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Are you addicted to busy? Burnout is one of the fast growing professional obstacles people face, and it’s hitting high-achieving women hard. In this informative 30-minute session, Paula Davis-Laack, a stress and resiliency expert, explores what burnout is, what causes it, and the warning signs you need to look out for. Press Play or read the full transcript, below.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a former practicing lawyer, an internationally-published writer, speaker, media contributor and a burnout prevention and stress resilience expert. She has taught and coached burnout prevention and resiliency skills to thousands of professionals around the world. Her articles on stress, burnout prevention, resilience and thriving at work are prominently featured on her blogs in The Huffington Post, U.S. News & World Report and Psychology Today. She is the author of two e-books, the latest one titled, “Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.” Davis-Laack works with brands such as American Express and NIVEA to help craft messages around what it means to have success, health and happiness today. Her expertise has been featured in and on O, The Oprah Magazine, Time.com, Fast Company, Forbes.com, Redbook, “The Steve Harvey Show,” Huffington Post Live and a variety of radio programs and podcasts. She was also named a Top 10 Online Influencer in the area of Stress by Sharecare, which is a Dr. Oz website. She is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping companies and busy professionals create sustainable success by helping them prevent burnout and build stress resilience.
Conferences for Women
Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention
Guest: Paula Davis-Laack
Interviewer: Karen Breslau
Karen: Welcome to the Conference for Women Teleclass: Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Our guest today is Paula Davis-Laack, a former lawyer and a writer, speaker, media contributor and a burnout prevention and stress-resilience expert. She has taught and coached burnout prevention and resiliency skills to thousands of professionals around the world. She is the founder and CEO of the Davis-Laack Stress and Resilience Institute.
This session will explore what burnout is, what causes it and the warning signs you need to look for. We’ll be sharing highlights from today’s call on Twitter. You can follow along and join the conversation @PennWomen, @TexasWomen, @MassWomen and in California at #leadonca. A reminder, today’s class will be available as a podcast on your conference website. If you registered through Eventbrite, you will receive an email telling you when the podcast is available. Now, Paula Davis-Laack, welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass.
Paula: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be chatting with everybody.
Karen: Good. Well, we have a lot of questions. I think we’re just going to dive right in. What I want to start with is in your work, what do you mean by the expression, “Addicted to busy.”
Paula: That’s really the phrase that I started to use after I burned out toward the end of my law practice. I wanted to try to more fully understand what my burnout was about. As I started to read and dig and look at research and connect with different experts, I was realizing that a lot of this seemed to center around our business. I started to think about what is sort of going into that because I said all the time to my friends, “Hey. How are doing? I’m busy.” “How are you? I’m busy.”
That’s just sort of the kind of answer that we tend to give each other these days and really discovered that there are very specific things that are driving that inner culture. It’s things like information overload. We’ve got so much information coming at us and our devices are these wonderful, great things that help us do our work in a more efficient way but we haven’t put any boundaries around how we use them.
I know a lot of people who find themselves up at all hours of the night sending emails and responding to emails and doing various work-type items. We’re also very distracted and disconnected. Some of that comes from the information overload piec but some of it, too, is that we’re connecting more on social media rather than actually having sit-downs and lunches with really close friends like we used to. Some of it, too, is just the way workplace is just run.
A lot of work places still think of workers in a way that they expect endless hours and face time and show up even when you’re sick and it’s a badge of honor-type mentality and we all really buy into that. I certainly did. My goodness, for everyone who is a parent out there, I think our culture has such a high standard for parents today.
It seems like just so many of the parents I know are just either rushing around, doing a million different activities with their kids. A lot of the moms and dads who I talk to and work with feel like, “Man, I’ve got to do everything. I’ve got to do it perfectly. There’s really tough, high standards for me to meet. If I don’t meet it, man, just so worried and just so fearful that my kids aren’t going to end up at the right college or with the best future that I envision.”
Karen: I think a lot of us must recognize ourselves and people we know in that description of ‘addicted to busy’. Is that the same as ‘burnout’? What is the relationship between ‘addicted to busy’ and burning out?
Paula: I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a relationship. I just think that some of the ‘addicted to busy’ pieces might contribute to or fuel some of the burnouts that I see. Really, the burnout that I tend to work with and the true definition and the research behind ‘burnout’ really focuses on the work-related aspects of it. I certainly think that …
I mean based on what I just talked about with our business and rushing around, can you be a burned-out parent? Absolutely. Can you be a burned-out caregiver? Of course. I mean there are a lot of people who are taking care of aging parents and relatives that are probably experiencing what we know to be burnout. A lot of my focus and writing and teaching really talks about burnout as something that’s tied to work.
