Did you enter your current job or career in a spirit of excitement? Did you start each day with a spring in your step? When something went wrong, could you bounce back after a brisk walk or a chat with a friend? Perhaps you are among the many who wonder what has become of those happy days.
At the College and University Work-Life-Family Association (CUWFA) annual conference in Toronto in June 2013, Marilyn Kraut discussed ways to build resilience and avoid burnout. She is the human resources director for quality of work-life programs at the University of Pennsylvania, where she sees the limits to what employers can do. Her focus at CUWFA was personal empowerment. What can you do to put the spring back into your step?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. It means functioning constructively in tough situations, staying productive and healthy during disruptive change and emerging from challenges stronger and smarter. “We can grow from any experience,” she said.
Myths abound on how to deal with a problem situation, such as:
- Ignore it.
- Endure it.
- Hope for a miracle.
- Work longer and harder.
While these strategies may achieve short-term results, they hurt you over the long run. Pretending, ignoring and pushing your limits can create chronic stress, which wears you down in body, mind and spirit.
Work environments have grown more pressured and fast-paced in recent years, with continual change a constant. WFD Consulting reported research findings on American employees:
- 80% had experienced stress-related problems.
- 36% said stress affected their health.
- 54% said they often felt physically or emotionally drained at the end of the workday.
Employee assistance programs saw a spike in stressedout women when the economy tanked in 2009. “It doesn’t matter if the economy is good or bad, we always feel that others want more from us than we have,” Kraut said.
Chronic and relentless stress can lead to mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. In time you may detach from work and from meaningful human relationships. Ultimately this leads to burnout. You lose the ability to bounce back.
Burnout is different from stress. Stress results from events that have a beginning, middle and end. You may feel better after a walk in the park, a bubble bath or a few days off. But suppose you try all these things and nothing seems to help. When the world still seems gray no matter what you do, you may be in burnout.
Do you treat work as more important than self? Do you value outcomes above personal health and wellbeing? These people are at particular risk of burnout:
• Accommodators, always trying to smooth things over.
• Givers, constantly emptying the cup that never gets replenished.
• Perfectionists, beating on themselves or others for every shortfall. • Idealists, needing to be more than we humans can be.
• High achievers, never giving themselves a break.
Risk for burnout rises when strategies of ignoring, enduring, pretending or trying harder fail to bring the desired result. You have responsibility but no authority. Your efforts get no recognition. Perhaps you were told you’d be a listed co-author on an article but the paper made it to press without your name. “You do your part but you never get any rewards,” Kraut said.
Burnout develops in stages over a long period of time:
1. Honeymoon. You figure you can get through it. Denial is a coping strategy that may keep you going for a while.
2. Disillusion. You are beyond the point of kidding yourself that everything will work out. Your confidence fades as you grow more confused and impatient.
3. Brownout. You are in survival mode, functioning on the outside but not internally. Symptoms include fatigue, irritability, disturbed sleep, indecisiveness and escaping into food, TV or alcohol.
4. Frustration. The last traces of enthusiasm give way to anger, cynicism and detachment. You probably sigh a lot. You may develop a physical illness.
5. Despair. You mostly want to run away from all your responsibilities. You feel lonely and worthless, doubting your ability. Guilt and shame creep in. You do not see any hope.
By the time you give up, you are in burnout mode. Get help from family and friends, a professional or both. They can help you to grieve your losses as you give up poor coping mechanisms and unrealistic hopes.
They can help you move from anger or hurt into a more positive place, confronting your denial and cynicism. “As you get older, you see the patterns and don’t become cynical,” she said. That frees you to take action, the most effective single step to replace helplessness with hope.
To avoid burnout, set realistic goal and limits. Know when you tend to face overload or uncertainty (budget season?) and prepare for those times. Since unpredictable challenges are bound to come up, save some reserves for the unexpected. Set up a buddy system with someone so you can check in with each other when stress begins to build. It is always easier to see what’s happening from the outside.
Developing skills in resilience is the best way to build strength for dealing with the stressful times that are part of every life. The American Psychological Association suggests:
• Make connections. Link up with individuals and organizations. Find ways to help others.
• Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Many situations can and will get better.
• Accept that change is part of life. Sometimes a former goal will no longer be possible. Focus on the parts you can do something about.
• Move toward your goals. Break them into little steps and take one small positive step each day.
• Take action. Instead of detaching completely, build resilience by doing something decisive about whatever is going on.
• Look for self-discovery. People often learn about themselves and gain spiritual depth as they struggle with loss.
• Nurture a positive view of yourself. Build confidence in your ability to trust your instincts and solve problems.
• Maintain perspective. Keep the broader context in view. Your buddy can help you to see things in proportion.
• Stay hopeful. Try to visualize what you want instead of what you fear.
• Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well and get enough sleep. Do activities you enjoy.
• Talk to others. Your buddy can’t help you unless you tell her what’s going on.
• Personalize your practice. Some people find help in journaling, yoga, meditation or prayer.
Responding to problems
Kraut offered seven steps to respond to problems. As you practice these steps for whatever comes up, you will strengthen your resilience. Just as physical exercise builds your muscles, repeating these steps will build habits of resilience that can help you in a crisis. Don’t wait for the crisis to occur before you start to use them!
1. Prioritize your life goals. Family? Friends? Culture? Income? Service? Fitness? Art? Social action? Health? Something else? Identify your top three priorities.
2. Recognize how the situation affects you. What is happening objectively? How does it affect your life and work? How does it affect the priorities you identified in step 1?
3. Analyze how you have responded to this type of situation in the past. Did that response work well for you? What other options might you try?
4. Decide what approach to use. Choose one that supports your top priorities and could bring a constructive outcome while helping you to grow.
5. Act on your plan. Make your move. If you decided to let the situation go, follow that decision intentionally; this is different from denial.
6. Review how it went. Take a break; then evaluate your results. Often it is helpful to do this with your buddy.
7. Internalize for future reference. Whatever you learned from this situation can help you for the next one, a constructive result regardless of how things worked out this time.
Practice these steps until they become second nature. You will find yourself in a better place than where you started. You will bounce back more and more easily. You will build resilience and fend off burnout.
Contact her at
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, July). Tips to Keep the Spring in Your Step, Despite Everything. Women in Higher Education, 22(7), 1-2.