Sally Clarke is vivacious and smiling as she joins our virtual meeting from Amsterdam. Her vulnerability and passion are striking as she answers our questions on her experience with burnout and how she’s been able to turn what she has learned into a career:
Interview by CMHAA’s Early in Career Committee members Rebecca Hofmann and Amie O Donoghue from Allianz
Welcome Sally. To kick things off, can you tell us about your background and how you came to be a burnout expert?
Thanks for having me. So, I was a finance lawyer in Amsterdam, and I was working hard at a very prestigious firm, doing 70 to 80 hours weeks. I started to experience some strange symptoms; I was getting weird rashes, headaches, and having a lot of trouble sleeping.
I took my work very seriously. Even though, as I later realized, it was making me miserable, I felt deeply attached to the status and prestige of working at such a prominent firm. I started to get questions from friends like “you seem really stressed,” or “I haven’t seen you in a while, is everything okay?” and I would just vehemently say “I’m fine, I’m fine. There’s nothing to see here.”
Then, in early 2010, I was flying to see my brother who lived in France at the time. I don’t remember anything about the flight, but I remember walking into the arrivals hall at this little airport and seeing my brother and falling to the floor. I collapsed and I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I realized later that that was the real valley of my burnout.
I’d had an intense burnout, and I didn’t like to use the term. In fact, it took me several years to acknowledge that what I’d been through was a burnout. I think that’s because we still have this mistaken idea that burnout is a result of personal failure or some kind of weakness. So, I would say, “oh, I got close to a burnout, but I didn’t really fully burn out”.
A few years later, I started to get more curious because I still felt quite ashamed of what had happened to me. I felt like the other people that I worked with were all coping fine, so it must have been some weakness or failure on my part. I started researching what burnout is and why it happens. What quickly became apparent was that burnout had not been my fault. Burnout is never the individual’s fault. It happens because of the circumstances around us. So, I started to get full nerdy on this and I ended up writing two books about burnout; one about how we can look at burnout prevention and one about the process of healing if we have been through a burnout.
From there, I started becoming involved in an annual report which is a global study every year into the state of workplace burnout. My mission is to embed wellbeing at work so that the term burnout becomes redundant which might seem like a lofty goal, but I like lofty goals. They inspire me and I’m very impassioned about making that happen.
You mentioned some symptoms you noticed when experiencing burnout. What other signs and symptoms should we be on the lookout for and what types of things we should be thinking about in terms of protecting ourselves from it?
Burnout is a result of chronic workplace stress. What happens when we’re in chronic stress is we tend to start experiencing symptoms like feeling really wired, jittery, being in a high alert state and feeling an increase in the stress hormones in our body which creates a bit of a high. You’re really in that fight, flight or freeze mode where you’re ready to respond to whatever is causing you stress.
If you find it difficult to sleep, if you’re finding that it’s difficult to let go of work at the end of the day, to really rest and disconnect in the evenings and weekends, that can be an early symptom.
If you’re starting to notice that work is taking up a lot of your priorities, a lot of your energy, that’s also a sign that you might be starting to burn out. Now, work is very naturally a very big part of all of our lives so I’m not saying that we have to pretend it’s not. However, when you are perhaps prioritizing work over social connections, your hobbies, and other aspects of your own identity that are important to you, that can also be a sign that perhaps the stress is starting to become chronic in relation to work.
One of the tricky things with chronic stress is that it can impact our physiology. I mentioned I experienced rashes, headaches, and sleeplessness. For others, some people gain weight, some people lose weight. It really has an impact on our nervous system that can be quite detrimental. It also impacts our prefrontal cortex and can inhibit how our brain functions. This means that once we’re in that state of chronic stress and on the path to burnout, we’re not as good at making objective good decisions for our own health. This makes it really important to get in as early as we can and start to look very critically at how we are looking after ourselves and what we can do to prevent burnout, to really retain that sense of perspective and objectivity.
In terms of prevention, we can’t prevent those external causes, but we can have self-compassion, self-knowledge, and self-awareness. Self-compassion means that we fiercely believe that we have intrinsic worth and that our health matters more than anything else. Secondly, self-knowledge, knowing who we are, what our values are, what matters to us, empowers us to make better decisions for ourselves and to set healthy boundaries. This means examining how we want our life to look and feel because that empowers us when we’re starting to make choices around where and how we want to work, to make decisions that align with our authentic selves. The third component is self-awareness which is the ongoing practice of self-monitoring and being on the lookout for signs that we are struggling.
You must be a little radical in practicing self-care. Taking care of your own health and wellbeing has to become your priority. It’s the kind of boring, annoying, and unsexy things like, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet, exercise, healthy sleeping patterns. Those things we know we should be doing, but that in our society tend to get deprioritised to work. The earlier you are in your career, the sooner you start to build these healthy habits and embed them into how you work, the more sustainable, longer, and successful your career will be.
Another important preventative action is making sure that we stay strongly connected with the people that matter most to us. They tend to be reflections back to us of what’s going on and they can help us identify that we’re not coping. With burnout we find that people do start to withdraw and socially isolate. Sometimes when we’re struggling, that can be when it’s hardest to reach out, but that is something that I really encourage everyone to do. Be a bit bossy with yourself about reaching out when you’re struggling. And, check in with others, even and perhaps especially with the person who seems to be coping the best.
How do you think employers and managers can better support young people in the workplace to avoid burnout?
