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With 75% of the US workforce reporting symptoms of burnout and the incurred cost of lost productivity at a staggering 500 billion per year, it’s time to dig deeper into the topic with a true expert: Dr. Erica Simon
Erica is a clinical psychologist, healthcare consultant, speaker and tech industry advisor. She has provided services to a number of forward thinking leaders and organizations ranging from early stage startups to tech unicorns like Modern Health and Twitter.
Across her work, Erica has witnessed the impact that problematic work environments can have on the people within them, and has become an expert on burnout and stress.
Erica is interviewed by the Co-founder and CEO of Earkick, Dr. Herbert Bay.
Herbert: What exactly is burnout?
Erica: Burnout is actually a very poorly understood phenomenon and I probably shouldn’t even put it as a phenomenon because we think about burnout as if it’s something that’s in our mind.
Something that has to do with how well we can be resilient or push through, or whether we have tenacity. And that burnout means that we don’t quite have enough of any of those. That’s how we tend to think about burnout.
But actually burnout is a physiological phenomenon and so much more. While becoming a burnout specialist in the field of psychology, I’ve come to really understand that burnout is really this collection of experiences that we have, where we talk about the definition, where the demand within the workplace or our demand of our lives overwhelms our personal or professional resources. But it’s really so much more than that. I think that burnout really comes from a societal level.
We have this idea that our sum, the total of our worth is our productivity
And it really comes both in our work environments and our home environments. We talk about being weekend warriors. We really think about ourselves as being these productivity engines.And that I really think is where burnout comes from. Whether it is in the workplace, or whether it is what we’re doing in our homes, or whether it is what we’re doing at the societal level. Burnout is where we really see ourselves as just this engine for productivity. And when we start thinking about it in a little bit of a different way, then we start having different solutions to the problem.
So I think we need to start thinking about burnout in a lot more nuanced way than we even talk about it currently. Even at the level that people are understanding what burnout is or isn’t.
Herbert: So is burnout a self-made problem, because we pressure ourselves too much to be productive?
Erica: I think this is the underpinning of what burnout really is. It’s this idea that we’re supposed to be productive. When you think about how we’ve evolved as humans over time, we’re really meant to kind of go in between different kinds of energy. We’re not meant to be in this engine productivity mode all of the time.
Even when you go back to the times where there were people working in the fields for many, many hours from sunup to sundown. At some point there was sundown and then we had to gather around the fire and we had to have that renewal state. There were natural ways that we went into a renewal state and oftentimes together as a society, as a community as an individual.
Herbert: What if I love my work, because it’s so thrilling and amazing. And let’s say there is some kind of competition. I wanna thrive, I want to develop great products to make something really cool. There’s always a bit of pressure, but in my case it is experienced in a more positive way.
Erica: I think what you’re speaking to is something that’s also very important for us to understand about stress. We talk about stress as if it’s bad. Actually, a little bit of stress is good. There was some interesting research that came out that found that it wasn’t necessarily the number of hours worked that led to burnout.
We’ll talk a bit about the hours that can contribute to burnout. That whole body of literature is quite interesting. What they found was that it wasn’t necessarily how many hours. It was, whether or not you were in that “always-on” mentality mode. Whether when we’re off, we’re truly off. And when we’re on, we’re really on.
Here’s the thing: We’re not very intentional about our work anymore.
We just sit. They call it the button-seat-phenomenon, where we will be sitting at work and the more hours that you’re sitting there, THAT is how we show our productivity. And then what ends up happening is we spend more and more time being less and less productive in those hours that we’re working because we don’t actually let ourselves be totally and completely off when we’re off.
So think about this. What happens when you’re off and you’re checking your mobile phone, you’re checking your slack, you’re checking your email – you’re not really present for the things you’re doing when you’re off of work. How many of us are guilty of that? I know I am. It’s so easy. Our phones make life so completely and totally accessible at all times, and what that does is it creates this always-on mentality and then we get stuck in this tricky spot when we’re taking off. How many of us feel guilty about it? How many of us feel guilty when we’re doing self-care, self-maintenance, doing things where we’re just loafing off and doing nothing of importance?
We have this whole idea in our modern society that to be lazy, to be bored, to sit around and do absolutely nothing has to make us feel embarrassed. And that’s where the tricky part is. It’s not necessarily about when you really love your work and you feel really fulfilled by it, that’s not the problem. The problem is that a lot of us are doing work where we don’t see the purpose. You see the purpose in your work. Probably every single day you wake up and go:“Ah, I feel meaning and purpose in this work that I do.” And it probably feels really exhilarating. That’s crucial. And then when you’re off being really off and leaning into a disciplined pursuit of rest and play. That’s where we get that energy renewal piece. And there has to be that balance.
