? What are other people thinking, how to like it just that, we get that bee under our helmet, and it just buzzes in there. It's just, that's our nature. But I think I think the simple act of connecting with another person on a level of empathy, not sympathy, but empathy, is the way to remove those barriers and to improve the communication.

Maggie  

Yeah, just just, you know, even if you don't have the answers as a manager, right, just be a human being, and treat people how you'd like to be treated. Like that's how I was brought up. 

Karen  

Yeah, that's right. 

Maggie  

So Karen, you've been through a lot, you know, you've had some some phenomenal successes, as well as some low real low points in your career that definitely equip you well to talk about the subject and help others. But if you were to go back, I'm sure you probably wouldn't want to go back and relive some of those things. But in hindsight, based on your experience, what would you have done differently? What further advice can you share to others for you know, their personal circumstances now, or things they might encounter in the future?

Karen  

I really believe that all of us have a path to walk, that life is an unfolding process. And I resist the temptation to go back and say, I wish I had or I regret that I did, or something like that. Yeah, there's things I could have done for sure that were different, but my life would not be what it is, I would not have learned the things that I've learned, I wouldn't, you know, sometimes, I've heard, I have another friend who uses the phrase, your mess is your message, right. And that's exactly what we can do with the things that we could have done differently. We learn from that, right, over time, hopefully. But then we can come back and say, Hey, this is what I've learned, like, you're, you're in a position where if you're now confronting the kinds of things that I confronted, you're more equipped than I was, to do something to choose something different for you. But the truth of it is, is that we're all going to make those places where we go into the, you know, the depths of... life beats us up, right? And, and, and, and you're kind of sitting there gasping on the ground. And, and it's how you get up and move on that grows us. So, yes, I don't wish burnout on anybody. What I want to say is that if you find yourself in that position, it's not a ding on you. It's not a taint. It's not a mistake. It is a thing, right. So get to learn, learn what you can from it, and then move on. And the and the next thing you do will be the next right thing. And that's what I would tell someone is that you're going to you're you're going to have moments where life leaves you gasping on the ground. The thing that is most helpful is to recognise that this will pass that you have the ability to be resilient and move on beyond it. It may take someone around you to help you see that in the moment and and hopefully people can find someone, reach out either personally or professionally to someone who can help them do that in the moment.

Maggie  

I think that's great advice. That really is. Thank you.

Adam  

Well, unfortunately with that, that's all we've got time for this week. But our thanks once again to VMware's Karen Worstell for joining us.

Karen  

Thank you so much for having me.

Maggie  

You can find out more about all of the issues that we've discussed today in the show notes and even more detail on our website itpro.co.uk.

Adam  

You can also follow us on social media or sign up to our newsletter for more great content.

Maggie  

We'll be back next week with more insight from the world of IT. But until then, it's goodbye from us for now.

Adam  

Bye.

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