Maybe you don’t suffer from it – you’re OK, you’re thriving on the pressure and the adrenaline buzz that goes with it. But most of us have times in our lives when the thriving on pressure becomes surviving pressure, and then barely surviving pressure. So beware! You could be on the slippery slope to burn-out, even if you haven’t yet reached that stage.

And many of you will know just what I mean: the feeling of being tired most of the time and exhausted some of the time; the reluctance to get up in the morning; no time or energy for enjoying yourself – just some of the signs of burn-out.

There is a high cost being paid in every industry for the continuing pressure to be competitive, and the resultant increase in workload and longer working hours. The amount of stress-related illness and absence in work is increasing exponentially, and everyone knows someone who is close to burn-out through just working harder.

We have a friend who, with his wife, comes to stay for a weekend occasionally. The Friday night meal is a waste of time, because he is too ‘wound-up’ to enjoy the food. By Saturday night, he is a little more human, but on Sunday he is winding back up again. His ‘free time’ is reduced by the post-work effects and the pre-work ‘wind-up’, and there is little enough of it in the first place.

When is it burn-out?

All of us have more highly pressured lives than used to be the case. Society has changed significantly, with instant communication links, geographical mobility, and expectations that everyone will fit more into their lives. So what’s the difference between working hard and having burn-out?

It’s a difference of control. I can have a day when I have been very busy: I may have travelled to work for an hour, then run a course all day, then travelled home, had some dinner, and spent an hour gardening, before sitting down to answer post, deal with e-mail, or do some word-processing. After a day like this I will be tired, but I will still feel that I am choosing how my day goes, and I can sleep well and get up ready to start again the next morning. When I’ve reached burn-out, I won’t feel as if I choose how my day goes. It will feel as if I’m driven by external circumstances, with little choice on my part, and although tired, it will be the weariness of someone who has kept going with, but not finished what they had to do.

Our fuel tanks

I often use the metaphor of a fuel tank in a vehicle to describe how many of us feel. Imagine that you have an invisible fuel tank attached to you, which is the container for your energy and resources. Many of us have become accustomed to running with the orange light flashing on the dashboard to warn us that the tank is almost empty. In fact, we are so used to the orange light flashing that we don’t really notice it any more.

What we do know is that we don’t have that much spare to give out to others and their demands on us. We resent extra demands because they may ‘empty our fuel tanks’, and we slump in front of the TV or go to bed early to just allow our tanks to re-fuel enough to get us through the next day.

One of the consequences of running your engine with the orange light flashing all the time is that you pull the ‘gunge’ through the system, causing, over time, blockages and breakdowns. We are warned about this on our vehicles, how come we aren’t warned about it with our personal ‘fuel tanks’?

So what can you do about filling up your fuel tank?

It is actually simple to top up your fuel tank, although not what we have generally been encouraged to do. Once upon a time, we all knew how to keep ourselves resourced and energised – it came naturally to us – and we had to learn how to neglect ourselves.

Watch small children. Without even thinking about it, they automatically go for things which will keep their fuel tank filled. Their preference is for anything which will make them feel good, if only for a moment. This is strongly sense-based – it’s what they can look at, hear, touch, smell and taste, primarily: a piece of clothing they love, even if it is ‘inappropriate’ for the occasion; a favourite toy or video; a favourite type of food – all these ‘feed the senses’, and in the process, top up the fuel tank.

This works equally well for us as adults, but we have learnt not to allow ourselves these ‘treats’. We wear sensible clothes and save favourites ‘for best’; if we enjoy a film, we watch it once; our favourite foods are saved for special occasions. Children soon realise that you are not supposed to keep your fuel tank topped up – but they were right, we were wrong!

How many ways could you make yourself feel good, just for a moment, in a day? I don’t doubt you have favourite clothes, smells, tastes, music or sounds, things you like the feel of. Our unconscious wisdom tempts us into making those choices, and putting them in our environment. They don’t have to be expensive or rare. I remember working with some hotel staff, and one of them said to me: ‘I long for baked beans on toast, instead of beef en croûte!’ I pointed out to him that a can of baked beans cost very little, and it was a very easy meal to prepare!

Most of the time, it only takes a moment or two to appreciate something by noticing it, or to make a different choice of clothing or what you listen to. It is not time consuming to fill your fuel tank, and it has such enormous pay-offs.

You have more energy and resourcefulness, so you can manage yourself and your day better. We all know that when we are ‘on form’, we work more effectively, deal with others better, handle difficult situations better, and generally view the world more constructively. This is within your control – you just need to re-learn how to keep your fuel tank topped up.

Working smarter

Once you have learned the fundamental principle, and resource yourself more effectively, you will find it easy to recognise and apply ‘working smarter’ principles.

  • Take ‘time out’ from whatever you are doing at regular intervals – we can only remain effectively focussed on a task for relatively short periods of time. When you find yourself beginning to lose concentration, move, have a break, fetch a drink, something to shift your focus and top up your tank. Then you can pay attention again.
  • Take a moment or two to check out that what you are doing really matters. We often pay attention to tasks because they are urgent rather than because they are important. Ask yourself (or your manager) what matters most in this job, and ensure that you give your best attention to those things.
  • Organise your day to suit your personal flow of energy. We all vary – some do their best report work in the morning, some in the afternoon, and so on. Observe yourself for a few days, and then plan your activities, as far as possible, to suit your own pattern.
  • Go home! Very long hours do not equate with effective work. And taking work home with you often results in a larger burden of guilt, rather than more being achieved. We all need to work, rest, and play, as an advertisement once said. If you lose that balance, you continually reduce your own effectiveness at the work.

Above all, listen to your own messages. We all have an intuitive wisdom that enables us to be at our best. External pressure produces short-term results and long-term burn-out. Internal awareness produces results long-term. What choice will you make?

About Di Kamp

Di Kamp is chief executive of Meta and has been involved in the field of developing people and organisations for 35 years. She has worked with a variety of organisations, and specialises in enabling senior managers to guide their organisations from good enough to excellence, and enabling management teams to lead their people in a way that will enhance their performance. Di has written several books, including manuals for trainers, one on staff appraisals, one on workplace counselling, one on improving your excellence as a trainer, one on people skills, and one on being a 21st century manager. She is currently preparing a further book on the secret of sustainable successful organisations.

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