On September 27, 2020, I spoke with Dr Gbonjubola Abiri on the Talk Mental Health IG Live Series. In the one-hour conversation we discussed extensively on the burnout syndrome and how to deal adaptively with work related stress. Enjoy!
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: Tell us about yourself?
Dr G: My name is Gbonjubola Abiri. I am a Consultant Psychiatrist, a managerial psychologist, a co-author of the book “Mental Health in The Work Place” and the Medical Director of a private psychiatric facility in Lagos, Tranquil and Quest, (we pride ourself as being a luxury brand) providing solution to mental health issues and substance abuse problems. I am a mental health advocate and I use illustration and media to discuss mental health. You can call me Dr G
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: Tell us about burnout syndrome?
Dr G: Work is good for our physical and mental health. Having a place to go every day is good for your health. However, a negative work environment is detrimental to our health. No previous generation of people have been faced with the amount of stress, distress, demand such as our generation. Prior to now the workplace has often been described as a VUCA workplace -acronym for Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous. Throwing in the dynamics of the COVID-19 which has made it extremely difficult to work, an extra word has been added to the acronym, which is R for risk-filled.
Burnout is a syndrome (i.e. a cluster of signs and symptoms) from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
For you to say that somebody is burnt out, there are 3 dimensions to it:
- Reduced professional efficiency
- Inability to connect to the job- increased mental distance from your work causing cynicism and negativistic attitude to work.
- Energy depletion or exhaustion
The World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted it as an occupational phenomenon because of the severity of distress it causes.
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: What has caused the difference in the workplace?
Dr G: If I’d tell you what made the difference, I’ll say, the fast-paced century we found ourselves. There is so much innovation, creativity and things we can do virtually. But unfortunately, most people don’t have the requisite skills to cope with the workplace and these are part of the issues that have increased the issue of burnout.
When talking about the issues of burnout syndrome, beyond the workplace, I think it is important to talk about the people that go to work, the places they work in and the processes that make up the workplace. When talking about the people that go to work, we are talking about people who do not have the requisite skills to cope such as requisite skills of resilience, communication, emotional intelligence, assertiveness; they have self-esteem issues, personality issues e.g. impostor syndrome, feeling unappreciated, second-guessing themselves etc. Things at the workplace that can expose people to burnout: Design of task, no break, long work-hours, heavy workloads, poor job design, job that doesn’t use your skills, management style (e.g a place you don’t feel listened to, no family friendly policy etc)
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: What are normal stresses of life?
Dr G: Stress is a physiological response to a stressor. A stressor is a threat. So, anything that threatens your balance is a stressor. Prior to covid-19, my major stressor was the Lagos traffic. The stressor is always there, however whether or not you get extremely stressed in response to that stressors depends on a lot of factors- personal, environment and workplace factors. To manage stress, it is important that everyone learns to identify their stressors e.g. for me its traffic, task at the workplace.
Stress will always be there but the difference between normal stress and it being chronic is when you find that the stress is continuous, chronic, and it is beginning to impact negatively on your health, relationship and beginning to increase in frequency, causing a lot of distress not just to your mind but to your body. It is no longer known as eustress (normal stress) it is beginning to become distress.
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: This means traffic can become a source of distress to some people?
Dr G: Yes, it can. I once managed a patient who came in because she developed an anxiety disorder due to continuous exposure to traffic. She just became panicky, anxious, tense and these increased in intensity whenever she was in traffic. It was so bad she couldn’t go to work anymore, they moved house, it didn’t make it any better. Sometimes stressors can be a place, person, or process e.g. a spouse, a boss, children, place (Mile-12 and Oshodi are places I try to avoid). As individuals we should be able to identify our sources of stress at all times.
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: Let’s move on to how to deal with work-related stress. Some of the questions I get from people are “you ask us to take time out etc. but what if we have some bosses who are on our neck e.g. bankers who need to meet targets and other corporate organization and you are also trying to compete with others because you need a promotion.” Maybe we should just break it down. Tell people how to deal with work-related stress.
Dr G: I think before we talk about how to deal with stress, let’s first identify how to know you’re stressed. Because it is what you know, that you can try to deal with. About 2 weeks ago, I was scheduled for two meetings but missed them. Why? I forgot… I honestly forgot. And when I did remember, I knew it was because I was beginning to meet criteria for a possible burnout at work. So, I had to tell them at the office that I needed to go on leave. For me, I was already feeling a gap from work, feeling mentally and physically tired; and experiencing reduced efficiency at the work place.
So, being able to understand what you’re going through per time is extremely important and so for the individual who is extremely burnt out at the workplace, the signs of chronic stress will come to play.
