What I Learned About Burnout Syndrome

This weekend, I attended the First Ibero-American Congress Against Burnout. It was organized by Vacation is a Human Right Foundation (VIAHR) and chaired by my close friend, María Méndez.

Maria did not have a vacation for 16 years, and suffered greatly from this syndrome. Her story inspired the birth of this foundation and this world congress which, by the way, has been a success. I couldn’t be prouder.

It has been wonderful to listen to top-level international experts with great experience in the field, such as the renowned writer and lecturer, Ismael Cala; psychology professor and writer, Alejandra Vallejo-Nágera; anthropologist and author, Aldo Civico; neuroleadership writer Carl Honore; specialist in organizational development and time management, Jacques Giraud; Acadia University professor Michael Leiter; and the Reverend, Andrés Ramos, among others.

All of these experts have reflected on the reality experienced daily by people suffering from burnout, and they have stressed the need to provide these people with tools so they can live fully, without the suffering and painful consequences this disorder entails.

Burnout Syndrome, also known as “job burnout” or “professional fatigue,” was described in the 1970s by American psychologist Freudenberg as: “The state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion experienced by workers as a result of chronic work-related stress”.

That’s right; people who have burnout experience a feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion accompanied by decreased efficiency and motivation in their work. Its physical manifestation includes persistent fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability, or sleep disorders. Often, these people believe they have failed professionally, especially in relation to the people with whom they work. This is a harmful and limiting belief that affects other areas of life, such as family and social environments, gradually undermining self-esteem.

I too have suffered from this syndrome and its consequences. I experienced it between 2009 and 2012 – three years during which I could not identify what was happening to me – and it ruined my relationship, my health, and my job (yes, I was fired). I do not judge myself for it; it is not easy to take preventive measures when you don’t know you have this disorder.

Luckily, after going through what many people define as “the dark night of the soul,” my life took a 360-degree turn. I began a path full of light and self-knowledge, which has led me to be who I am and where I am.

When there is no coherence between our productive lives and our personal time, it is easy to lose balance. This is one of the most common risks faced by leaders in any area, although it is often difficult to recognize it. It becomes a silent enemy that thrives on ignorance, leading to poor leadership and creating toxic environments.

The good news is that preventing burnout syndrome in workers is possible and begins in your own company. The first step consists of analzying which situations cause stress and anxiety in workers. Only by doing this can you begin to take measures to reverse this situation.

Usually, it is necessary to make profound improvements in the organization and its work processes in order to provide an employee with the necessary tools to perform their work optimally, without falling into work overload. This will make the worker develop an assertive attitude and establish healthier, more communicative relationships with the rest of the team, thus avoiding uncomfortable discussions or submission problems to which he may be exposed.

The worker’s expectations also play a very important role in this process. It’s not a question of renouncing ambitions and aspirations, but it is necessary that they “land” at an intermediate point closer to reality. This will allow them to use the situation as an opportunity to continue learning and growing – possibly in different areas than those you had proposed at the beginning, but no less enriching.

An antidote to this situation is to stop and put the situation in perspective. Now, it is worth remembering that we are in a world where having prevails over being, in which it is easy to fall into the great trap of the twenty-first century: accumulating material possessions and achieving external success, neglecting our personal growth and our interpersonal relationships until we become slaves of labor productivity.

Promoting work environments in which a sense of purpose is cultivated through sensemaking is essential to prevent and neutralize burnout. After all, few tools can be more effective than creating spaces where everyone on the team feels confident and valued financially.

For there to be a sense of belonging, we need our achievements, our professional capacity, and our effectiveness to be recognized. In addition, we must also be sure that the company’s values are consistent with ours. This is what various studies conclude, and I could not agree more.

Leaders must take care of themselves and the people in their work environment

I am convinced that burnout can also become a great opportunity, and I am speaking from experience, which it was for me! It gives us the opportunity to transform ourselves and unlearn what we have learned, to redirect our steps and redesign the path.

In this congress, we gained a better understanding of what burnout is and the keys to prevent it in the business world. Professor Leiter shared some formulas that can help us deal with this “subversive bug,” both from a personal perspective, reinforcing self-knowledge, and from a more practical one, via the Enneagram and “hovering,” a concept to which Aldo Cívico also alluded.

Professor Braidot focused his speech on the importance of betting on quantum leadership and being more aware of our own emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns. He also stressed the positive impact on our emotional health of practicing aerobic exercise 45 minutes a day, or doing new activities that take us out of our routine.

Carl Honore told us about the cultural trend popularly known as “slow” and how the simple fact of slowing down can improve our quality of life. His examples included the following activities: doing physical exercise slowly, having sex at a slow pace, working a maximum of four days per week or, of course, disconnecting from technology.

From this congress I also drew the idea that productivity can be understood in very different ways. Jacques Giraud interpreted this concept from a qualitative perspective in which our breaks, vacations, and moments of calm prevail over performance in economic or efficiency terms.

Alejandra Vallejo-Nágera exposed the differences between stress and burnout, shared an exercise applicable to the areas of life that give us happiness and introduced “Chi Kung”, an ancient medicinal therapy that dispenses with chemicals and is based on the control of breathing.

Ismael Cala spoke to us about flow, the Dharma (a Hindu concept that alludes to moral duty and the cosmic order governing the universe and guiding human behavior towards virtue and harmony) and Ikigai (the purpose for which we act every day, according to Japanese culture). He also shared with us David R. Hawkins’ map of consciousness, a tool that classifies the levels of human consciousness, from the lowest vibration (shame) to the highest (enlightenment), helping to understand spiritual and personal growth.

All the speakers agreed that meditation is fundamental, regardless of the technique we choose. Maybe that’s why Ismael Cala put the finishing touch with a meditation practice and a collective dance that took us away for a few minutes from an uncomfortable and always poorly received guest: burnout. Alejandra Vallejo-Nágera culminated the congress with a directed Chi kung practice that, everything is said, left us as new.

From my point of view, taking care of ourselves, in addition to being the greatest act of respect we can give ourselves, is the key to being able to take care of others. Only from self-care can we build a better and fairer world in which humanistic leadership is prioritized, through culture, empathy, collaboration and trust.

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