WOOSH5 | “Burnout is Like a Tree that has Lost Contact with its Roots.”
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Written by Sally Clarke, Burnout expert.
An interview by Sally Clarke with Executive Coach & Psychologist Cees Stegenga about why we burnout & how we can recover.
The article is also published at Medium, where you can read more about burnout written by Sally Clarke.

I first met senior coach, psychologist and trainer Cees Stegenga when I was mired deep in burnout. I was super lucky — Cees is one of the top executive and burnout coaches in the Netherlands.

I felt trapped in burnout and in our first session, Cees helped me see that I had options. That encounter changed my life forever.

11 years later, we are friends and colleagues.

Cees specializes in burnout, which is why I asked to tap his vast wisdom and experience. Our conversation was thought-provoking and shifted my thinking on why we burn out. I’m sure you’ll see why.

What sparked your interest in burnout?

I started out as a physiotherapist, and soon realized that I was more interested in what was going on mentally for my patients — what was the psychological impact of the accident or physical complaints? When I started freelancing, this curiosity only grew.

I worked with so many people who had office jobs and came to me with back or neck complaints — and I was fascinated by the underlying cause. My patients, mostly, were not. It was often very obviously stress related, but they wanted a quick fix so they could keep going. They had no interest in looking at or changing their habits or behaviors.

“Burnout is like a tree that has lost contact with its roots.”

I switched to haptonomy, which takes a more holistic approach, and did a Master of Psychology. When people don’t deal with stress, or when the stress becomes chronic, this becomes stored in the body. I find this interrelation between our body and soul fascinating. Eventually, this interest led me quite naturally to focusing on burnout and personal leadership in my coaching practice.

How do you describe burnout?

Burnout is like a tree that has lost contact with its roots. You have no contact with your core, with the things that nourish you. Cut off from these, the tree slowly fades.

I love the tree metaphor. Tell me more.

When you are in contact with your roots — the things that nourish you — and you know yourself, you are in flow.

But when you’ve lost contact with your roots, you don’t know what your needs or desires are. And because you are exhausted, you don’t have the energy or perspective to identify what they might be.

In burnout, you are less aware of your emotions, you are restless, less grounded, more vulnerable to panic attacks and more sensitive to stress. Then, often, cynicism kicks in: you just keep going, are more tired, grow more distant from yourself, and this cycle continues.

If you starve the tree of water and nourishment, eventually it dries out. Some can last years like this — others will encounter issues much sooner.

What is a common factor in all of your clients in burnout?

Exhaustion is the one central factor; in burnout, you experience total fatigue yet are incapable of finding rest. In burnout, the neurological connections in your brain are damaged so you become less effective in your work — your concentration and memory are compromised. Sometimes very heavily. For some, they still have the energy to function at a level that conceals their struggles, which means they can endure burnout for a remarkably long time.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

I think there is an expectation that we just need to rest for a weekend, but this is misguided, to say the least. It very much depends on the severity of the complaints. Burnout is an individual experience, so it’s impossible to put a fixed timeframe on recovery.

I currently have seven people in my coaching practice who are in burnout, several of whom are still partly in denial. They have been stuck in survival mode for so long that it has become normal.

A former partner at a law firm I worked with took three years to unwind after quitting. He wasn’t burnt out, but he was always hyped up and distracted; he was never fully present. He had been under enormous stress, which had caused him to lose contact with himself — and also with his wife, which led to divorce. Recovering from this high level of stress took years.

Why do many of us deny burnout for so long?

Denying burnout means you can hold on to illusions about yourself — “I’m strong, I’m a winner, I can do everything.” For a while, it is a very successful avoidance strategy. You avoid conflict and pain, and confrontation with your limitations. And this kind of avoidance is fully supported, if not encouraged, by an unhealthy workplace culture.

It’s interesting to me that in a department of 50 people, a certain number will burn out. But others won’t. Certain professions are particularly unhealthy. I see it a lot with doctors and lawyers — not everyone burns out, but they lose their spark. It doesn’t need to be full burnout for you to pay a heavy price.

How has your perspective on burnout changed in the decade since we met?

I’ve come to see burnout as a very personal experience, unique to the individual. The reality of burnout is much more nuanced and colorful than the definitions would have us think.

“Recovery hinges on help, guidance and support.”

I’ve also grown to see the causes of burnout differently — people are part of a system, an organization, part of society. I once did a masterclass on stress with a professor, who used the metaphor of the canary in the mine. If the canaries are dropping — if your people are burning out — there’s something toxic in the air. It’s not the people, it’s their environment. It is not the individual’s fault, it is inherent to the organization at large, and by extension to society.