Karen: What are some warning signs of burnout? How do we know when we are in danger of fizzling out?
Paula: There’s really something called the ‘big three’. The big three dimensions or drivers of burnout are exhaustion. Again, it’s chronic exhaustion. This is not waking up one day and I feel really tired or I’ve had a really tired week. It’s chronic exhaustion. Cynicism, everything and everyone is rubbing you the wrong way is how I define it. Clients and colleagues and friends and family members who used to give you a little spark of joy are now not necessarily giving you so much of the spark of joy. The last of the three-dimension, big drivers is something called ‘inefficacy’, feeling like we’re not able to achieve the goals that we want to achieve and accomplish what we want to accomplish. Those are three, big warning signs but there are some other ones.
Karen: What are some of those?
Paula: A lot of folks who I work with and teach and train have talked about how they feel just unplugged, disengaged. I used to love getting ready for work on Monday morning. I’d pop out of bed, and it would be great. Now my ‘pop out of bed’ is more of a slow, drop and thud out of bed. That sense of feeling unplugged and disengaged, a lot of folks who are at various different stages of burnout sometimes report more illnesses. They feel physically sick. That was certainly the case for me. I started to get colds and illnesses more. People report headaches and stomach aches with more frequency so definitely different physical symptoms and illnesses more so than usual.
Then for me, one that I put a big star by is if you feel like every curve ball is a major crisis. You have this nice, little stress sweet spot, I call it, and you can handle the things that are coming at you at work and at home. Now all of a sudden, those little changes in schedule or changes in projects or little hiccups during your day feel like they’re just throwing everything completely out of whack. All of those are really big warning signs for burnout.
Karen: Good to know. Let’s talk about the other piece of your work and that is resilience. How do you define it? How can it help you prevent burnout?
Paula: Resilience is an individual capacity for stress-related growth. The reason why I love that definition is because not only does it talk about the fact that we’re all dealing with challenges, stress and change and adversity but there can be a growth aspect to it. For me, it’s not just about helping people bounce back to zero when they’re in the midst of a stress or an adversity or a challenge but it’s what can we do to harness growth in the midst of all of that? How can we get to a better point?
I know from personally having developed my own resilience practice for myself, it really, really helped me get to the root cause of why I burned out, the root causes, really. It helped me understand myself in a way that I went, “Ah, okay. I get how I’m wired now.” I see how that wiring really led me to burn out not only from my own, personal story but just having gone through the research. The research is showing some really promising connections and links between resilience and helping folks manage stress, prevent burnout, lower anxieties, lower levels of depression. There’s great benefits for resilience.
Karen: Could you talk a little bit more, Paula, about the notion of personal traits and how that plays a role? What did you recognize in yourself?
Paula: The first thing that I recognized is that I’m very much an achiev-aholic. I really thrive on achievement and accomplishment and hearing people say, “Man, you did such a great job. Keep it up.” I’ve been that way for a very long time. I can think of instances even in grade school and high school where that’s been important. I think a lot of high-achieving women are obviously wired to be very achievement-oriented, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
We just have to recognize that sometimes in the midst of our achieving ways, we fail to put boundaries around our time and our energy. Then, that can spill over into burnout. That was the first part. The second part that I noticed is that I’m very much a people-pleaser. It’s very hard for me to say, “No,” when people ask me for things. That’s definitely been something that I’ve had to practice saying, “No,” more frequently and then dealing with the emotions that bubble up. I feel very guilty when I say, “No.” I feel like I’m letting somebody down so just understanding that and figuring out how to deal with that.
The last thing that I recognized is I’m very much a perfectionist. I like things to be done a certain way. I have a very high standard, and that’s not bad at all either but when you get to the level of perfection, everything has to be perfect, that’s where it can become a problem. There are actually studies showing that perfectionism is a personality trait that can be a driver for burnout. Those are really the three big things that I zeroed in.
Karen: I’m wondering also for our listeners, if you could just one more time define resilience?
Paula: Sure. It’s a person’s capacity for stress-related growth. How do you handle all of the stresses that are coming at you in a way that’s going to maybe make you a little bit better a stress and grow from the adversity that you’re experiencing?