Once you start getting more and more into that always-on mode, you’re gonna get less and less productive, even if you believe in the work you do.
Herbert: For me, it takes real discipline to go into this off-mode because work is so exciting. But I know that it’s a marathon and it’s a sprint at the same time. So if I don’t recover as in sports, then I will not get very far. So it takes a lot of discipline to say: “No, today I’m not gonna do anything” or “now at nine o’clock it’s off-time, no screen anymore.” And I just don’t check my emails on weekends or in the mornings, I actually first check my emails at noon. So I hear you. That takes a lot of energy and discipline. But what are the warnings if I would go into this always-on mode? What are the warning signs?
Erica: I think everybody has something a little bit different. In the work that I do, I help people figure out what their signals are for that they’ve been in that always-on mode.
You said something really important about being an athlete. You have to have that disciplined pursuit of the rest as an athlete as well. And what you’re actually speaking to is this idea in sports psychology called the ideal performance state.
The trick is to find what your personal signals are for when you spend way too much time in that always-on mentality mode. And for me, I know it’s when I start getting really annoyed at music. That is my very first signal. I love music. I love dancing around in my living room – it’s one of the ways that I renew myself. When I start noticing that I’m skipping a lot of songs on Pandora because they all feel just a little bit whiny and annoying, that is my absolute signal “okay, I’ve got to get out of my chair. I need to spend an entire weekend doing something completely immersive.” Because I’ve probably spent too many evenings or weekends working. So this is what you have to decide. What are you going to figure out for yourself? How do you tap into those signals? There’s different kinds of rest that we all need. And sometimes what ends up happening is that we can lean into those different kinds of rests to understand where we might be experiencing this burnout mentality.
- Is your sleep feeling really off?
- Are you not really exercising in the way that you normally do?
- When you do exercise, do you actually feel like it’s renewing you or do you feel like it’s just making you more tired?
- Are you noticing that you’re withdrawing from relationships in your life?
- This is a really important one: Are you noticing that you just don’t have time to eat away from your debts?
- Are you noticing that you’re maybe not enjoying the things that you usually enjoy quite as much?
There are some things that are very common amongst all of us. What we do is we can take that deeper level and understand what the initial signal is for each one of us: What is that first signal that you are spending way too much time in work mode? And then what you do is you just make that effort to check in with yourself regularly. You can check in with yourself at the end of the day. You can check in with yourself at the end of the week. This is really about getting on top of this. Staying ahead of it is really how we have to address burnout.
Herbert: Let’s say I got burned out. How severe is that? I’ve heard there are two types of burnout, work related depression – when overwork is diagnosed as a burnout- and then there’s the real burnout, where the autonomic nervous system is completely broken. The first one is said to require a couple of months of recovery, and the second one requires years of recovery. No guarantee that the person is gonna recover. What does science say about that?
Erica: So, I think what you’re speaking to is first of all, how long have we been in burnout?
How long have we been depleting this physiological system? Burnout is about our physiology. What burnout does is it taps into our survival wiring, it taps into our threat detection system, systems that’ve been evolving over many many millions of years.
And it’s really about how we deal with a physical threat in the environment. That is what our modern stressors are, that work stress, that being in that always-on mode. That’s tapping into that survival wiring, the so-called fight-or-flight mode.
It’s the same thing. So what’s happening is, at a physiological level, we have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our body. The frontal lobes, the parts of our brains that make good decisions, actually go offline. There are all sorts of changes in our respiration, in our heart rate, in our blood pressure. Our body is preparing to fight or flee a danger that’s in the environment. The thing is, is that when you are dealing with a physical threat, it goes away at some point. We have an autonomic nervous system that pulls us into that threat mode, that survival mode, and then we get pulled back into recovery and rejuvenation mode.
What happens with modern stress though, is our bodies stay in that threat response mode.
A physical threat has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But our modern stress does not have that.
Over time, our bodies have adapted to dealing with ongoing threats across our history such as war and famine, etc., but with modern stress, we have to learn to recognize the signs of our physiology, telling us that if we don’t pull ourselves back into that recovery mode, we will get depleted.
Every one of us has a cortisol response. It goes up in the morning, and as actually a big part of our cortisol response in the morning, it is a big part of how we feel, how energized and ready to meet the day we are. Our cortisol response then goes down across the day. This is our natural response. With burnout what happens is that our cortisol response, which is not supposed to be pumping cortisol through our blood all the time, depletes.
