Stress at work

[Book Review] Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Written by Emily Thornton, Senior Project Leader

‘I’m so stressed out’ – ‘I just need to get through these emails’ – ‘I’ll grab a sandwich later, I haven’t got time now’ – ‘God, this week has been stressful.’

Sound familiar? If you work in an office, I would imagine you’ve heard one of the above phrases this week, if not all of them.

Research tells us that stress can lead to serious illnesses, both mental and physical, as well as making a lot of people just generally below par. Yet it is overwhelmingly common. No wonder the World Health Organisation has called stress “the 21st century epidemic” and small surprise that organisations place emphasis on wellbeing and a work-life balance. A duty of care, not to mention the accompanying financial costs, make this a matter of priority for organisations. Yet, as our research at AchieveForum has shown, the traditional approaches aren’t making much headway.

Personally, when I feel stressed, most often, I’ll blame myself. I’ll tell myself that I need to ‘not let it get to me’; I need to ‘just suck it up’ or ‘other people manage to send emails at 10pm, then again at 6am, so should I.’ It gets to the point where I forget to drink water or even take a bathroom break. It’s almost as though I want to hang up my body when I get to the office, like I do with my coat, and then pick it back up at the end of the day.

Today’s workplace can encourage this mentality. For example, how often are meetings scheduled back-to-back throughout your day? I’m sure I’m not alone in despairing when a meeting is scheduled during the one hour that I have free in my calendar, because the fact that I need to have a lunch break does not feel a good enough reason to decline the invite.

I therefore approached ‘Burnout’ by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, which promised to reveal the secret of unlocking the stress cycle, with interest, but not a great deal of hope. I’ve read a lot about stress, and usually these kind of books come with a zillion worksheets that stress me out in themselves. Would ‘Burnout’ be any different, I wondered?

Both Emily and Amelia hold doctorates, one in science, the other in music. With a mix of scientific studies, pop culture references (any book that cites the Pixar film ‘Inside Out’ not once, but twice, is okay in my eyes), practical experience and compassion, this book is written particularly for women – which I didn’t quite realise when I bought it. For a moment, I was worried that I was going to be subject to the idea that women ‘naturally’ feel stress differently because we’re oh so ‘emotional.’ Thankfully, ‘Burnout’ is nothing of the kind. Instead, it uses data from women’s lived experiences to examine practically how stress typically manifests in women’s lives today and what we can do about it.

I particularly liked the book’s caveats about science, countering the sense that if something is ‘scientific’, it is an unassailable truth. The Nagoskis call science “the best idea humanity has ever had,” whilst making it clear that scientific research is “the ongoing process of learning new things that show us a little more of what’s true, which inevitably reveals how wrong we used to be.” So that if “science…describes ‘women’ but doesn’t describe you, that doesn’t mean the science is wrong and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you…Science is too blunt an instrument to capture every woman’s situation.”

This book doesn’t ask or assume that you’re a particular type of woman, nor does it pretend that everything within its pages will work for every woman – but it does explain the pressures you are likely to face in the world as a woman, and offers incredibly practical tools to help combat them. Nor is it only useful if you identify as a woman; there is plenty here to help all genders.

There are three main parts: Part I ‘What You Take with You’, your inner resources that you carry with you (so far, so typical self-help) – then Part II is slightly different. This is called ‘The Real Enemy’ (spoiler, it’s the patriarchy). Part III is ‘Wax On, Wax Off’ (from the Karate Kid) – every day actions that you can take to fight this enemy.

The relief that I felt when reading this book is similar to my reaction upon first discovering Brene Brown. All too often in our society, there’s pressure on us as an individual to break a habit, or make a new habit, as if we can control everything, when this patently isn’t the case. All of us have so much in life that we cannot possibly control – structures and inequalities put in place centuries before we were born. To me, there’s nothing worse than being told that you can be anything you want if you just try hard enough, because then when you inevitability have moments of failure or suffering or pain, you only have yourself to blame for not being good enough. ‘Burnout’ doesn’t take away your individual power, but neither does it overstate it. To quote, “most self-help books for women….discuss only the things readers can control, but that’s like teaching someone the best winning strategy of a game without mentioning that the game is rigged.”