Karen: I know you also talk about stress-resilience. Is there a difference between the resilience you just defined and stress-resilience?
Paula: There’s not a big difference. Really, stress-resilience is just my own phrase for this very specific brand or type of resilience that works best to prevent burnout specifically. The only layer that’s added in my stress-resilience model is that piece that’s going to help you deal with that exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. That’s really the only difference, but it’s a critical addition or layer to have if you’re talking about resilience that helps prevent burnout.
Karen: Got it. What are some skills or strategies that people can use to build their resilience to stress?
Paula: This is one of my favorite questions. I’ve written extensively about this for my teaching and training. There are longer skills that are better suited for more of a workshop or training-type environment, but there are a lot of really shorter-type skills that I think people can start to incorporate. One is to increase your diet of positive emotions. When I first learned the research behind positive emotions, of course, I was the cynical lawyer who was just coming off of a burnout and finishing my law practice.
I thought to myself, “Why in the world do we need to study positive emotions? Negative emotions are what command our attention and really what we should be focused and paying attention to.” Really, we know … I mean positive emotions really just change your chemical makeup. They help you produce more dopamine and other hormones that are really going to help you undo some of the negative effects that negative emotions have on us physiologically and psychologically.
We know that in order to have this optimal level of positive emotions, we need to be experiencing positive emotions to negative emotions if you think of it as a ratio and about a three to one level. When I heard that ratio first, I was like, “Oh, man. I really have some improvement to do.” People can go to PositivityRatio.com which is the website of Dr. Barbara Frederickson who’s really the main researcher in this area to find out where you are in your own lives.
Karen: Let’s give that web address one more time.
Paula: Sure. It’s PositvityRatio.com.
Paula: Yes. What we know, too, is for really thriving, successful marriages, the research shows that that ratio bumps up to about five to one. For high-performing work teams, the ratio goes just a little bit higher at about six to one. It’s definitely something to think about in your own life. One of the strategies that I like best to sort of help increase your diet of positive emotions if you feel like you need more of that is to just take a positive emotion and build a portfolio.
For me, I zeroed in on gratitude. It’s one of my signature character strengths and just decided that, gosh, when folks send me nice, “Thank you,” notes or emails, I’m going to print them off. I’m going to save them. I’m going to keep them in a little container. It’s so nice on days that I have in my business where I go, “Oh, man. Are things going right? Is this something that I should continue to do?” We all have those moments during our lives where we go, “Oh, wow.” I just go to the portfolio, and those little reminders really, really help to give me a little boost when I need it. That’s one.
Karen: Any others?
Paula: Another quick one that I love especially if you’re talking about needing just a quick boost of energy or engagement is to change your passwords. I first read about this and thought it was a really an interesting idea. It’s really just about timing which is a way to get your environment going in a direction that you want it to go in. Change your password to reflect a goal that you might have. If you want to take a vacation next year in Paris and you’re saving money for it, you might make your password ‘saveforparis’. Every time you type it in during the day, it’s a queue for your brain to go, “Oh, yeah. Remember, we’ve got to take care of this,” or, “We have to do this.”
Karen: I love that.
Paula: It’s very easy to do but really packs a punch.
Karen: Would you agree, Paula, that women are more prone to burnout than men? If that’s true, why is that?
Paula: The research suggests that men and women actually experience burnout at about the same rate. It doesn’t look like women are necessarily burning out at a way higher level or a lower level than men. The research does also suggest that there are some differences in the way that women experience burnout compared to the way men experience burnout.
Women tend to experience that exhaustion layer first. That exhaustion drives the cynicism that we talked about. Then the cynicism drives the inefficacy piece. When women get to that point, by and large on average, they’ll call a time-out and they’ll say, “Wait a second. Something doesn’t feel right. I’m stuck,” and they’ll reach out for help or they’ll try and figure out what’s kind of going on.
For men, they tend to experience the cynicism part first which drives a lot of exhaustion. Often times, for guys, they just keep right on going. For a whole host of reasons, they aren’t as adapt as maybe calling that time-out to say, “Wait a second. There’s an issue here. I’ve got to figure this out.” I found that interesting.
Karen: How can people handle preventing burnout if the firm or company they’ve worked for foster the high-demand, high-stress culture?
Paula: High-demand, high-stress is just one piece of the burnout formula. Another really important piece is something that are called ‘job resources’. Having a lot of things about your work environment that are really motivational, they can give you a lot of energy. I know a lot of people and a lot of industries have a very demanding, very high job-demand, high-stress type of environment. If they have enough of those job resources, often times, they’re able to at least not get to so far down the burnout road.
