Research Paper By Nurhaida Rahim
(Burnout Recovery Coach, SINGAPORE)
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, burnout can be defined as the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. Burnout can come from various sources – jobs, home, personal life stressors or a combination of those. In many cases, as noted by the Mayo Clinic, burnout can also involve “a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity”.
Burnout by itself is not a medical diagnosis or has a specific medical definition but can be perhaps viewed broadly as an unintended impact resulting from a certain lifestyle.
Unfortunately, burnout is fast becoming a global pandemic, despite the assumption that modern lifestyle and technology were meant to help us live more efficiently. In 2017, a survey conducted by Career Builders observed that at least 31% of their respondents reported high levels of stress at the workplace, with the issue affecting more women (34%) than men (27%). In the same survey, 79% noted that their workplaces do not offer support programs to help cope with stress.
Symptoms associated with burnout can often include but not limited to the following:
- Feeling tired and exhausted all the time
- Having little energy
- Unable to think clearly
- Mood swings
- Unable to sleep very well
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constantly feeling anxious
- Feeling demotivated
- Low desire to engage with others or do activities previously enjoyed
As an aid worker who has burnt-out a few times in my professional career, I can attest to most of the symptoms listed above. Within the humanitarian sector and for many individuals working in crisis and emergency setting, burnout and chronic stress are regrettably considered part and parcel of the job. Even so, following my foray into a burnout situation, I had to force myself into recovery. That led me to work with a coach who helped me process and explore my fundamental beliefs and thinking around work and life commitments. In the end, my own recovery formed the inspiration for me to train as a coach so I can support others in their burnout recovery.
To this end, this research paper is an attempt to highlight the ways and possibilities of how coaching can be a powerful and helpful tool to support others intending to cope, manage and recover from burnout.
Role of Coaching in Burnout Recovery
At its core, coaching is a series of conversations and what makes coaching different from other types of conversation is the impact it has on the person being coached. Through active listening, powerful questioning, observation and feedback, the coach facilitates the process of inquiry and discussion. This aims to provide clarity and awareness about a given situation or topic, and from there supports the individual to take actions and make progress towards their desired outcome.
Coaching is a powerful tool for individuals to process, explore and discuss topics or issues or concern with a kind of commitment, attention and focus that the individual rarely gets in other conversations.
Individuals often come to coaching with a desire to increase clarity, understanding, become unstuck or resolve a particular situation. In this regards, coaching for burnout recovery is similar to coaching other topics such as career and health. Individuals who are burnout often have difficulty thinking clearly, exploring options and taking actions towards recovery, particularly as their body and mind are too exhausted, cluttered and tired to think and act in the way they should.
Additionally, in some circumstances, burnout can be a topic that is not widely discussed in the workplace culture and anyone deemed to be burnt-out may be judged as weak and incapable of working under stressful conditions. In my experience, this is especially the case with humanitarian and non-profit organisations where staff are expected to work long hours and be on call for 24/7 in case of emergency situations.
This is where coaching can come in and provide much-needed support. Burnout is often an accumulation of stressors, habits and beliefs that were packed on year after year. While good stress can help to motivate and innovate, accumulated bad stressors that constantly trigger the fight-or-flight response can certainly lead to burnout and a host of other diseases. This is why it is critical that burnout is prevented and managed before it can lead to more serious health concerns and complications.
A coach can be a thought and accountability partner for the burnt-out client through the following ways:
- Support the client to gain clarity and awareness of his/her current situation and reality
- Helping the client to unpack and delve into underlying beliefs and thinking that may be holding them back from moving forward
- Engage with the client to explore possibilities and options towards a desired goal or outcome
- Providing structure to help the client move towards their desired outcome by holding them accountable and offering constructive feedback
Often when an individual is a burnout, it can be extremely difficult to think clearly and figure out what they ought to do in order to cope, manage and heal from their situation.
Assuming the client is emotionally healthy and willing and ready to undertake the needed work to recover from burnout, coaching can bring tremendous benefits such as greater confidence in managing their professional and personal lives, sense of structure in their lives where they feel empowered and excited about their future and an overall healthier and happier living.
Coaching to Help Aid Workers Recover from Burnout
For many aid workers and especially those working in a hardship duty station, chronic stress and burnout are unfortunately considered the norms of the job. In crisis and emergency settings, staff are expected to perform under pressure from various sources with often very limited support to their physical and mental health. They often work long hours, have limited personal space and opportunity to indulge in pleasurable and restful activities and are constantly functioning in urgent mode. The lifestyle while on these work assignments in conflict and crisis locations can also play an impact on the overall wellbeing of the aid worker.
Underpinning these external realities is a common mindset entrenched in many aid workers, their respective organisations and the wider sector that burning out is a sign of weakness and inability to operate under stressful situation and thus something that should be handled on one’s own.
Often many organisations provide very limited support for staff to cope with stress and burnout. There are very few professionals who are trained in stress management, counselling and coaching.
In this regards, coaching can be a tool to support aid workers to recover from burnout via the following ways:
- Uncover underlying thinking and beliefs around work and life priorities
- Shift perspectives to support action-taking to recover
- Explore steps and actions to take to attain work-life balance
Through a process of exploring and inquiry, it can be anticipated that the aid worker’s perspective on his/her situation can be transformed to be more supportive of his/her work and life. Alongside this, the coach can support the client to take key steps and sustainable habits towards making the desired change.