Battling burnout

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, May 15-21, GRIP is taking a closer look at mental health in the workplace. Today’s focus is on strategies that compliance professionals can put into place to avoid burnout.

Compliance professionals are no strangers to stress. In recent years, though, the levels of burnout are skyrocketing. One recent survey found that 72% of compliance officers working in the financial sector felt somewhat or very burned out at work, and more than half wanted to change jobs or companies in the coming year.

Burnout affects our mental and physical health, our relationships, and our success at work. If you want to continue to do good work while also showing up for your families, friends, and communities, it’s essential to manage your own energy effectively to avoid burnout. Easier said than done, right? Here are a few ideas.

Have a daily reset

As with so many things, when it comes to burnout, the best defense is a good offense. It’s important to take affirmative steps to protect your mental and physical health. One way to do that is to have a daily reset – something you do every day that gives you energy and helps you to stay even-keeled. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment; a few minutes a day can suffice.

I do a few minutes of yoga and meditation every morning. A friend has a pop-up reminder on her watch at noon each day, reminding her to breathe. Another plays guitar for 15 minutes at the end of each workday, as a signal to himself that the day is over. Perhaps for you it’s walking your dog after dinner, drawing while you have your morning coffee, or a prayer before bed. The key is that it be something that actually nourishes you and that you do it consistently.

Share the burden

Compliance can be a particularly lonely field, as you often aren’t able to share what you’re working on, even with colleagues. There is a difference, though, between sharing the specifics of a matter and sharing your own feelings. You can say to a friend: “I just started a new matter that is really complicated and emotionally draining. It’s taking a lot out of me,” without violating any confidences.

It’s said that the universe whispers first, then it shouts. There are usually warning signs that you are beginning to burn out.

Try to think of five people you can call on when you’re struggling—and commit to reaching out to them when you’re having a hard day. Meet someone for coffee or set up a call with a friend. Don’t underestimate the benefits of therapy. Finally, work to build or strengthen your friendships. Ask a co-worker to lunch or a neighbor to join you for a run. Build those relationships now, so that you have them to lean on now and in the future.

Set boundaries

The reality is that protecting your energy is your job alone. No one else can do it for you. If a co-worker is annoying you with repeated phone calls throughout the day, don’t wait for him to recognize your annoyance and modify his behavior. It’s up to you to notice your own annoyance, identify the cause, then take the steps needed to protect your energy. Perhaps you can ask him to email his questions, or turn “do not disturb” on your phone for a few hours each morning, or walk him through how to find the answers to his questions on his own.

I once asked volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon how he handled bad behavior on his team. He said: “The behavior you get is what you’ll endure.” We teach people how to treat us – both what we’ll put up with and what we won’t.

Know your warning signs

A manager once said to me: “I really thought I was fine. I was reading the news and was aware of everything going on, but I didn’t think it was affecting me. Then one day I was on a conference call with my team and I just started screaming at them. I totally lost it.”

It’s said that the universe whispers first, then it shouts. There are usually warning signs that you are beginning to burn out, and it’s only when those are missed that the signals get louder, until they’re impossible to ignore. The challenge is that those warning signs are different for different people. Perhaps for you it’s a persistent sore throat, or trouble falling asleep, or a sharper edge to your sarcasm.

It’s important to recognize your own warning signs and to take action when they show up.

It’s important to recognize your own warning signs and to take action when they show up, by recommitting to your daily reset or reaching out to a friend. One final warning: Rigid thinking is another sign of burnout. You may be apt to think: “There is no help. It’s all on me, and I can’t take a break.” Ironically, this is an indication that a break is precisely what you need; and in taking that break, you’ll see options that hadn’t occurred to you, and things that felt immovable can, it turns out, be managed.

Connect with your larger purpose

You may have heard that parable about a traveller who comes upon three people working. He asks each of them “What are you doing?” The first answers, “busting up rocks.” The second answers, “making a living.” The third answers, “building a cathedral.”

There is a reason that you chose your current field and your current position. What is that? As Simon Sinek recounts in his book and TED talk, knowing your “why” spurs creativity, energy, and engagement. Once you understand why you are doing the work you do, look for indications of the impact you’re having in that fulfilling that purpose.

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant tells the story of a campus fundraising center where students called alumni for donations. Many were exhausted and disengaged due to perpetual hang-ups and refusals. Then they were shown a video of a student who had benefited from a scholarship due to the donations like the ones they were soliciting. The call center employees felt refreshed and more energetic in tackling their calls (and donations soared).

These past few years have been challenging. If you’re feeling exhausted and burned out, you are not alone. Focusing on your own wellbeing with the same vigor you’ve used to support others can help you continue to succeed and thrive while doing so.

Katharine Manning provides training and consultation on empathy at work, and is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job.