Avoiding The Burnout Cliff
Are you feeling tired, jaded, stale, fatigued, or burned out? These are all common terms used to describe the physical and emotional consequences of overwork, and we’re hearing them often now given the unprecedented pressure of life during a global pandemic.
How can you prevent and, if necessary, recover from this depressing state?
Stress is actually a good force. Without it, we would neither perform nor grow. If you study a normal performance curve, you will notice how increasing your workload, or the stress that drives you to work, actually improves your performance. Then the law of diminishing return kicks in at some point. At that point, additional effort produces only marginal improvement in performance, and stress eventually becomes distress.
Central to this well-described natural phenomenon is the balance of work (or training) and recovery. Athletes know this well. They stress their muscles during training in order to make them stronger, but they must allow them time to recover and build before stressing them again.
This is not only true for our bodies but for our brains and psyche, too. That’s why we need sleep. Sleeping or resting too little impairs performance. Each of us must find the highly individualized, optimal ratio of work to rest that drives our sustainable peak performance.
It sounds easy, right? Work harder and harder and then back off to find your high-performance “zone.”
Well, it’s not. And that’s why all too many senior executives, well-known artists and entertainers, and competitive athletes burn out. And it’s why so many of us today are feeling increasingly exhausted.
The problem is that the performance curve suddenly and without warning gives way to a massive and precipitous drop. You step over the edge at your peril. One step too many is enough to have you hurtling painfully down toward the base of the cliff. It’s a painful ride, and the long way back up is excruciating.
Wisdom comes from knowing how to push yourself as far as possible without actually falling off the edge. I’m sure that you’d like to learn this massive secret, right?
Here’s the problem: Our ability to predict the exact location of the edge is sadly lacking. In my personal experience, most elite athletes have fallen off the performance cliff at least once. That’s probably also true for anybody who’s particularly driven at work.
There may be subtle warning signs, but unfortunately, the science is not strong enough for me to claim this unequivocally for all people.
Here is the science about the warning zone: This is the zone where stress becomes distress, where you begin to experience physical, physiological, emotional, and/or psychological discomfort. Sleep disruption is the most common symptom of distress, expressed as difficulty in falling asleep, increased wakefulness through the night, or reduced quality of sleep. All result in feeling tired on waking.
You can imagine a negative cycle developing rapidly, where distress results in sleep disruption that in turn impairs performance. Competitive people react by increasing their workload to offset the poor performance, precipitating a downward spiral. This is the quick route over the edge of the cliff.
Another physical measure that regularly alerts us to overtraining in athletes is resting heart rate. It is a strong warning signal when this starts to creep up. We also know that cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, tends to drop as you burn out. The adrenal system, responsible for your fight and flight reactions, becomes fatigued and under-responsive.
I advise all my clients to systematically monitor their resting heart rate. Over time, this can help us understand their unique physiologic disposition to stress, as a sustained increase in this parameter warrants decisive protective measures.
Perhaps the biggest danger of the warning zone is that a relatively small stress can nudge you over the edge of the cliff. You may be aware that you are in the danger zone but feel confident because you know how close to the edge you are, when an unexpected insult suddenly throws you over the side. The insult may be a minor illness or a seemingly trivial falling out with a friend. I liken this to standing on an actual cliff, when a sudden gust of wind appears to bring the cliff closer toward you—and over you go!
Only a tiny minority of people are able to grab onto a ledge of the cliff on their way down. For the most part, it’s a quick, painful descent all the way to the bottom. After that, the only way back is a long walk back up your original pathway, often requiring a convalescent period before that climb is possible.
The best approach to burnout is prevention.
Listen very carefully to your body. Push through minor resistance, but listen for persistent warnings.
Track your sleep. Track your resting heart rate. Nobody knows your body like you do, and everybody’s performance curve is unique (and can change over time). Superhuman ideation is both dangerous and arrogant.
Science is deaf to the protests of heroes as they fall off the cliff. If you hear warning signs, back up a little; reduce your workload; increase your rest and recovery. And then back up one step further. You need to have some extra space between you and the edge to account for the unexpected.
If you do this, you will be able to hold your head high, with a light step and cheery outlook in your zone of maximal performance. You can be your best, for longer. This is how we will all survive the effects of the global pandemic. This is how you will secure long-term health and happiness and will reach your dreams long after we reach the “new normal.”
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.