If you have a finite resource that just keeps on getting pumped out, you will eventually not have that same resource anymore. This is what happens with our physiology when we stay in burnout. For too long, we just deplete our neuroendocrine system, and then we don’t actually see that cortisol response anymore, because it’s blunted. We have this set with our heart rates. Our heart rates are meant to have a very natural response with our breathing. So when we breathe in, our heart rate increases and when we breathe out our heart rate decreases. Again, this is our autonomic nervous system regulating our physiology. It’s actually really beautiful.
Think about how amazing it is.
Our respiration is the only part of our physiology over which we have voluntary control and it actually connects to every single aspect of our physiology.
So when we’re breathing, we’re meant to breathe in and breathe out. The exhalation is supposed to be about twice as long as the inhalation, and we have a beautiful physiological response that happens at the deep autonomic nervous system level when we’re at rest. Then our bodies do this amazing thing where when we are in a stress response, our bodies really activate and bring together all aspects of our physiology to deal with whatever that thing is that it needs to do.
But our bodies can’t stay in that mode forever. We have what’s called surge capacity. Surge capacity is our body’s response to that ongoing stressor that maybe lasts a little bit longer than that tiger that’s standing in front of us ready to pounce.
But at some point, even our surge capacity becomes depleted and we have to recognize this. Unfortunately, if we don’t get ahead of this at some point, our breathing, our blood pressure, our heart rate, our autonomic nervous system, it all gets depressed to a point where we’re not actually actively responding to the environment in the same way anymore.
So you do have sort of these initial stages of burnout where we have some depletion of energy resources and if we would actually get out of that system, if we got out of that situation, our bodies would naturally pull back into that parasympathetic response in our autonomic nervous system response.
Our bodies are amazing at recovering this way, but when we’ve pushed ourselves past that resource, when basically there’s no gasoline in the tank anymore, and there’s no gas station in sight, it could take years for us to actually recover that physiological adaptability in response to the environment.
Herbert: What does burnout have to do with “Quiet Quitting”? Can you elaborate on that?
Erica: I think that the quitting phenomenon has been quite fascinating to me, to just observe over time. Because to me, a big part of what I do in my work with burnout is I help people understand how to show up in their jobs with “enough.” So what is enough? We don’t necessarily define what enough is. When you think about it, we have this very deeply embedded implicit belief that is programmed into us that when work is done, work is not. If you think about it, even when we’re kids, what do we have? You get out of school and what do you have when you go home? You have homework. Think about that. Sometimes kids these days can have four hours of homework. Thinking about this with quiet quitting. To me, when I first heard about it, I was thinking, oh my gosh, this is a bunch of people just doing their jobs
Instead of saying:”I’m gonna do four jobs instead of working the 60 hours a week, I’m gonna actually do what my job description says I’m supposed to do.” And originally I was like:”Yay, this is really phenomenal. I love this.” But then I realized that there was something deeper in here because it gets to the very heart of burnout. A lot of people are so burned out and it’s not necessarily about them just doing their jobs. They’re disconnected. They’re not engaged in their work. They’re not thriving in their work. They don’t see that sense of meaning and purpose. They feel like they’re a cog in the wheel, and they’re so tired and they’re so burnt out. This is the thing with burnout as well.
There’s a lot of mental health aspects that are connected to it. We get irritable, we get angry, our relationships suffer. And at some point we start to suffer. We just kind of get that disconnected bit of what burnout can be, how it can show up in our work. So I think quiet quitting has something in here. That’s a great lesson:
We can’t just keep pushing people the way that we have. We can’t just see people as a cog in the wheel. It’s not going to work in the long run.
And we also have to recognize that people need to feel that sense of meaning and purpose. They need to feel like what they’re doing matters. If we don’t actually have that sense, if we don’t give the people on our team that sense of purpose, then they’re also not going to be able to give what they would like to even give.
Like what you feel, Herbert, you wake up and you feel that sense of purpose in your work. And because you do that, the effort feels less, you feel less effort for the same amount of time, and you’re gonna be more productive with less feeling of effort in that same amount of time, and you’re gonna get more work done.
Herbert: Can it also be dangerous? Isn’t there also some responsibility on the manager’s side? It’s like a coach. If I compare it with elite athletes, the coach says:”Today you have to do an easy run. And often trainers have to tell their athletes to do easier than they like to do their easy run. And sometimes they have to say:”Once per week, it’s a day off. You don’t train, you don’t do anything. It’s off. No sports at all!” I think managers have the same responsibility to tell their teams:” Look, don’t overdo. Take that time off to care about yourself and maybe just do an easy day, some administration work or just cleaning up the emails that are stacking up. What do you think?