There is so much to take away – I read this one on Kindle so rather than being littered with post-it notes, it’s instead highlighted and bookmarked on every other page – but to avoid this blog post being any longer, here are my 3 key takeaways:

There’s More to Success Than Winning

Organisations attempt to tap into innovation by asking people to take risks and to fail. Unfortunately, this all too often translates as ‘take the right risks’ and ‘don’t actually fail at anything important.’ The Nagoskis do more than talk about the importance of failure – which happens to everyone – and instead ask us to stop conflating success with winning, and only winning. You may not achieve your specific goal but you will have learnt something along the way, as well as inadvertently succeeding in an area perhaps you didn’t attend. This kind of “positive reappraisal” isn’t blind optimism, but “recognizing failure’s positive outcomes.” One example given is Hilary Clinton’s failed presidential bid and the fact that it “set the stage for record-breaking numbers of women to enter and win political contests…in the United States.”

What Makes You Stronger is Rest

Whilst we all ‘know’ that we need to rest, how often do we prioritise it? Not just sleep, but also different types of rest. ‘Burnout’ talks about the importance of switching from one type of task to another – again there have been discussions before about ‘going for a walk’ or ‘taking a break’ to help with focus and productivity. However, how open would people in your office be, if you did that as often as you probably want to, or ideally should? We are still stuck in the belief that we can be 100% productive all of the time through sheer will-power, when actually all we’re doing is making ourselves less effective – and likely ill. “We are built to oscillate between work and rest” and workplaces need to build in time for us to do this, to allow daydreaming and a break from the relentless meetings. Work is not just the time you spend at your desk, typing emails. Rest can be all sorts of things, from playing a game on your phone to sleep to reading to talking with your colleagues or spending time with your family.

Of course, to allow this rest, to recognise that our “mental energy…has a cycle it runs through, an oscillation from task focus to processing and back to task focus”, leaders have to trust their people. They have to trust their employees to know when they need a break, they have to speak out if meetings are scheduled back-to-back, if nobody is taking a lunch break, let alone any kind of other break, and trust that someone doesn’t need to work constantly, to be doing a good job. In fact, employees are going to be doing a better job if they’re letting themselves go from work to rest and back again, as our brains want us to do.

Dealing with Your Stress is a Separate Process than Dealing with the Things That Cause You Stress

My single biggest takeaway from this book is learning the difference between stressors (external events or internal thoughts/emotions that activate a stress response) and stress itself (the neurological and physiological response to those stressors). For so long, I thought that in order to feel better, and get rid of my stress, I had to deal with what was making me stressed – whether that was a difficult manager, or meeting a deadline, or making time to actually clean the house. But only some of those stressors are under my control, and even those ones I can control, will come around again. I can work hard and hit a deadline, but next week, there’ll just be another one. You can clean every single room from top to bottom, yet next week, they’ll all need doing again. And sadly, a difficult manager is often likely to remain a difficult manager, whatever you try to do.

The cycle that our body runs through when it faces stress was created back when stress was likely to be a lion chasing you. So your body responded to that threat by doing what it needed to keep you alive – the fight, flight or freeze response. These days, for most of us, we luckily aren’t running for our lives, yet when someone is rude to us at work, our body still reacts as if we’re going to have to run or to fight – or sometimes it shuts down. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between a ‘jerk’ and a lion. So whilst these days, we might report that person to HR or deal with it in a calm, mature manner, our bodies don’t recognise those actions as completing the stress cycle. Your body stays stressed and this happens again and again, leading to the type of chronic stress that can cause serious health problems.

What do we do about this then? We have dealt with the stressor, or perhaps we haven’t, perhaps that stressor is still there. But more importantly, the stress is still in our system, we’re stuck in the cycle. How do we complete it?

Well, as we would do with a lion chasing us – we run. Or swim, or dance, or take a boxing class. We undertake some kind of physical activity, to tell our brain that we’ve escaped the threat and that we’re safe now.  It doesn’t have to be an extreme activity, it can be whatever is possible for you, some small way of moving your body.

Other options include breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, crying, or some form of creative expression. Anything that lets our bodies know that we’re safe, or a way to process the emotions.

This book has given me so much to think about, and is very in line with our findings at AchieveForum about there needing to be a re-education around stress. It’s not something an individual can change on their own – as with all types of behaviour change, we need the support of our peers and together we need to build an environment that supports it. We all need workplaces with a focus on positive social interaction, on creative expression, and on working through the stress cycle. Really, it comes back again to allowing people to be human, to stop imagining that we can put aside our emotional and physical selves when we get to the office, and to work with our bodies and emotions, instead of against them.

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