Manage Stress to Avoid Burnout

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

It’s a significant hazard for the government workforce: 52% of public sector employees report feeling burned out at work, compared to 45% in the private sector. A third are planning to leave their jobs within the next 12 months.

Two keynote speakers at GovLoop’s NextGen Summit offered advice on how to avoid, and recover from, burnout, based on their expert research — and also on personal experience.

Stress is more than an emotional reaction — it has real physical consequences. Julian Reeve, former musical director for Broadway shows including “Hamilton” and now a burnout and stress management consultant and coach, learned that the hard way, when he suffered a heart attack at the relatively young age of 43.

Frieda Edgette, Senior Executive Service Leading EDGE Faculty Chair at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, shared her own story of stress-induced illness: an eating disorder. Like Reeve, she turned to studying the psychology of stress and burnout as part of her response.

Reeve pointed out that high achievers are especially prone to stress because of their own ambition and perfectionism. “High achievers love stress,” he said. “We love it because it makes us feel successful and accomplished.” That sets off a vicious cycle, as accomplishment leads to more work, which leads to more stress. Eventually, the stress leads to burnout.

Burnout’s Three Symptoms — and How to Combat Them

WHO’s definition of burnout cites three symptoms. Edgette recommended a specific “antidote” to each:

  • Energy depletion. Edgette’s antidote to the exhaustion that typifies burnout is to meet your own basic needs. “And when I say, basic, I mean basic,” Edgette emphasized. “If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re lonely, reach out. Text a friend; call a trusted ally. If you’re tired, sleep.”
  • Cynicism. “Focus on bright spots,” Edgette said. “Our brains are actually predisposed toward the negative,” so it can help to actively focus on the positive. She suggested the “Three Good Things” exercise — recording three good things that happen each day.
  • Reduced professional efficacy. The key here, according to Edgette, is to restore your sense of agency. “Don’t despair that what you do doesn’t matter,” she said. Focus on your role in the organizational mission and vision and recognize the impact of your labor.

Four Steps to Manage Stress

For Reeve, avoiding burnout means managing stress through developing four key skills:

  • Self-awareness. “Ask super basic simple questions: What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What am I sensing?” he said. When what you’re feeling is stress, awareness gives you the opportunity to do something about it.
  • Self-care. In Reeve’s definition, self-care is “about rewiring you to prioritize you.” Beyond the basics of taking physical care of yourself, it’s giving yourself permission to change and try new ways to address stressful situations, including reframing success. “A big part of managing stress and burnout is understanding [that] the journey to the result may be even more important than the result itself,” he said.
  • Self-compassion. This is the not-so-simple art of being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. “It’s taking the wonderful compassion that we can feel for other people, and turning it on to ourselves,” Reeve said.
  • Self-respect. Self-respect involves setting boundaries and living up to your own values, according to Reeve. “We need to know what they are, we need to commit to them, and we need to stick to them.”

Just Say “No”

“Self-respect is so important because at some point we have to draw the line,” Reeve said. “Ultimately we need to learn to say ‘no.’”

If you’re not quite comfortable with “no” Edgette suggested that you at least “ban the blanket ‘yes’. “When the requests come in, try a conditional ‘yes.’”

What’s a conditional ‘yes’? According to Edgette, it means “‘I’ll take that meeting if instead of an hour, it’s 30 minutes’ or ‘if it’s a walking meeting and we get out of the Teams/Zoom world.’” 

“There are a million ways to say ‘no,’” Reeve agreed. “We just need to find the language and have the self-respect to say it.”

To learn more about NextGen, including the agenda, links to the video presentations and registration information for upcoming summits, click here:




Photo by Felipe Borges at pexels.com

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