As I mentioned, the causes of burnout are rarely individually driven. It’s about the cultures in which we work. If you’ve got a toxic lake and all the fish are dying, you don’t go and look at each individual fish and try to fix it. You look at the water and you improve the quality of the water.
A lot of the work I do is with senior leaders to understand these cultural causes. This can be things like job design, treating people fairly, having healthy leadership practices that create an environment where people can feel safe to share what’s going on for them and set boundaries around work, be able to say no and know at a fundamental level that there will be no negative consequences as a result of that.
I would really encourage senior leaders to look closely at the ways that we work. This doesn’t have to be a full rehaul – that’s quite an overwhelming task – but starting to think about things like how we design meetings to happen in a way that’s effective and efficient. Thinking about how we work from a structural perspective and trying to remove as many of the causes of chronic workplace stress as we can.
It’s also how you interact with your team. When you’re speaking with them, whether it’s in person or online, how are you connecting with them in the moment? Are you creating a safe space for people to share what’s going on for them? It might feel a little forced for some leaders at first to create that space and there might be some resentment around it being something extra that they have to do. However, when we create that safe space, we can prevent someone from actually going through the very lonely process of burning out. In doing so, we save so much time and effort.
Further, when someone burns out in your team, that chronic stress can become contagious. So taking the time investment to care for people, to create space, to be vulnerable creates a healthy culture and can have a huge cost and time saving benefit in the longer term.
For people who are learning about this for the first time and go, “maybe this is me,” what are the most useful steps in starting to heal?
When you say that, I get emotional. I remember that place and I know how terrifying it is to acknowledge that things are bad. It was simultaneously the most terrifying moment of my life, but I also felt an immense amount of relief. I felt the paradox of those two things. It was so scary to acknowledge that I was so miserable because it meant that things had to change, and I really didn’t want things to change. I was so attached to that sense of prestige and status that work brought me and the idea of having to acknowledge that it was slowly killing me was difficult to accept.
For some people, burnout really is debilitating. The first thing that I would say to that person is “I see you, you’re not alone.” Millions of people are affected by burnout every year. What I recommend in terms of first steps to healing is this. If we take the word burnout and we remove the vowels, we’re left with BRNT:
B for breathe. Using your breath, you can engage your parasympathetic nervous system and start to counter the impact of the physiological impact that burnout has had on your body. Now, one breathing exercise won’t get you there, but engaging in a breath practice or a gentle movement practice, whether that’s going for a walk, connecting with our breath every day, is important for burnout recovery.
R for restore. This means focusing on your sleep and your rest. Particularly if you are in that valley of burnout, then you have little option if you want to protect your health in the long term, but to rest, which is annoying. None of us want to do it. We all want to run a marathon or climb Kilimanjaro but resting so that your body can heal the damage done by the chronic stress is essential. Looking at your sleep habits and looking at rest through your day and potentially taking a break from work if you really are in that sort of place of feeling utterly exhausted.
N for nourish. This is what we eat and drink, but also who we spend our time with and the information that we take in. When you’re in burnout, it may be helpful to reduce your interaction with social media and news media. These can be other sources of stress and you need to be very mindful about what you allow into your body and mind during your recovery.
T, and this is the most important one, is to talk. If you’re realizing right now, for the first time, “oh, shit, I might be in burnout”, reaching out to someone, whether that’s a close friend or a family member, it might be a coach or a therapist. If professional help is available, I would really encourage you to do that as well. We must have that moment of acknowledgment for things to change and by talking about it, we start to shift from being in it to it being separate from us and starting on that journey towards healing.
Can you share some success stories or some examples of someone who’s either been able to prevent or recover from burnout from your time as a coach?
What really brings me a lot of joy is speaking to clients, especially a couple of years after we’ve worked together and seeing that they are living a distinctly different life because of having been through burnout. They are mindful about the decisions that they make. They see that by not having known or enforced the boundaries that they needed to, to prevent burnout the first time, they become very vigilant about doing that on an ongoing basis.
I also work with organisations in the start-up space, helping young people who are founders and really want to make sure that the culture they create in their organization is a healthy and sustainable one. We do see a lot of start-ups tend to fail at the two- or three-year mark because they have a poor culture of overwork and burnout, so I think that’s a really gratifying part of my work. Helping young people who are in that space where they can actively shape a culture and to do so in a way that again gives rise to sustainable, healthy workplaces and careers is meaningful.
I’d love to see it get to the point where venture capitalists will only invest if you’ve got proven roadmap to healthy culture. I think that would be a really cool thing to see but the fact that there’s founders who off their own bat are coming and seeking that support, is cool.
You’ve also written two books on this subject, ‘Protect Your Spark’ and ‘Relight Your Spark.’ How do they complement each other?
The first one I wrote was Protect Your Spark and I wrote it for myself. It was what I would love to have given myself a few years before I burnt out, before I was too deep in the chronic stress to be able to act. It explains some of the causes of burnout and destigmatizes the term by acknowledging the causes of burnout and their enormity. It really sets out that self-compassion, self-knowledge, and self-awareness roadmap for people.
Relight Your Spark then focuses on the “oh, it’s too late, I’ve burnt out” stage. It’s really looking at the practices that we can use to heal from burnout. Relight your spark, really delves into the BRNT side of things as a guide through what is often a longer journey of healing from burnout.
You can catch the full Sustainable Success: Strategies for Avoiding Burnout event on the CMHAA website. If you’d like to learn more about Sally and her work, or to download her books, visit her website.
You can also learn more about burnout and its relationship to work performance through The State of Burnout 2023 report.