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Q&A: Alison Coughlan of The Health Hazard tackling workplace burnout

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Alison Coughlan is the author of The Health Hazard: Take control, restore wellbeing and optimise impact. Alison draws on more than 25 years’ experience in the health and social sectors and her personal experience of reaching, sustaining and recovering from burnout, after which she charted a new, more fulfilling and sustainable path for her work and her life. Alison helps health and social sector professionals to optimise the impact they make and, in so doing, do their best work and live their best life.

HCC: Employees who work at a purpose-driven workplace are reported to feel a genuine connection to the work they do, how does your book talk of this statement’s importance? and what advice can you give to employers and employees?

Having a passionate personal connection to work that is driven by a social purpose feels more like a vocation than a job. This means that our sense of meaning, fulfillment and identity in life is intrinsically linked to how we turn up with presence and compassion and to how we strive to achieve impact through our work. This is also what makes us vulnerable to burnout.

In this work, there will always be unmet needs, complex, wicked problems, seemingly intractable disadvantage and inequities and resource constraints. No matter what we achieve, there’s always more – more to do, more to fix, more to be. It’s not hard to see how we can end up on the metaphorical hamster wheel, peddling madly but not really feeling like we are getting anywhere. And all the while our energy and wellbeing reserves are depleting and our personal vulnerabilities grow. The challenge of burnout is that it can creep up on you over a long period of time until an inevitable crisis in work or life leads to a crash and you find yourself face down.

Leaders need to recognise burnout as a major occupational health and safety risk and as something that compromises the reach, impact and sustainability of our work. We need leaders to walk the talk as visible authentic role models who set healthy boundaries themselves, effectively manage stress, engage in self care and encourage, challenge and support their teams to do the same. We need every individual to take personal responsibility and engage in meaningful action to build and maintain their wellbeing. This is a critical investment in their capacity to turn up and keep turning up and to derive the meaning and fulfillment that their work can bring. Resilient individuals in resilient teams can be the only path forward that we accept.

HCC: COVID-19 has really highlighted a crisis in the health and social sector which is burnout, what can we do about it?

It starts with conversations – like this to raise awareness about burnout and its consequences. We need to shine a light on the serious condition that this is and the devastating and costly toll of burnout for individuals, teams and organisations. Costs that may be largely hidden but that without question limit our capacity, our effectiveness, our sustainability, our reach and our impact. We must reject the notion that burnout is inevitable and adopt new routine systems, processes and practices in our workplaces and our lives that proactively prevent our decline through a continuous focus on building and maintaining our resilience.

HCC: Workplace mental health is one of the most talked-about issues today especially with new terms emerging like “zoom fatigue”, how can people avoid this type of stress and stay on top of their game?

It starts with creating insight, shifting your mindset and building your energy. Try these steps:

Create insight

When did you last take some time out of your busy life to reflect on what truly matters to you? The things that light you up, make you happy, and that bring satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning to your life. To create insight, you need to explore how you’re feeling and track your progress. Think about what’s working, what’s not working and what needs to change. Taking a few minutes to sit quietly and reflect on these things and identify areas you need to focus on will be an important investment in your energy and wellbeing.

Shift your mindset

While compassion for others in a cornerstone of the philosophy of the health and social sectors and probably the reason you get out of bed to go to work each morning, this is not what is going to sustain you. If you prioritise others over yourself, you can neglect your own wellbeing and needs and this can contribute to your decline. Getting to a state of burnout is not good for anyone – not you, your family, your work or your life. You need to shift your mindset and prioritise you, first. This is the most powerful thing you can do in order to be of service to others in an optimal and sustainable way.

Build your energy

How are you spending the down time that you do have? Are you using it to rest, restore and replenish your energy and wellbeing reserves so you can go the distance at this challenging time? Are you doing things you love and that bring you joy and respite? Or are there more drains on your energy and wellbeing that are keeping your reserves and your resilience low – serving everyone else and trying to meet their needs? Everyone that is, except for you.

If you want to carve a path forward that feels easier and less like you are compromised, you need to focus on your energy levels and sense of wellbeing and make some choices that are positive and healthful for you. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time or be a burden. It could be as simple as lighting a candle, taking a bath, reading a book, sitting to enjoy a hot cup of tea (from start to finish), going for a walk with a friend, reconnecting with nature, sleeping in, singing or dancing to your favourite song. Something nurturing and joyful – a choice by you for you that will add to your energy and wellbeing reserves and bring you much-needed relief.

HCC: Healthcare front liners are experiencing the most amount of stress, frustration, and exhaustion right now, what advice can you give them in order to help them “refill” themselves?

 Think about a simple bucket as your stores of energy and wellbeing. There are things that fill your bucket – give you energy, make you feel positive and add value to your life. There are things that drain your bucket – sap your energy and vitality and leave you feeling depleted. You can’t avoid drains on your energy – that’s part of the human condition and definitely a part of work in the health and social sectors. But here’s the thing – if your bucket is draining quicker than it is filling, it is going to empty. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. Only you can work to restore and maintain those critical reserves that you need to do your best work and to avoid the crippling toll of burnout in your work and your life.

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