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Coaching Concepts: From Burning Out to Burning Back In

Updated: Jun 4

I was on a coaching call recently with someone who was struggling with burnout. She had communicated her challenges with her supervisors who were understanding and supportive. The company was even working on a reorganization that would theoretically help alleviate some pressure from her position. She was obviously a highly respected and valued team member.

But, the more she talked and I just listened, the more it was clear that her burnout was not about work and no amount of change at work would make any meaningful difference. She actually loves her work. She loves the people she works with. They had even told her to stop working so much on nights and weekends. Most of the time, she didn’t really need to. And yet, she kept doing it with full recognition that she was burning herself out, but with no idea how to stop. It felt too big. It cut a little too deep.

There was inertia in overworking and a kind of perverse comfort. There was a sense of value creation and purpose. There was a sense that if she didn’t have anything else to do then she ought to be working. It was a sort of work ethic gone slightly haywire. And alternately, there was no sense that taking time off, reading a book, going for a walk, taking a needed nap, spending time at home with a kid are all “doing something” and they all have their own role and value.

There’s a lot here but she was open and honest and recognized that her choices were what was driving her burnout. Not work. She recognized that all of the talk about the changes on the horizon at work actually weren’t going to do anything for the burnout problem at hand.

But, what was she supposed to do with that when she had allowed herself and her life for so long to be defined by those choices? Work was concrete. This other reality felt very abstract.

So, as I always try to do, I wanted to get to something that felt really practical and tactical so that any change she made in prioritizing her time, she would feel an immediate sense of positive reinforcement – a sort of instant gratification to try and disrupt the work inertia and illuminate another source of personal value creation.

I helped her reframe and think about the “long game” and her own sustainability and ability to perform over time, as the company grows, for her supervisors and coworkers she so loves and values so much. Burning out is the one sure-fire way to let them down.

And, I asked her to think in terms of the opportunity cost of her working nights and weekends. What was she not doing? What was she missing? And, that’s where we got some traction and made a plan.

We are going to connect in about 6 weeks and see how she’s doing on these commitments:

1. She committed to not missing any of her son’s basketball games, which she had missed previously and for work that wasn’t even necessarily pressing.

2. She committed to going back to church, which was very important to her. She had started just viewing it online so she didn’t waste any time and so she could multi-task while doing it.

3. She committed to working no more than one night per week. She knew she really didn’t need to do more even if she had been choosing to do more.

4. She committed on Saturdays to disrupt those moments where she felt the urge to pick up her laptop because she “didn’t have anything better to do” by going for a walk or going to the grocery store or finding something else to get past the urge.

All of these commitments are tactical and measurable and very personal and meaningful to her. They aren’t about unpacking the underlying psychology of the situation. There may be a time for that, but it’s not now. Now is the time to go to a ballgame, to go to church, to prove to herself that she can make those choices and commitments and to feel the positivity she gets in return.

For her, getting over burnout must start by redirecting her flame, re-igniting value and joy and meaning in other parts of her life. If she makes these commitments and finds these things, I have no doubt she can burn back in to her work.  


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