Erica: I think it’s brilliant and it really does speak to what the research shows. Going back to that ideal performance state that I mentioned before. There is this concept in sports psychology actually called the ideal performance state. It’s about managing our energy states: We need to oscillate between energy expenditure and energy renewal.
When you’re an athlete, you have to do that. When I was training for a marathon, I was completely surprised by the fact that there were days across the week where you were told you absolutely cannot do anything. You can’t lift weights, you cannot run, you cannot do anything.
And then at the very end of the marathon training, there were like two weeks where you did absolutely nothing. And this made no sense to me. I’m thinking:”Am I gonna lose these gains that I’ve made over these many, many months that I’ve trained?” The interesting thing is, that’s actually where you get your strengths.
Just like with athletes, your strength comes from your recovery.
Herbert: That’s what they say. Amateur athletes focus on training and elite athletes focus on recovery!
Erica: Exactly. There’s this wisdom to the recovery piece of our physiology. So when you’re pushing, pushing, pushing, what happens if you overtrain?
Herbert: Then you get injured and you can’t run anymore…
Erica: Exactly. In the worst case you can sustain an injury that takes you completely out of the game. So we all know people who will run and they’re all taped up and they’re just trying to push through that plantar fasciitis. At some point we have to let our bodies give us that information about what we need to do. And that is exactly what happens when you’re an athlete. You have to listen to the wisdom of your body. There’s also the 80/20 rule. You’re supposed to train hard 20% of the time and train extremely easy 80% of the time.
We don’t necessarily have to go into all the very interesting details of why that is the case, but our physiology is made to where if we don’t do 80% at a very low level, we’re actually missing out at bumping ourselves up. Certain kinds of gains we can only make if we are training at that 80% – well below what most people do. Most people live in this middle area, this gray area, where we’re not training hard enough at certain times to really get the gains and we’re not training low enough to bump up this threshold. And it’s the exact same way as for us as humans, just in our work. You think about our productivity, it’s the same.
Herbert: So you also suggest taking some breaks during the day to just do some breathing exercises or close your eyes for a moment or do some meditations maybe?
Erica: Yes. So I am a big, big believer in a disciplined rest and play ethic.We can do the rest and play in a lot of different ways. I don’t know if you’re a super playful person, but thinking for most people who are listening to this, it’s like:”Oh my gosh, I’d be embarrassed to tell people, what did I do to play today?” We don’t think about it. How many of us see that we glorify overwork and we kind of see rest as a little bit embarrassing to say:”Oh yeah, I took this time.”
So we need to lean into this disciplined pursuit of rest and play. Because when we do this, we’re actually making gains. And if we can have that switch in how we think about things, whether it’s the managers encouraging their team members to take time off and really rest in recovery, or it’s us as individuals.
We can tap into different ways to rest and play. For example, ultradian rhythms. Most people have heard of circadian rhythms, which is how we transition with our sleep, the wake sleep cycle, taking approximately 24 hours. For a lot of us, it’s a little bit longer, which can screw things up. We also have ultradian rhythms, which are about 90 minute rhythms of energy expenditure and renewal needs across the day. It means we can only really focus on something for about 90 minutes, and then we need to recover. So sitting down, focusing for 90 minutes and then getting up, going for a walk, doing a quick meditation, doing a quick breathing will make you feel better. You will be able to sit down and focus better and function better if you allow yourself to tap into that rhythm. We can do it daily. There’s the energy expenditure and renewal rhythm.
When you’re on work, make sure to be on work, and when you’re at play, when you’re resting or off, be truly off.
We can do this across the week, during the weekday versus the weekend. There’s a lot of ways that we can do this, and I highly recommend doing activities that give you the biggest return on your time investment.
So what’s something that you do that after you do it, you feel this great sense of energy that’s kind of surging. For me it’s a five minute dance party in my living room. How about you, Herbert?
Herbert: For me it’s a breathing exercise or going outside. It’s very energizing for me to go into sunlight or to be outside even if there’s no sunshine. Actually yesterday I was measuring my body battery with my Garmin Watch, and during a breathing exercise of 10 minutes I saw that my body battery actually went up. That means that my stress level was really low during that time and I was fully focusing on breathing, not on work or anything else. I tried to just focus on my breathing and that really helped. Walking outside is even better because of the fresh air for your brain. In both cases your brain gets oxygenised and I feel really great afterwards.
