Hitting reset: How to manage burnout
Is work-life balance obtainable? Cheya Thousand, founder and CEO of CT. Wellness Co., joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss how burnout impacts leaders, employees and parents and to share her strategies for hitting the reset button to mitigate stress, feel better and move on productively.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Cheya Thousand hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
Tom: Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.
Burnout, as it is defined, is not a medical condition. It's a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress. Well, however we define it, those who suffer (from) it know that it's very real and very troubling. As an author and stress and self-care consultant, Cheya Thousand offers guidance on how to pull out of the burnout that creeps up on and overwhelms so many of us.
I'm Tom Martin with the Alltech Ag Future podcast series, (and I’m) here with Cheya to get her insights on how to reset, feel better and move on productively. Thanks for joining us, Cheya.
Cheya: Thank you for having me.
Tom: Burnout seems to be more common than ever these days. I think it was a 2021 survey of 1,500 U.S. workers (that) found more than half feeling burned out as a result of their job demands. Does that finding seem about right?
Cheya: Yes, and I would even add to that and say about 75%, because what the WHO defines as burnout only relates to work. What people don't realize is that you can have parental burnout. A lot of people are defining their work burnout, but it's really the combination of their lives that have been burned out. The parental burnout on top of their work burnout is really the burnout people are experiencing, because it's not always our jobs. It's always something deeper, and it's usually a combination of things.
Tom: I'm glad you pointed that out, because each on its own is stressful and can lead to burnout, (but) the two combined? Wow. It has been an eye-opening trend of Americans leaving jobs, especially those that typically involve long, exhausting hours of difficult, stressful work for lower pay than they could demand in some other field. What are you seeing in that area?
Cheya: I think that this is a very unique time in our history, because what people have learned as the confines of work do not look the same anymore — so the landscape has changed. The Great Resignation is also, I feel, like a great freedom for some, because now, you have an opportunity to leverage your lifestyle the way that you want to and build habits around a better lifestyle. “Work from home” sounds great, but there still needs to be boundaries there. A lot of people who are not always comfortable being in the office and wish they had a work-from-home job, and now they have access to those opportunities due to remote work. Well then, how do we build into that lifestyle the same boundaries of our work when we were going into the office — into our now work-from-home lifestyles?
Tom: It's been interesting to me that prior to the pandemic, employers were — this is a generalization — but generally opposed to remote work. They wanted everybody onboard on the premises, being a team, and that made sense. But the pandemic made something else make sense: staying home, and it's gone on long enough now that many of us have adapted to it and have decided, “You know what? This really works well.” What are you finding? Are people actually — or some people — more productive in a remote situation?
Cheya: I do find people can be more productive. I would say in the studies — and even the last couple of quarters have shown, as companies have been more profitable since we have been in the more remote work environment than they have in previous years. I think it's really something to be said about micromanaging and even microaggressions in the office. Depending on your background and racial makeup, some people have found that being in office leads to more microaggressions, where they don't have that at home, because they're not in the office. Then some managers who are not leaders, they need to micromanage teams in the office. I think that's one of the clear distinctions between a leader and a manager: when you can lead a team remotely versus managing a team remotely. I think that's what leads to people being more productive.
But again, you do have to have a set of boundaries there because, with us working remotely, people have worked longer hours and they don't have hard stop and beginning times. I think that's the part that people have to learn how to manage now, because you knew you had to be at work at nine o'clock and you got to off at five o'clock, then you had your 30-minute or hour commute home. There was time to de-stress and there was also hard starting-in times. Now, we don't have that.
Tom: With the choice to work remotely comes the obligation to self-manage.
Cheya: Absolutely — self-control.
Tom: When we think about burnout, mental and emotional symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and cynicism even come to mind. What are some common symptoms and ailments?
Cheya: I would say anxiety, insomnia, lack of productivity, as well as physical pain. I know, growing up, I thought about this a lot. Sometimes, when kids don't want to go to school, they're being bullied and things of that nature. That can be them experiencing stress, high levels of stress — and burnout is just a stage of chronic stress. With that being the case, you ever noticed that kids get sick? The physical manifestation of that fear or that chronic stress, it becomes a real thing. That time, it shows up for us as adults as well. When we are feeling overwhelmed at our workplaces and we don't want to go into work, that's when you wake up with that dread, or you have now a headache, or you're just like, “Oh, my stomach is hurting.” There's nothing really wrong, because as soon as you make the call and say you're not going in, do you ever find how quickly you feel better?
