Here’s how I sidestepped imminent burnout at work

Avoiding burnout requires you to do little things on a regular basis before the stress gets at you

Tired woman working with a laptop / burnout concept

There’s a trick to it. You can work as hard as you want, but if you master the trick, work will not seem like work and, more important, will never burn you out.

Ask me, I have worked sincerely, seriously and without even using up my CL [casual leave] or SL [sick leave]. For a while, years went past without my taking a vacation, but 30 years down this road, I am still raring to go, and full of beans!

I think I discovered the trick when I took over Femina as its editor. It was a huge challenge being at the helm of a magazine that was more than 30 years old, and lay gasping at the verge of collapse. It meant meetings and more meetings, discussions, and brainstorming sessions. It meant setting up a network... oh you know how it is with a start-up. And for all practical purposes, this was just that. We were scrapping everything but the brand name and starting afresh.

Well, to make a long story short, there were days when the enormity of what I had taken on would swamp me. Add to all this was the fact that there were seniors, in age and seniority in the company who resented a younger ‘boss’.

Under the circumstances, I should have in the very first quarter, been lining up for a stress test and risking a serious burnout. But I took a walk instead.

Go Take a Walk!

It has been my way of de-stressing, de-cluttering my mind when something could not be solved in writing, or a problem, to take a walk.

Woman enjoying window shoppingWalking the streets, window shopping, or looking at the sea or a river, calms one down; it makes the mind move out of its narrow corridors of thought and admire what it sees, relaxing in the process. Soon, I would find my brow easing, and a song presenting itself to be hummed. The feeling of being able to walk away from the scene, and find something else to interest the mind, would give the issue at hand perspective. And whittle it down to the proper size. In the large scheme of things, it was only a transitory drop of pique.

The walks were the first step. As the years rolled by, I found other ways to ensure that I created little asides to sidestep imminent burnout. Mental parks, to find the space to relax even as I continued with my rather demanding working schedules.

Fan an Old Flame

I think being blessed with an interest in many things is one reason this was easy. But interests can always be developed. It’s amazing how much there is waiting to catch your fancy, if you just look around.

We’ve all grown up with interests. Wanting to sing, or dance, or climb a hill, wanting to know how to skate, or fly a plane. Where have all those dreams gone? Chances are we write them off as dreams, and they are lying forgotten in some far away drawer beside the diary you once kept in school, or the trophies you won, which you could not bring yourself to throw away.

Time then to open that forgotten drawer and pull out those dreams.

Do it on some weekend. Just when you think you are so busy that you have no time to eat, or indulge in a siesta.

As you go through the things that you wished to do, but did not quite get down to, something might just grab your fancy.

I know I always wanted to do theatre. And one day, on an impulse, I did join a theatre group. It was an experimental play, and there was a lot of dance-based movement involved, and having learnt a bit of dancing, and loved it as a school girl, it would be easy and fun, I was sure.

It wasn’t. The dance was based on Purulia Chhau, a martial arts form; I was terribly out of form myself, thanks to my city bred ways. Just mastering the first steps took me over a month.

It was work all over again, hard work, the kind that made one sweat and sometimes made me think that I had more muscles than others and all of them only knew how to ache.

Earn as You Learn

Woman playing violinBut it was a learning, and learning something new is always an adventure. It uses different parts of the brain from what you normally use at work; it makes you stretch your limits as you go back to being a child again, and taking instructions and following them. It teaches you humility and wonder, and when you finally make progress in small steps, the same sense of wonder fills you that fills a child’s mind when it realises that putting one foot in front of the other can get it from one place to another!

In the process, the job you do gets pushed to its proper slot as one of the many things that fill time and space in your life. The humility and wonder are useful, they help you appreciate others’ skills and points of view and help you look at things at work afresh. Most important, the entire learning process de-stresses you. And you have earned a mental respite!

For years after my first foray into learning Chhau, I continued to be a part of the theatre group.

I made new friends, I learnt new methods of expression, I learnt to throw my voice and express myself in different ways, and I learnt after the Chhau episode, Kalaripayattu, T’ai Chi and a smattering of other disciplines.

Flirt Shamelessly

Over the years I have done most everything I wanted to do as a child. Well, most everything. I have learnt singing, serious classical singing from one of the country’s best teachers, who lamented the fact that I had a full-time job and only ‘flirted’ with learning. But the sessions with her were a revelation of another world, and I still value what she taught me about voice and expressing a note through it, in the morning classes where I sat on the floor looking up at her on the divan, as she strummed the tanpura and guided me along.

Her own dedication to music to the exclusion of everything else including marriage and children, gave me a sense of awe at her single mindedness, and yet told me there were pitfalls in being so single minded unless one was really world-class as she was.

