Workplace Burnout – Without The Boom!

Workplace burnout has become one of the mental health issues of our time, with estimates of around 50% of people in the UK experiencing it according to a recent Forbes article. Despite the seriousness of the condition, people can and do go on to make a complete recovery, and in this case study, I talk about my work with Emma (not her real name) and how my IMPACT Model enabled her to go from a very dark place to a very good one.

Workplace burnout – getting the right support

When I first spoke to Emma, it became evident very quickly that her chosen modus operandi historically had been to talk to no one about how she felt or acknowledge to herself that anything was wrong. While those around her – her husband, friends and family, boss and colleagues – will have known something was wrong, they would not have gathered this from Emma herself. Only when she admitted to her husband that she was having suicidal thoughts did this change. Hearing the formal diagnosis of workplace burnout from her GP told Emma all she needed to know: she was in trouble and needed support. And I knew that if Emma was going to talk to me, our conversations had to be different from those she was used to having.

A Conversation With Impact

Using my Conversations With Impact questionnaires, Emma and I agreed on the qualities and characteristics missing from her existing conversations that we would need to put into ours. Two essential qualities we decided needed to be present early on were challenge and being listened to without judgement. Challenge because Emma recognised the need to hear from me what she wasn’t willing to hear from anyone else. Listening without judgement because, as we discovered, Emma never listened to herself without judgement and also didn’t trust others to do so either.

The relationship with her mother was especially problematic. ‘Mum has always tried to fix me,’ Emma said, ‘and so I learned early on in life that silence was the best policy.’ In our initial conversation, Emma surprised herself with her honesty. She talked about being perfectionistic, obsessive and a workaholic. We were off to a good start.

Making sense of Emma’s workplace burnout

While Emma knew she was driving herself too hard and neglecting everything except her work, she was unsure why. I had a hunch that her perfectionism was due to low self-esteem because I have never met a perfectionist who values themselves. I suggested to Emma that for people with low self-esteem, the search for perfection is motivated by a desire to escape who they are and how they feel. This explanation made sense to Emma, and not only that, it helped her date when she started to feel this way about herself.

When it all began

Around her GCSEs, Emma became acutely aware of high expectations and a fear of failure. She didn’t go on to university because of this fear and talked about eating and body issues, cleanliness, and from the start of her working life, being a workaholic. Emma asked why she would have formed such a negative view of herself. I said the answer is usually found in our formative years, in our upbringing. Did she recognise herself in anyone, I asked? For the first time, Emma laughed. ‘My mother. I know she doesn’t value herself! She should be talking to you, but she won’t, so she tries to fix me instead!’

‘Your teenage self is still running the show,’ I said, ‘and we need to give you back control of your life.’ Emma was genuinely shocked that her adult life was simply an older version of the one she established in her teens. However, she was no longer a mystery to herself, and that made a huge difference.

Emma’s workplace burnout – a pattern of withdrawal

Emma and I agreed that her dominant pattern of withdrawing from people, which was easy for her to do at the best of times, needed immediate attention. Knowing this would prove unnatural, I asked Emma to choose two people she felt closest to and safe. When you have spent your adult life projecting a false image of yourself, breaking such a pattern must be done carefully. Emma decided on her husband and boss. The importance of doing so overcame any resistance to talking to her husband and boss, but she received nothing but understanding. Emma’s husband was relieved his wife was finally talking to him, and her boss told her to do what was necessary. For the first time in her adult life, Emma discovered that she could admit vulnerability without being judged or fixed.

Workplace burnout, self-esteem and acceptance

Emma had such a negative view of herself, which resulted in a constant stream of self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours. Having been permitted to challenge her, I did so by asking Emma to consider the idea that she had value and worth. As expected, Emma found this hard to accept. Still, we had built up a good working relationship by then, and she allowed me to say what she knew to be true: the resolution to her difficulties was contingent on her accepting she had value and worth as a human being.

Fantasy-Reality Gaps

I introduced Emma to my concept of the ‘fantasy-reality gap’, which I explained as the difference between:

  • Who someone thinks they are and who they actually are
  • What someone thinks they are doing and what they are actually doing
  • What someone thinks is the life they are leading and what life they are actually leading

The bigger the FRG, I said, the more damaging it is. Emma’s fantasy was that she was fat and unattractive; her self-sabotaging behaviours were beneficial; her workaholism the foundation to a happy lifestyle. The reality was none of these beliefs was true. The only way to close destructive FRGs, I gently suggested to Emma, was through acceptance.

The challenge of overcoming workplace burnout

What finally caused Emma to her lowest point was her decision to start an MBA. Although a long-held ambition, Emma quickly realised she was ill-equipped to cope with the course’s personal, professional, and academic challenges, which my FRG idea helped her understand. I talked to Emma about the importance of making challenge work for her rather than against her. Firstly, we needed to find her priority areas of challenge and the MBA not one of these; she was. Secondly, we had to find the right level of challenge, using what I called The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge: not too little, not too much, but just right.

Emma talked about trying to remain on her course, but I expressed as strongly as possible that I thought this was a bad idea as it would keep the level of challenge too high. I asked her to consider that she was not giving up on her MBA dream by focusing on herself as the priority challenge, simply postponing it. Fast forward a few months, and Emma is looking forward to starting her MBA next academic year.

Emma’s transformation – putting her workplace burnout behind her

I shared with Emma my approach to transformation and how I see it as both the journey and the destination. Previously, she had been obsessed with the destination; it was all about the endpoint with no regard given to the process of achieving it. As with postponing her MBA course, I encouraged her to view focusing more on the journey as guaranteeing her arrival at her destination, not threatening it. Emma struggled with this, but when I asked her if she had reached her desired destination via her old approach, she took my point. In any case, I said to her, the journey and destination are not independent of each other; they create each other. Get the journey right, I said, and the destination pretty much takes care of itself.

In time, I enabled Emma to work out what she needed to transform. Her list of areas was a mixture of the internal, e.g. identity and beliefs, and the external, to move house and reconnect with her friends and family. Over her three-month Programme, Emma went from being in denial about herself and her life to fully confront and overcome all that had undermined her attempts to flourish in life.

Getting support to overcome workplace burnout.

If you or someone you know is experiencing workplace burnout and you have been inspired by Emma’s story, why not get in touch? My IMPACT Transformation Programmes, which are the product of over 16 years of coaching and therapy experience, offer effective, tailored support to get your life back on track.

“I cannot speak highly enough of Mark. I sing his praises to anyone and everyone who is struggling.” Emma