Overcoming burnout and how mental wellbeing coaching can help

Posted On Aug 04, 2021 |

Our previous post on burnout was basically an informal introduction into several articles through which we would like to explore deeper topics connected to our mental wellbeing and what role coaching could play to enable it. We invited our colleagues Dunja and Katarina to share their thoughts on the meaning of burnout, explain how that condition is affecting our mental wellbeing and how coaching practice can help us in overcoming it.

Therefore, if you felt: 1) exhaustion and lack of enthusiasm, 2) negativism or cynicism, 3) difficulties to concentrate and 4) tendency to procrastinate – you were (are) probably experiencing burnout.

As psychologists both Dunja and Katarina emphasize that people can develop conditions that can highly vary in the intensity of symptoms and that using coaching tools and coaching leadership style as managers can be very helpful in dealing with burnout symptoms at an early phase. “It is very important to say that the sooner we recognize these symptoms within ourselves or in others we can prevent development of more severe states such as psychosomatic diseases, decrease of our immune system and states of high anxiety or even depression that can cause mental wellbeing to be significantly affected”, starts Dunja our conversation, “If this stress in not managed properly and as a result of it, the person is unable to function in private or professional domain then it should be helpful to seek professional support such as counseling or psychotherapy”. 

Katarina shared that burnout is usually connected to the work environment, but just like in any other complex topic, several factors combined cause burnout - such as lifestyle and personality traits in this case. Some people tend to be more resilient to high-pressure environments and lack of support, while others handle the stress in a more vulnerable way. High achievers, people with perfectionist traits and those who like to be in control are prone to burnout in comparison to people who have goals that are more realistic and ones who handle uncertainty in a healthy way. As well, internalization of other people’s goals and value systems can be a cause of value mismatch that leads to burnout. She adds that humans are social beings and as such, they tend to lean on one another in tough situations. If the community lacks supportive relationships and deep understanding of the problems one is facing, burnout is more likely to happen.

“We could continue to talk about the groups of factors individually, although in most cases it is the combination of all these factors that contribute to burnout”, says Katarina and agrees with Dunja that regardless of the cause of burnout, it should be taken seriously and dealt with promptly and in the most appropriate manner.

As our colleagues mentioned, burnout, as a concept, is mostly an organizational problem. It happens in working environments due to:
- massive workload,
- demanding or unclear and poorly defined expectations,
- settings in which people feel like they are working under high pressure  or against their own value system,
- cultures in which people are treated unfairly, or they perceive to be treated unfairly,
- a perception of employees that they lack control over what is going on.

Once we now know all these causes and indicators  - what can we do to fight or mitigate this challenge?

Potential role of coaching in overcoming burnout

Katarina and Dunja both believe that coaching can significantly support individuals when dealing with burnout.
“When you are burned out, you feel overwhelmed, you feel difficulty finding solutions to problems, making decisions and accepting responsibility, and gaining back control over what’s going on seems to be a farfetched option. However, one has a lot more control over stress than it may seem. Coaching has the most effective tools to help you analyze, reflect on and change patterns of behavior that lead to burnout”, says Katarina.
“Coaching provides safe space where you can talk about the issue, as well as a results-oriented method to address burnout; helps to increase one’s internal locus of control and enhances self-awareness”, shares Katarina and adds that during coaching we examine different perspectives, this consequently helps a person discover the real cause of burnout as well as how to escape it.

Dunja presented what are three most important aspects where coaching could be used in her view and how it can be practiced.

Manager as a coach style

Dunja points out that the way managers treat employees contributes a lot: “If managers take time to build trust and create opportunities to listen well and provide support to team members that can significantly help. In practice this means that in team meetings or 1 on 1 meeting managers are ready to ask people how they feel, what their current challenges are and ask how they can be supported to overcome these challenges.

This means that , as managers, addressing changes in emotions and behavior that we noticed is supportive. This is contrary to ignoring the situation while, for example,  our once talkative colleague is being very quiet, not staying on team gatherings or has stopped being proactive and suddenly avoids or hesitates to make any decision. Instead of offering instant solutions, or making assumptions about what is the cause of changed behavior, using coaching mindset would enable managers to listen actively, and partner with their employees on purpose of the conversation they lead.

Manager could ask:

  • How can we use this conversation in your best interest;
  • What would be purposeful to talk about right now;
  • How can I be of help with this challenge you are facing right now?

I would add that for managers and leaders, it is important to be brave and willing to go beyond usual polite conversations and by being present ask thought provoking questions such as:

  • How would you know the sense of purpose is back again on your job;
  • What change could bring the sense of self-efficacy again?
  • If you were to feel more autonomy in your work, what would that look like?
  • What would help you to feel less pressure?
  • What would an ideal job look like (in our company or on the market)?
  • What has stopped you from sharing these concerns earlier with me?

Benefits of having external coach

An external coaching partner can create a very important source of support for employees who are dealing with burnout. First of all it’s very important to have safe space and time for employees to discuss how they feel, what they notice is different and how they would like to feel/act instead. Coach will help a person to move away from the ‘’problem perspective” to ,''solution perspective” which is a very important aspect when a person feels stuck.  Analyzing successful past experiences” can provide important insights in our own abilities and resources and what helpful strategies we already used in our past, which gave good results.  Coach can help to ,,zoom out” and try to look at the current challenge from an external perspective which will help a person to better analyze what are all the variables that are influencing this current state. Coaching can help to understand how we are adding pressure ourselves by applying our own dysfunctional cognitive rules such as perfectionism, fear of mistakes, avoiding to say ,,No” or to ask for help when needed. Most importantly through coaching, a person is building resilience by becoming aware of their own resources and starting to use any available external resources (and there are always some available, we just oversee them sometimes)”, shares Dunja.

Power of peer coaching

“I strongly believe in the power of peer coaching and peer support. This doesn’t mean that you need to be Professional coach to be of help to your peers. People who work the closest to us are our peers, they see how we usually react, behave and who can point out our potential blind spots, confront us with different perspectives. Willing just to provide space for nonjudgmental active listening when we are feeling down, scared or unmotivated can be crucial and create the feeling that we are not alone in our challenge. Just by reflecting on what we heard can sometimes be eye-opening to our colleague who was stuck in continuous rumination in his/her head minutes ago. Asking how I can be of help instead of offering advice sends a message “I am here and I am willing to help in the form that is helpful for you”, adds Dunja.

When we start with a strong belief that every person possesses skills and strength to deal with challenges, coaching helps the person tap into these strengths, maximize the utility of them, and ultimately create a set of behavior that helps build resilience.