Erica: Well, I think you’re speaking to rejuvenating yourself on the physiological level. When we breathe, we pull ourselves into that parasympathetic mode, so we pull ourselves naturally out of that fight or flight response that we are experiencing in our modern world.
There’s great research around the power of nature. Being around water, in water, but also being in nature. There’s something called fractals, and that’s the repeating patterns in nature. Interestingly, they’ve done research where there’s an almost instantaneous physiological reduction in our stress levels. They’ve looked at this with MRI and EEG studies where brainwaves shift out of a more stressed mode into a more relaxed mode within something like 60 seconds of being in nature. We see it literally in our brains and our bodies. So this is a great example of return on your time investment, going outside, being near water, doing a breathing exercise. Walking is also a way where again, we’re reestablishing that physiological balance. So all of those are great.
As our close followers already know, I’m a free diver. So I feel very relaxed, even if I just see water, it makes me relax. All my muscles go offline and everything relaxes in my body if I just look at water. This is actually also something that helps a lot. Now, what else can we do to tackle or to address burnout?
We also need different kinds of rest;
- We need physical rest, both active and passive. Active rest is more something like yoga, doing breathing exercises, things of that sort.
- We need emotional rest, creative rest, where we do something that generates some feeling of creativity.
- We need to have sensory rest. We need to be somewhere where we don’t have all this input from devices, this modern world is so loud and noisy. This is where we can get that sensory rest in nature.
There’s something called a non sleep deep rest, which is really fascinating. It’s a way where we can, within like 18 minutes, you can put your body into this recovery state. It doesn’t quite replace sleep but it’s really helpful.
Then, I think that relationships are key. We are social creatures. We are meant to be in community. And the number one thing that burnout does when it comes down to it, is it disrupts our relationships. It disrupts our relationship with ourselves and with other people. And for my fellow introverts out there, this isn’t about being around a whole bunch of people. This is about finding those relationships that feed you, that nourish you. Making sure that you’re leaning into those relationships and being fully present. Burnout leads to exhaustion and that exhaustion makes a disconnect.
Be present with your partner, with your family member, with your best friend, with your kids, with your pet. Be fully present in that moment. Ground yourself in the present moment. Look around and see what is actually there. How many of us spend our time looking down, looking at our computer? Even if we’re in nature, we might not really see it. Take this beginner’s mind. Look around as if you’ve never experienced this place before. Bring a sense of wonder and awe. Make sure that you are tapping into these more existential aspects of what it means to be human and give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to take that time. To know that your sum total of your worth is not your productivity. That you get to have a loafing off day where you can do nothing of importance, and that what you are doing is actually being productive. It’s a different kind of productivity. Give yourself that permission to do absolutely nothing and relish in it. Be so indulgent about it, and then invite other people to do the same.
If each of us starts inviting the other person and we bring ours, we call ourselves into this beautiful thing called being a human, resting, playing, seeing the entirety of our human experience as it is our birthright. We get to have that. It is basic, and when we start calling each other on this, it becomes this sort of subversive act of resistance in this world that tells us that that’s not what we get to.
Herbert: You mentioned sleep. There’s an amazing interview between Rich Roll and Dr. Matthew Walker. It’s about three hours, but if you have time, listen to it, it’s amazing. Matthew Walker says that sleep was once considered one of the pillars that actually support your mental health. But now it’s considered as the foundation of everything. So if you don’t sleep, you don’t eat well. If you don’t sleep, you don’t exercise well. It’s the basis of everything. And the second one is about relationships. There’s the stories and also the Buddhists that say that the time you’re alive is right now, and you can die any time. So, take the time to spend with your relatives, with your kids, with people. Not so long ago when my kids would come in and I was working, I would tell them to go away, that I have to work and so on. And now I really take this time consciously and tell myself:”Life can be over any time, any moment for myself or my kids. You never know. So take this moment to be with people while they’re still alive. That’s so life changing.
Erica: It really is. And I think that’s such a beautiful sentiment. We don’t necessarily think about how each moment truly is this precious. And there are a lot of ways that we talk about mindfulness and Buddhism. It has become a lot more embedded in our modern kind of psyche in this kind of western thought and in a way that I think is really beautiful.
Because what we need to do is recognize that this is all we have: This moment, and then this one, and then this one. And how do we wanna spend those life minutes? My mother always said:
”Growing up you can choose how to spend your life minutes, or you can let somebody choose how to spend your life minutes for you.”
Every moment really is precious and we have the ability to choose what this moment means and what it looks like. I think if nothing else from this time together today, if there’s that little tiny bit of permission to even begin to think about this, then I think this podcast did what it needed to do.
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