Why in burnout do we stop doing things that nourish us? The walk around the park, healthy meals, social connections.

It often relates to a desire to be perfect and strong, and a need for external recognition due to a lower self-esteem. Those things that nourish and sustain you drop down the to-do list. You put yourself in second place: “I’ll do that later; work takes priority.”

What are the personal factors that make some of us more susceptible to burnout?

In my practice, I’ve noticed that quite a few childhood issues can cause tendencies in adulthood that lend themselves to burnout. For example:

Attachment issues (see the work of Bowlby on insecure attachment), which can cause you to try to prove yourself and your worth through working selflessly.

The messages you received as a child — take for example your father, who worked for four decades in a job he hated [Sal: this is true. I love interviewing someone who knows me!]. What did that tell you about listening to your own needs and desires? About stopping when you have lost motivation?

People who burn out are often higher on the sensitivity scale. You tuned into and were keenly aware of issues between parents, for example, or would try to compensate for unhappy situations.

As a child, you didn’t feel seen by your parents, were given the message that you were not okay, were never really allowed to be a child, or your needs and desires did not matter. These kinds of experiences can lead to an exaggerated need for external validation.

Traumas, whether small or significant, can also contribute. One patient I treated had experienced a major trauma and had absolutely no boundaries, which quickly led to burnout.

If your parents were in conflict or went through a divorce when you were a child, you may have become stuck in a loyalty conflict between the parents, which is very taxing and means you never have your own needs met.

Life phase is also relevant — often around the end of your twenties or early thirties. I see it also with parents of young children, especially mothers.

All of these kinds of background issues can, combined with a toxic work culture, make you more likely to experience burnout. Workplace-specific issues can include:

You are experiencing conflict at work, whether it’s whether with a boss, or a colleague, or a group of people.

You experience a lack of psychological safety at work or space to be authentic.

The workplace is highly competitive rather than supportive — it’s a rat race. I’ve seen this a lot in the legal and medical fields.

What has been the impact of COVID on burnout in the Netherlands?

It hasn’t been positive, that’s for sure. Some of the projections are excessive — you read about a kind of doomsday scenario in the newspapers, that 80% of the Dutch population is burnt out, and that’s simply not true.

Burnout is certainly increasing. The pandemic is impacting everyone, and especially those who are less resilient or whose support structure is weaker are experiencing an increase in psychological issues, including burnout.

I see it especially among recent graduates and young millennials who are early in their career. They often live alone in a small studio apartment in Amsterdam and have little face-to-face contact with other people. Belonging is an important, fundamental human need, so this lack of social contact has a huge impact.

We have fewer ways of coping, of getting perspective or processing what we are going through — grabbing a beer with a friend or making summer vacation plans and looking forward to that vacation. We’re all in survival mode, and eventually that takes its toll.

How do you recover from burnout?

It’s near impossible to recover from burnout by yourself. Recovery hinges on help, guidance and support. It starts with sharing what you are going through. Being able to just talk about what we are going through is critical. You often see burnt out people trying to be strong and manage alone. This makes it a very lonely place.

Is it possible to prevent burnout?

On an individual level, preventing burnout starts with self-awareness.

Building self-awareness can start early. This is where schools are so important: we need to pay much more attention to giving children the skills they need to lead a meaningful life and in doing so, avoid burnout. This could involve teaching self-reflection, meditation, yoga, and other tools that increase self-awareness. This is almost completely absent from the current school curriculum — but I think it would make a huge difference.

“We are individuals and to work in these organizations, we pay the price of our own individuality.”

My wife and I have paid attention to this in our family. There was not a lot of room for emotions for me as a kid, it’s not something I grew up with, so I’m really glad and proud that our children enjoy coming home and feel safe to share what’s going on with us.

On an organization level, burnout prevention requires a change in company culture.

Companies need to treat people with respect and dignity. Too often, people are viewed as replaceable — companies are more interested in good ratings and attracting new clients than looking after employee wellbeing.

A surgeon I work with recently told me, “I can’t work like this anymore. I want to work 3–4 days per week, but it’s just not done in this work culture.” These kind of cultural norms — full time work, overwork, boundaryless giving — need to be undone.

Work culture treats people as generic, identical resources in the interests of efficiency. And this is where they go wrong. We are individuals and to work in these organizations, we pay the price of our own individuality. I think things are slowly shifting — the increase of media attention on organizational responsibility for burnout is a good sign, for example. But we have a long way to go towards being a burnout-free society.

Cees specializes in coaching executives, professionals and high performers. He is highly qualified and highly experienced — everything you need in a coach when you are in or on the brink of burnout! Find out more about Cees on his website.