Published: 16 October 2015

Are you taking steps to avoid burnout?

In a sector devoted to giving to others, burnout is commonplace. The best way to manage it is to identify the symptoms and focus on tools and techniques that enable you to work sustainably. 

What burnout looks like

I worked in the not-for-profit sector for four years. I was on the front line, working with women who were suffering domestic violence. Every day, I heard stories of isolation from people who had little self-esteem and were racked with shame, guilt and fear. 

I felt passionate about supporting the women I was talking to, and I felt angry about a world in which this kind of abuse could happen. This fire in my belly helped me do my job well; I was present, compassionate, empathic and pro-active. I championed and acknowledged the women, supporting them to work through their situation. I fought for them and empowered them. It was fulfilling, yet very challenging work. 

Over time, the challenge started taking its toll. Somewhere along the way I stopped listening to my own body, ignoring intense lower back pain, brushing off erratic emotions merging into no emotions at all, ignoring my own increasing lack of passion for old hobbies and interests. I had stopped taking care of myself; at the end of four years, I had burnt out. 

Fast forward two years and now I can see how inevitable my burnout was. I’d given so much to my work that there was nothing left for me. I’ve come to realise that it’s essential to take care of yourself properly if you want to effectively support others. Otherwise you run the risk of losing internal resources, energy, excitement and passion.   

Working sustainably

When doing work that relates to the lives and well-being of others – whether directly on the front line of services or sharing the plight of others in order to gain support or raise awareness – it’s natural to want to push yourself to your limit. However, if we can’t find a way to work sustainably, our organisations, our service users and most importantly we, suffer.

We all have different ways to cope. Here are a few ideas to start developing your own package of self-care support. 

1. Tame your ‘internal gremlins’

‘Internal gremlins’ are the voices that make you worry. They’re also the voices that make up stories about what others are thinking. Over time gremlins can lower your self-esteem, and make you doubt yourself. Don’t let your gremlins have control: notice when they are speaking to you, give them form, visualise them, then visualise moving them aside. A great resource is Taming your Gremlin by Rick Carson.

2. Meditate

Meditation is a useful way of getting in touch with your internal happiness. It might be a simple mindfulness technique like watching your breath. It can help you quieten your mind and bring you closer to natural internal peace. 

3. Practice gratitude

This process is brilliant, particularly when we’re worried. We are taught from an early age to just ‘concentrate, think and worry’ our way through problems. But an often quicker, calmer approach can be to take your attention away from the topic concerning you, mentally list 10 things you feel grateful for, notice how this makes your body and mind feel, and approach the problem with this new energy. 

There are lots of other tools and techniques that can be used when trying to develop a practice of self-care. As everyone is different, it’s important to focus on what works for you. I believe that if we want to be sustainable in our work, and we want to feel joy in our work, we have to give ourselves permission to put ourselves first.

For more ways to avoid burnout, sign up to my Bird newsletter

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Hannah Massarella, founder, Bird

Hannah is a certified professional co-active coach and the founder of Bird. Bird is about escaping barriers both internally and externally. We champion creativity, innovation and development in the not-for-profit sector. Bird works with NGO workers, researchers, PhD students, doctors, nurses, social workers, carers, teachers, coaches, counsellors and entrepreneurs.