Tom: I personally can testify that stress can lead to back problems.
Tom: I guess it depends on the individual. What are the signs, and what steps should a person take when they notice this, when they put the two and two together? “Oh, this must be connected to what I'm going through.”
Cheya: First, I would say, define a couple of things for yourself. Define what stress is for you. How does that physically manifest in your body? Then, also, knowing what your triggers are. Those are the first steps, I would say.
Then, I would recognize value alignment. I begin all of my programs with value alignment, because I think once you know what you value — if you stand for nothing, you will fall for everything. You have to know what you value. A lot of the times, the work that we do does not align with our values. When you're interviewing with an organization, you're interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. It's not the best thing to just leave a job and say, like, “Oh, let me just go get another job. My job is so stressful.” Does the value alignment align with the lifestyle that you have chosen for yourself and the career path that you have chosen for yourself? For a lot of us, it doesn't. We've picked these careers because they either came easy to us or you went to school for it.
That's the biggest thing, people — but I went to school for this, and I have to work in this field. But you don't have to. If you do a study — many studies have shown, most people are not even working in their fields of choice that they have their degrees in. It's really finding what works for you, what brings you joy and fulfillment, and then going from there, but it all starts with value alignment.
Tom: In your work, Cheya, do you find that people in our culture, where we are taught to work hard, tend to brush off suggestions that they get help for stress and exhaustion for burnout?
Cheya: Absolutely, absolutely. This work that I do is, it's a passion of mine, because I experienced burnout on three different occasions. Yet most of the time, people feel guilty, and they are made to feel guilty, as a society, for resting and self-caring. There's no guilt that should be around that. It's your birthright. Asking for help is actually a sign of strength. It's not a sign of weakness, be it therapy, or be it telling your boss or your supervisor, “Hey, my workload is getting pretty heavy right now. Is there any way I can get support?” Be it with someone partnering with you on a project or you getting an assistant. But it does not speak to the fact that you cannot do the work. There is a time where people may just put too much on your plate, and you have to be the one that says, “This is too much.” I had an old supervisor telling me, “When someone steps on your foot, you have to tell them it hurts, or they'll keep stepping on your foot.” It works the same way.
Tom: When you work with individuals and corporate teams to help them manage stress and come up with their own strategies to thrive at work, at school or in their everyday lives, how do you help them overcome this sense of being overwhelmed, and how can we prioritize our own self-care and health?
Cheya: I call it holding space for self, which is also the name of my book, and it's a matter of how you build in daily habits of self-caring into your everyday. It's living with intention, and with that being the case, how I begin the program is value alignment. Once you look at your values, you can say, “How does my lifestyle align with my values? How do my decisions align with my values? How do my relationships align with my values?” A lot of times, especially as young people, we think we have to have friendships because we’ve been friends with them for so long. Well, time is not a qualifier for quality either, because there are certain people in our lives that we can speak to (but), very often, we don’t feel anything there, and it’s like you’re just doing it to do it, to have something to do. Then there’s other people that you may not speak to all the time, but when you speak to them, it’s the most fulfilling relationship and the most fulfilling conversation over the course of two hours. You may not speak to them for another three months.
So, it's really about getting people to see clearly what their values are (and) define those things for yourself — define stress for yourself, define success for yourself. Do not allow society's definition to dampen or hinder how you develop and you pursue the things that are important to you in your life.
Tom: Some experts in this field say self-care can be a double-edged sword. Obviously, we need to take good care of ourselves, but hearing that we need this can only worsen the problem, implying that the blame and the responsibility for the condition is on the person experiencing the burnout instead of external influences. What's your take on that view?
Cheya: I don't wholeheartedly agree, and the reason is because our lives are composed of our choices. Yes, it is our responsibility. If we just go with anything, then people will be able to define you, people will be able to pull you in every direction. You have to be the one that says, “Hey, this is a boundary.” And then, on top of that, you have to honor your own boundaries, and you have to teach people how to treat you. Yes, it is your boss's job to figure out a way to get the work done but also support you, but your boss is aligned with the organization. So, if something doesn't work for you, you have to communicate that, because the organization knows, “Hey, this person's here to do this job. This is how we need the job done. This person can get it done.” If they keep giving you stuff and you never say, “It’s too much,” then it is partly you.