Job resources are things like feedback. I mean it’s so important, if you manage an organization, that you’re giving your employees enough feedback. Leader support; knowing that your leader has your back is super important. Any time you can have decision authority or autonomy, a control over how you spend your time, how you spend your day, what projects you’re able to take, that’s great and in having high-quality connections with your colleagues. Really building those solid relationships is important. That’s another job resource.
Karen: Here’s a related question that is given the pressure that so many of us feel to perform and compete at the same time, what strategies can you give us that will help us stand out and live up to the competition but at the same time building resilience?
Paula: I think one of the biggest strategies that people can do is to foster their authenticity. Show up every day as who you are. I say that because I had a really interesting experience with that throughout my law practice. For a lot of different reasons, I just felt like I never really fit in the legal profession. I would show up every day as Paula, the lawyer. I would leave the best of who I was at home.
I show up to my law firm and then to that organization that I worked as who I thought a good lawyer should be. A lot of that meant that I left the best of myself at home. All of my kindness, all of my gratitude, all of these things that really make me who I am I wasn’t really bringing fully to the table. Once I started to do that and it took me a long time to weed through why that was happening, once I really showed up authentically and started to speak to audiences authentically as who I am, it just completely changed things for me. I think that’s a really big thing for people to remember and pay attention to.
Karen: That’s great advice. Sometimes, a stressful environment can be beneficial. It can stimulate productivity. It can lead to creativity. How do you suggest people decipher when stress is productive versus when it’s overwhelming?
Paula: That’s a great question. I think that is such an important message especially with high-achieving women to really punctuate and drive home is that we want that. We want people to be challenged and working and achieving and doing all of those things that they want to do in life. I think some of it just goes back to paying attention to those burnout warning signs. Over a period of time, are you noticing that you’re not interacting with your clients and colleagues the same way.
One of the things that I noticed when I was going through my burnout is that I used to be the person who loves going to have lunches with people and loved hanging out with friends and colleagues. All of a sudden, I was really like, “You guys just go have lunch. I need to just spend the half-hour or 45 minutes in my office with my door closed,” just to feel like I was getting a little bit more peace in my day.
Really paying attention to and knowing are you starting to see some of those warning signs appear? If so, as early as possible, just start to check in and figure out what’s different about my environment? Did I just get a promotion? Did I just volunteer for this really big project and that’s taking more of my time? Really understand how that’s impacting what you’re doing.
Karen: When you’re overwhelmed and maybe we have to go back to your lawyer days, what are some of the coping mechanisms that were most useful for you other than ducking out of lunches?
Paula: I wouldn’t necessarily say that that was a useful coping mechanism at the time. What I really should have done and what I eventually ended up doing was I ended up talking to my boss. I recommend that for people who feel like they have the right type of relationship with their boss because I think there’s still a stigma about burnout. I think any time you raise your hand and say, “Wait a second. I feel really stressed out,” you risk the perception of you changing in the workplace.
People might think, “She can’t handle it anymore. She must be weak,” whatever you feel like people might think about you. Once I talked to him about it, we started to at least try to explore a different avenue for me. I was at an organization at the time. For a lot of reasons, it just didn’t work out. That is, actually, a potentially healthy coping mechanism if you feel, again, like you have that relationship with your boss.
Karen: For somebody recovering from burnout, what are the steps you recommend? How do you recover from this feeling and get back to a sense of happiness and feeling authentic again and being able to perform? How do you recover?
Paula: It’s a process. I think, first of all, it depends on where you are on the burnout spectrum. One of the nice things about burnout is that it’s very easily measurable. There’s this phenomenal assessment tool that folks can use. I have the ability to be able to give that to people. If anyone is interested in just sort of understanding where they are on the spectrum, that’s the first part. There is, “I’m just feeling a little burned out,” and then there is the burnout that I had which [unintelligible 00:24:17] for too long.
I was starting to get panic attacks. I was in the emergency room a couple of times. Then, there’s that level which is different. Depending on where you are, I think that’s going to influence the level of, “How do I cope and get back on track with this?” I think the stress-resilience piece that we talked about is really important and just understanding that there are different components and different building blocks of that that you can focus on.