Chronic stress can affect both physical, mental, and behavioral. You can experience headache, feelings of fatigue, undue instability, suspiciousness, you spend time at work but don’t feel like you’re doing anything, no drive, interest or motivation to the job and sometimes on the job you have reduced energy, negative about the job, to the people, debilitative self -doubt (during the job but not feeling like you are good at it); biological function start to suffer e.g. sleep, appetite, and sex and mood become affected and individuals starts to cope maladaptively by self-medicating with prescriptive-medicine, alcohol and other illicit substances of abuse. Therefore, it is important we talk about how to manage it because Work Burnout is not a mental health disorder, it can be precursor to mental health disorder. The mental health disorder that are largely going to occur are anxiety disorder, mood disorder, substance abuse disorder as people find ways to cope and even psychotic disorders. It is important we nip it in the board and how do we then deal with stress because ladies and gentlemen, stress isn’t going anywhere.
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: Do people have to experience all the stress signs you mentioned earlier to know they have a burn out or they only need to know the signs that are peculiar to them?
Dr G: Thank you for the question. The first thing I’ll say is self-awareness is extremely key – knowing yourself, your stressors, things that makes you go ga-ga once in a while. You need to be able to be identify your stressors; be open and honest with yourself to an extent that when you notice that you’re not being productive, satisfied as you used to be with your job, you can tell yourself that you are beginning to feel burnout.
The signs are different for everyone- what is a burnout sign for one, might not be for the other. Of course, the major signs are emotional exhaustion, cynicism, especially at workplace. However, you might start to see subtle signs or overt signs when you are burnt-out. You should be able to check in with yourself and if you see you can’t handle it yourself, you may want to speak with an expert who will be able to look at you, access you using professional tools to ascertain if you’re indeed burnout at the workplace.
Dr Adeola Adeyemi: Not dealing with stress can lead to a mental breakdown and in extreme causes death. Can you tell us how to deal with stress at the workplace?
Dr G: Firstly, identify your unique stressors at different times– is it a person, place, or process? and be mindful about it (e.g. ask what is making XYZ stressful). Sometimes, when we ask, we will find out that, we are being stressed t work due to other people’s inefficiencies. When you discover this, do not take on “other people’s monkeys”, instead give them the guidance they need to complete the task themselves.
Secondly, change the way you think about stress. In a ted-talk by Kelly McGonigal she speaks about stress and how the perception of stress overtime, always seeing stress as negative, is one of the things that has ensured that anytime we think about stress, we attach a negative feeling to it. She encourages, instead, that whenever we think about stress, we should think of it as normal. It’s like calling your body to arms- your heart beats faster, respiration is faster. It doesn’t mean that at that time, the stressors are negative. When you change the way you think about stress, it creates what is known as the ‘biology of courage’. When you think of stress as a positive mechanism for your body, oxytocin is released.
Thirdly, focus on what you can control. Can you control when COVID-19 leaves? No. Can you control who contacts it? No. Can you control certain things at your workplace? Maybe not, especially when you remember that the work place is VUCAR. You need to sit down and think about what you can control, such as your own response e.g. learning how to control what you do in traffic.
Fourthly, look for opportunities in stressful situations. A quote I like is, “expect problems, eat them for breakfast”. So, sometimes problem will come, we need to change how we look at problems. Look at them as solution points.
We need to learn how to cope adaptively to stress or issues at the workplace by either focusing on the problem or reducing the emotion we feel about the problem. On focusing on the problem, learn more about what exactly makes you stress, learn to talk to people when in stress e.g. a loved one, a trusted friend, or an expert (if you feel overwhelmed); avoid maladaptive coping skills e.g. being unduly irritable, aggressive, using alcohol or even sex or food to cope. Instead identify the problem and deal with it.
Fifthly, look for healthy ways to relax. Set up a me-time. I know it’s hard. Every once in a while, I remind myself that I need to slow down. Life feels better when we slow down. What are your sources of relaxation? Do you want to sit with your children? do you need alone time? Do you want to go swimming, exercising, take a walk, spend time with your partner or a friend who will liven you up? I wouldn’t recommend you spending time on social media trying to relax because you’ll find things that will stress you more or cause you a little distress. Turn off your phone.
Sixthly, Manage your energy. First, what kind of energy do we have: mental, physical, spiritual energy. For mental energy avoid people, places, or processes that drain you. If there are people, places, or processes you can’t avoid you need to learn the requisite skills to cope with the challenges – skills like resilience, emotional intelligence, communication and assertiveness. Also, sometimes we can’t cope ourselves, we need others to cope. Earlier, we described the workplace as VUCAR. To replace the VUCAR workplace, we need to have a Vision for every Volatility, Understanding for Uncertainty, for Complexity face it with Clarity, for Ambiguity face it with Agility, for Risk deal with it with Reward. They are skills needed for the age.
To manage your physical energy, make it a habit to rest (do not only rest when tired), eat and sleep well, drink a lot of water. To manage your spiritual energy, find yourself a higher being to latch on to. I love the serenity prayer.
A lot of workplace in this country (and outside) is toxic. You need to practice relationship techniques e.g. breathing or mindfulness techniques. I will encourage people to look up the 4-7-8 breathing technique and the mindfulness breathing technique.
Lastly, leverage the power of Mindful journaling. Note the things you are grateful for every day and why you are grateful for them.
Connect with Dr G on Instagram: @drgbonjubolaabiri