But I think, when it comes to self-care, we have to look at also Swarbrick's “Eight Dimensions of Wellness,” and that talks about occupational wellness, financial wellness, intellectual wellness, social wellness. These are all of the areas in which self-care should align. It's not necessarily about being selfish, nor is it necessarily about blame being placed on one individual, but on anything in our society. Usually, it is on the one person, because our lives are composed of our choices. It's funny how, when it comes to self-care, it's like, “Ooh, that's blameful.” But if you cross the street in front of a bus, no one's going to say, “That bus should’ve known you were coming.” No, it doesn't work that way.
Tom: Burnout can happen when you feel that your workload is out of control. I think of Lucille Ball here and then the famous conveyor belt (scene) and that you just can't get ahead of that curve. Is this a condition that should be directly discussed with your employer, or does that only bring on more stress over how you'll be perceived as an employee?
Cheya: I think that it is the corporation's responsibility to layer in tools and resources into your organizational structure that support wellness across the board. It cannot be a one-time event. It cannot be just a workshop. It needs to be layered into the fabric of your organization. Our leaders need to exhibit the behaviors that they want the team to actually then follow. So, if you're an always-accessible leader, you're not teaching your team about boundaries. That needs to be layered in there. You also need to have programming in there that allows people to tap into resources when they need support. So, if that's logging on to a portal and watching a class on breathing, or if that's logging into a portal and watching the class on budgeting, that's what you need to do. Also, having access to therapy.
These things need to be layered into the fabric of organizational structure. It's not okay to just say, “We'll bring in a speaker every now and then.” We are way past that, and most of the time, when people are burnt out, they don't recognize it until it's too late. So, how do you layer preventative measures in there so that they don't get to that place? We need to be more responsive and proactive versus reactive to any given situation.
Tom: Do you work with employers who are actually proactively looking for ways to keep their workforces healthy and happy?
Cheya: Absolutely. I most recently did a program for an organization who actually advocates for their team speaking up. The leaders speak up. The leaders are a top-down organization, where they communicate the needs, and they also exhibit those needs, and they also have a very open-door policy. So, in the middle of my programming, everyone kept saying, “They do a great job of that here. They do a great job of that here.” I had to commend them. That was the first time I did a program in an organization (where) all the individuals participating said, "Oh no, here, they do that really well." That's not normally the case.
Tom: You mentioned earlier the Great Resignation, that period we're going through, and that seems to be one of the things that people are looking for. They're looking for that kind of concern on the part of the employer. I know that you recently got more than 500 students who (discussed) the mental ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wondered if you could share with us any lasting impressions from that experience.
Cheya: I think, when it comes to students, it is our responsibility as the older generation to help them navigate this. This is their first time experiencing anything of this magnitude. Many of us have lived through many versions of this, be it Enron, be it 9/11. It's our responsibility to help them navigate (this).
Some of the things that have been really encouraging in those presentations with the students is that they're listening more than we think they are. We always say that this generation is not listening, but once I've left campus, I've had admins reach out and say, “They're using the lingo from your book. They're helping each other.” So, they want to know that information. They are, like, hungry for the information. It's just a matter of putting it in front of them and then giving them the language. Everything that we do is around language, right? People go to therapy so they can learn the language to their feelings. Giving students that language is actually helping them better learn how to care for themselves. I think it's important to do that before they hit the workforce. So, if they understand what they value instead of just getting money, then they can choose better careers for themselves and not work a job for 40 years that they hate.
Tom: How many times do we hear somebody say — often wistfully — that they took piano lessons, art, or got into competitive sports for a while, but work and life forced them to set those things aside? Should they still find a bit of time to regularly do something that they truly love?
Cheya: Absolutely. One of my frameworks is the SPC. I call it the spiritual, physical and creative outlet, and that is the framework. You need to focus on those three areas, and if you create healthy habits in those three areas, you will be able to prioritize your self-care. Is that praying? Is that meditating? Whatever that looks like for you in that spiritual bucket. Then physical. How are you moving your body? What are you doing to maybe get out in nature? Then creative. What's that thing you did as a kid that people told you you'd never make money from, so you gave it up, but you find so much joy and fulfillment in it? If you can put those things together in your lifestyle and dedicate a minimum of 20 minutes a day to each of those three buckets — “the rule of three 20s” is what I call it — (for) that one hour, just dedicate it to something for yourself. You will have a greater and more richer sense of fulfillment. It just automatically will start to happen.
Tom: What about taking time off and doing it without feeling like you're abandoning your team and/or feeling that the work is just going to keep piling up while you're away and be worse when you get back?