Another easy thing that I try to do because I needed to reconnect with what is it that I’ve always loved to do, we get so busy and we get so involved with our careers that we forget what have I always really loved to do? It’s something called the ‘list’. I created what I call the ‘list’. I just poured myself a glass of red wine once a day in the afternoon and just thought for a little bit.
I was thinking way back to when I was a little girl. What have I always loved to do? I just started to make a list of those things. I’ll keep that list on my bulletin board because it really started to inform what my next steps needed to look like. That was also because I was quite burned out and felt like I needed more of a significant change.
Karen: How do people know or how can a person know when professional help is needed to recover from burnout versus some of the self-help tools that you’ve been describing?
Paula: That’s a hard question to answer because it’s so individualistic. I think that if you are experiencing any kind of significant health issue, any significant kind of psychological issue, just something that maybe you’re depressed. For me, I was getting panic attacks. Again, like I did, I ended up in the emergency room because my stomach aches were getting so bad. If you are noticing that there is something that’s really different about your personality, I think those are all pretty big indicators that professional help is warranted or at least just reaching out to a therapist or doctor or some other healthcare professional to say, “Here’s what I’m sensing. Can you help me, maybe point me to some resources or point me in a different direction?”
Karen: For supervisors, how do they recognize the symptoms of burnout in the people they manage? How do you reach out to someone and express your concern and get them to a better place if you’re a manager?
Paula: That’s such a great question. I find and this is a big part of my mission with this work is that there’s a lot of education that needs to happen in a lot of different levels in a lot of different work places because I think that the word ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’ tend to be used interchangeably. What I hear from a lot of people who I talk to is they say, “I talked to my supervisor and he/she said, “Yeah. I’m stressed too. Just take a vacation. Just take Friday off and it will all be fine.””
It doesn’t fix burnout, and there’s actually some great studies that will back up that statement. I think that’s really … supervisors getting an education in what is the definition of burnout, what are some of the warning signs of burnout and really knowing the people who you work with, that can get hard in some organizations. I’ve talked to people who get a new supervisor every nine months, and that makes it really hard to know the people that you work with.
That’s, I think, the biggest thing. Anytime you can, as a supervisor, develop a sense of trust with the people who you work with. It’s huge because it’s going to make it easier for you to have the right conversation if you sense that one of your employees is burned out. You’re also going to create an environment where your employee might feel more comfortable coming to you and saying, “I’m burned out. I need some help. Can we talk about a temporary different situation,” or what have you.
Karen: Great advice. We have time for one more question, and this one came from a lot of people. That regards technology, and you talked earlier about our gadgets. It’s become such an invasive, an integral part of our lives that it seems to erase time and distance which can lead to an increase of expectations beyond the standard business day. I think almost every person can relate to that. How do you manage this kind of technology-driven stress and the expectations that go with it?
Paula: This is such an important question with such a complex answer because part of it gets to our workplace culture. If the culture of your workplace is such that the way we do things around here is, “We answer emails at two in the morning,” you’re expected to talk to your clients regardless of what time it is, day or night. That is difficult. It’s going to be difficult to put any type of boundaries around the technology. It’s going to accelerate burnout.
It’s going to accelerate, literally, being addicted to those devices. That is a hard one because I think it’s really depending on not only your workplace culture but what are your own beliefs about using technology? If you say to yourself, “The only way for me to get ahead is to make sure that I’m responding to emails at all hours of the day,” that’s a thought that’s leading to certain consequences.
You have to really start to assess your thinking about, “Is that really driving some success for me, or is that getting in the way? Maybe I won’t see it getting in the way right now because I feel like I’m kind of managing my stress and doing everything fine, but is this something that could potentially be leading to burnout down the road?” You might have a great work culture that is very much saying, “Boundaries are important.”
“We don’t expect you to be emailing after 7:00 PM. Enjoy your family time. Enjoy yourself and go home.” If you’re putting that pressure on yourself, again, kind of back to that achievement-oriented, people-pleasing, perfectionist type of wiring, then that’s individual work that you have to do. It’s going to be tough if the workplace culture demands that. I don’t know if that’s very helpful, but that’s really what it is.
Karen: It seems like a topic that could go on and on.
Karen: That is all we have time for today. For our listeners who’d like to connect with Paula Davis-Laack on Twitter, you can reach her @PaulaDavisLaack. Laack is spelled L-A-A-C-K. Thank you, Paula, and thank you to our audience for listening to today’s teleclass.
Paula: You’re so welcome. Thank you.