I still regret having to give up my classes with her; it meant a long, long journey to a far off suburb from where I lived and an equidistant trip to work, which eventually got impossible to handle. But the experience left me richer in memory and understanding, and opened a new world. More important it helped me write with some knowledge on music. Besides singing and theatre, there has been a host of other things. Travel for instance!

Run Away!

Couples enjoying trekkingI remember falling in love with the Everest when I first read a book about Mallory and Irvine’s attempt. Doomed though it was, it was fiercely magical in its hold on the imagination.

When the going gets tough, they say, the tough get going.

When things get bad, and seem irrevocable, they mend pretty fast if you really take your mind far away from it. I did that, and right in the middle of a worsening situation at work, once I had neatly tied all straggly ends, and set the boat sailing on its own for the next 15 days at least, I bought a pair of hiking shoes and set out on my first ever hike.

When things get bad, and seem irrevocable, they mend pretty fast if you really take your mind far away from it

It was tough, of course, but the exhilaration I felt at getting there and getting back washed away all negativity. If I can do this, I told myself, I can solve issues at work. And by Jove, I did!

Since that first trip, I have done another, trekking 84km to and from the Pindari glacier. Other times, I take a road trip into far off places, or fly away to a lesser known destination. When work presented me with fam trips, I took the untrodden route. That would make routine into an adventure.

Though fam trips are looked upon as pleasure trips by those not in the charmed circle of being invited, they are often trips where one is slave-driven from one tourist spot to another, one lunch meet to another tea meet where press notes and info comes in heavy overdoses. There is little free time, and by the time one returns, one might want to take time off on a vacation!

Walking the untrodden route is to either find the offbeat story while in the crowd, like concentrate on one aspect, so you can read up, take tiny side excursions, and no organiser minds that extra input for you, if it makes a good story for him. Or like I did, I took a colleague along; [she paid for her flight, but after that, the rooms were anyway twin sharing] and drove all over Ireland, daring myself to drive in a foreign land, through places that I could sometimes not pronounce. We got lost, we ended up in strange nooks and dead ends, but it was a trip we will never forget. And the result was we enjoyed writing the many stories we gathered along the way!

Play Peeping Tom!

Man working on his laptop sitting on the sea shoreOther times I have taken up writing a book, losing myself in another person’s life, in an era that is now almost forgotten. Living their lives, dreaming their dreams, understanding their lows, it was easy for me to breathe easier. When the pressure mounted, I could dream away in my secret world, and refreshed and relaxed, get back into the real one!

There are ways and ways, to escape. Write a diary, laugh at your troubles each night, and gloat over your successes. Better still, write it as the story of someone like you, looking at the events from a third person’s perspective. The 15 minutes of writing will make you see things in perspective and relax you completely, so you wake up with the past day well in the past.

Divide and Rule

As team leader, I have always believed two things are important. One is being hands on and leading from the front. And the second is delegating responsibility. Divide and rule is a great way to find time for oneself in the midst of a work week.

By delegating, you build responsibility, you nurture latent skills in your team, and you start a process by which the team becomes as good as you are. Yet, the very fact that should make a leader insecure will help make her more secure. Because most colleagues when they know you value them and treat them as equals, even as you mentor them, will hang on and ensure they learn everything they can. When they are ready to fly, they will, but everyone flies anyway. And knowing they will carry good things about you wherever they land next makes for a happy heart.

More important, your load at work is lighter. Of course you must weed out the ones who won’t learn, who play politics, who gossip and back bite. That is a sure-fire stresser-outer. But don’t build stress, give them a fair chance and if it does not work, let them go.

And try and pass this on to your team too. The bright eyed and bushy tailed among the team will try to sure get the first fox, the first snippet, be the best, mop up, take over, in short, their enthusiasm or efficiency, or simple need to prove themselves will make them work twice as fast and jump twice as high than everyone else.

Ease them into understanding the need to slow down. To look around, to take an hour off at lunch and read, or surf the net, or fish up old Calvin and Hobbes strips, to walk out and chill over an ice cream or a movie.

Get them to spread the enthusiasm all around and make fun and play as important as work. Creating games at work, during meetings, helps ease the tension for those who feel inferior and brings the know-it-alls down a peg or two.

Most important give them doses of the chill pill mantra, as you mentor them. And take two yourself.

Daily Doses

Woman stitchingOur grandmothers and mothers knew the trick, there was always a piece of embroidery or knitting to take the edge away from chores, from long journeys, and keep the mind relaxed and stress-free. I think the tools were different in my case, but the trick is the same.

I sing as I drive, or take the train, I always carry a book to escape into, so long waits don’t frustrate me, most of the time. I remember once writing an entire TV script for a serial I was doing, while waiting for four long hours at a Consulate for my visa!

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Find me time, find things to do that are different, find ways to keep smiling at every new day. When the going gets tough, take a break, a real or mental escape.And you will bounce back.

Ask me, I am still bouncing!


A version of this article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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