Cheya: You need it. You need time off. I call it mental health days. I tell people to pre-schedule them. I think, at the beginning of the year, when you know how much PTO you have, just start off in January. Pre-schedule your mental health days, random days, throughout the (next) couple of months. I try and do at least one weekend a quarter. I do at least two days every couple of weeks where I just have it on my calendar, and I take time off. I let my work team know, “Hey, I'm off this weekend.” People begin to respect it, and they actually expect it of you that you're going to rest. Rest builds resilience. If we are constantly going, then we will break down. It's burning the candle at both ends. Our phones can't constantly stay plugged in, because it'll drain the battery, right? When they don't work anymore, you shut them down. When your TV's acting up, you kind of reset it.
Everything in life needs a reset. We do as well, and it comes from resting. But society makes us feel guilty for resting. I am the queen of “no”. I say rest is important. I prioritize rest, probably, over everything. I do. Everyone (who knows me) knows, on the weekends, I only let myself do two things per weekend day. Because when you're over-committed, then you're exhausted, and then you get to Mondays, and you don't want to go to work because you didn't experience your rest on the weekend.
Tom: We have real trouble saying no, don't we?
Cheya: Oh, yeah.
Tom: Speaking of time off, and speaking of those devices, how do we really do that? How do we disconnect? Because they're so integrated with who we are now and how we function. I mean, here we're being driven by what comes up on social media and on our schedules, on our laptops and so forth. But when we take time off, the goal is to really disconnect from that. Do you have any thoughts around this and advice for those who still find themselves thinking about work when they're trying to disconnect?
Cheya: Absolutely. First, I would tell you to take an inventory of your time. How are you spending your time? Then, once you do that, when you recognize either you're spending too much time on social media or too much time working and not enough time with your family or just catering to your own needs, then try and scale it back. Start small.
I have someone that I worked with over 10 years ago, and I had him start with 10 minutes a day, with 10 minutes of day where he didn't do anything. He didn't answer the phone. During his lunch, he would eat, he would answer the phone and he'd be on a computer. Well, that's not lunch. That's what most of us do. So, for 10 minutes a day, just step away. Start there and then, gradually, if you can do that for maybe two weeks, add another 10 minutes. Then you keep doing that. I started working with him a year before his retirement. I saw him a year later, and his wife couldn't believe it. She said, "Oh, my gosh, you're the girl. You're the girl that helped him. Now he knows how to relax." It took him a year, but we started at 10 minutes a day.
I think it's overwhelming when you're like, “I have to do all of this now.” No. They say, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You have to break these things down and put them in smaller tidbits for yourself. We all know our own responses and our energy and how they work in our lives. I think that's the same way when you are looking to accomplish a goal. If, for you, that is creating more opportunities for rest, start small. If it's 10 minutes and you just put your phone on Do Not Disturb or you limit the amount of time you spend on social media using the apps in our phones, well, you create focus time. In my phone right now, I only have an hour and a half that I'm allowed to use (on) my social media apps a day. I used to have 100 minutes. Then I realized, at the end of the day, I had a minute left over. I kind of want it to run out in the middle of the day; then I'm not going to be encouraged to go back on there.
Tom: What will we find in your book, “Holding Space for Self,” that would be helpful in guiding us to a more centered, less stressful and maybe even stress-free — I don't know if I can go that far, but maybe that — maybe a stress-free life?
Cheya: In my book, I talk about 25 tips for creating a weekly self-care routine. In there, we go through the inventory of your time. We go through setting healthy boundaries, as well as different ways for you to practice self-care. I have tips in there if you're a mom and you need to learn how to practice self-care (or) if you're living a very busy lifestyle (and) you need to practice self-care. There's also a self-care commitment that I have you sign that you're going to spend time caring for yourself. And you will make mistakes. It's okay. It's okay to not feel good. It's okay to make mistakes, but you won't guilt trip yourself every time you make a mistake, and you sign that agreement. Then you get into the ways of creating those moments for yourself.
Again, it can be something as small as just having a hot cup of tea before you start work, because so often, we'll go into our email and give our attention to everything else but ourselves and our feet haven't even touched the ground before we've gotten out of bed. So, I talk about that in the book as well.
Tom: That's author and stress and self-care consultant Cheya Thousand. Thank you so much, Cheya.
Cheya: Thank you for having me.
Tom: For the Alltech Ag Future podcast, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts