Lesson: Surviving Burn Out

25 November 2013

Dear Readers of the Brown Bag

For many of you, you probably don't know that I've been doing flowers since 2001. It's been a while and though in the grand scheme of life, it's not that long, I feel like I've been doing this for 30 years, not just 12 seasons. And some years, things just work really well and it's pretty darn great being a florist, floral designer, event producer while other years, the challenges are immense, almost overwhelming.

On top of managing a business, developing creative designs, working under deadlines,  there are the challenges of one's physical health. I'm no spring chicken though I'm hardly retiring (btw: I will not mention my age), yet I have had several near burnouts exemplified by extreme exhaustion both physically and emotionally.

During the 90's I was working as a senior merchandise planner yet despite working for a very trendy and up-and-coming women's fashion retailer, I was really burning out --- you might say, I was running out of steam. The daily grind, intense retail environment, and the pressure of working during the dot.com era depleted my energy. I became soulless as I had no balance in my life and any accomplishment had very little impact as if I took all the good for granted.

Have you ever felt this way?

To combat my fatigue and inner "burnout, I thought that working for a more stable retailer would resolve my issues. Unfortunately, it didn't.  While I was vacationing in Italy, I knew that if the opportunity were to come up and I could magically find a new source of joy, I would take it.   Then came 9/11.  It further affirmed what I knew, life was short, it could be unfair and that there wasn't a moment to waste.

When I was offered a choice between staying at my managerial job at Gap or leaving to start something new.  I choose the path that few dared.  I choose to leave.

I needed a radical change.  And I thought that burning out could be put out by having a new lease on life.

Luckily I found floral and event design. It was a dream for me. However, 12 seasons later even at my dream job, I have honestly had periods of near burnout and the same feelings from when I worked in the pressure halls of retail.

I ask myself all the time, is it the work or is it me?

And the truth is this, it's a combination of both.  You know, it's like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?  And the truth about burnout, it's a bit of both.  It's both the work and it's environment and also just yourself.    The work causes you to burn out but we are the cause often of how we work.  If you aren't sure if you have or might be burning out, let's examine the symptoms.

The signs include ---

1) extreme fatigue
2) inability to deal with intense stress
3) creative soullessness
4) diminished interests
5) reduced sense of accomplishment

To help with burnout, I also added an excerpt from Wikipedia that I thought I would share with you. 

Psychologists  Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have divided the burnout process into 12 phases which may not occur in each individual sequentially.  They include

The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
  • Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. This is one's desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.
  • [1]
Working Harder
  • Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organization that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus only on work while they take on more work than they usually would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. This will show that they are irreplaceable since they are able to do so much work without enlisting in the help of others.
  • [1]
Neglecting Their Needs
  • Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.
  • [1]
Displacement of Conflicts
  • Now, the person has become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed.
  • [1]
Revision of Values
  • In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their 
  • value systems. The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.[1]
Denial of Emerging Problems
  • The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. It is not uncommon for them to blame their increasing problems on time pressure and all the work that they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed, themselves.
  • [1]
  • Their social contact is now at a minimum, soon turning into isolation, a wall. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for a release since they are obsessively working "by the book". They often have feelings of being without hope or direction.
  • [1]
Obvious Behavioral Changes
  • Coworkers, family, friends, and other people that are in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes of this person.
  • [1]
  • Losing contact with themselves, it's possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. As well, the person loses track of their personal needs. Their view of life narrows to only seeing in the present time, while their life turns to a series of mechanical functions.
  • [1]
Inner Emptiness
  • They feel empty inside and to overcome this, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. These activities are often exaggerated.
  • [clarification needed][1]
  • Burnout may include 
  • depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believes that there is nothing for them in the future. To them, there is no meaning of life. Typical depression symptoms arise.[1]
Burnout Syndrome
  • They collapse physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.

Have you felt inner emptiness?
Do you find yourself withdrawing from social events?
Does being a floral designer consume your life so much that you don't have any other hobbies or desires?
Are your expectations so high that they aren't reasonable?  And does one failure send you into a tailspin?

I am no expert on how to survive burnout.  I don't even know if I can tell you how to prevent it.
However, this is how I have crawled out of my burnout zone.  

1) Community - Having a community of people who are supporters, cheerleaders and assistants have helped me survive.  My secret from burning out is having a great team.   My team has fundamentally helped me save me from me!!!  Without a team of great great great team members, I know I would not have survived.   As a leader, as a creative director, and a manager, I have to have capable people to hand off work to.  

Beyond my team who are so amazing, there are good friends and my family who are the wind beneath my wings.  The lift me up when I am so down down down.   They include my cute parents who bring me food from across the Bay Bridge when they know I need it.  My mom recognizes the importance of not skipping meals which I often do since I'm always designing in the studio but as a nutritionist, she knows that the body is important to nourish.

I have a friend name Augie Chang(you might know him --- he is a fabulous photographer).  I remember that he came over one night when I wanted to throw in the towel just to give me some words of wisdom with my other buddy, Beverly Yip.  You need cheerleaders and I'm honored to have many including Kelly of A Savvy Event, Josh of Joshua Charles, Linda Hylen of the JMB, and on and on.  

You can prevent burning out --- try building a community.

2) Finding What is Important - I know what it takes for me to function and it means that I have to have a sound body and mind.  So taking small vacations during the day is important for me.

I am not asking you for 30 minutes, but just maybe 10 minutes each work day.  That means eating lunch, not at my desk but sitting down and enjoying the food.  Not thinking about work while you are working will help you clear you mind.

Also, don't skip date nights or day offs.  As a business owner, we all do this.  We turn a weekend Sunday into a work Sunday.

If you want to last, make your day offs, a day off.  Take a vacation where your clients cannot reach you.  Turn the iphone off.

I especially like to start my day with walking my two doggies.  To breathe the fresh air, that's wonderful.  My husband Kevin and I try to make Sunday, Family Day where we take the dogs to brunch in Hayes Valley or Mission Rock.  (Thanks Lisa Lefkowitz for capturing this photo with the Juice Shop truck behind us)

It also means that you don't apologize when you give yourself time off.

For each of us, we have to have set days in which we have off.  I know it's easier said then done but once I put my body, my values as a priority, I could feel the difference.    And my clients have only benefitted from that time off.  I can see how much more tolerant I am and how much I want to create and help as opposed to resenting the situation.

3) Fairness, Less Complications - By setting consistent standards and fair values at work with my staff, I can see how it has resulted in less confusion, less stress for them and for me.  The less my staff is stressed, the less I am stressed.  It helps to have a staff that is positive.  Being around positive people will help prevent you from getting down through negativity.

When we design, I have created recipes, this helps the staff.  It ensures that we have enough flowers, we have a roadmap.  It creates this sense of consistency at work. Making our organization run more efficiently helps reduce the amount of time I have to spend on being a micro manager.

Yet another tip that I have include having production schedule prior to a set up, now everyone knows what is to be expected so it leads to fewer issues on an already stressful day.  It's one of many things that we implement that has created a sense of fairness at work which results in a really tight team of individuals.    It helped me realize that I was not alone in my mission and when you know that you can count on others, you don't go down that path where you feel that no one can do what you do.  By being part of a team, you don't isolate your problems, your fears, your stress.

There are numerous other examples of values that I set for myself.  No matter what they are, the main point is that by setting some standards, creating values, understanding what is fair, you don't depersonalize what you do, what others do, what your business means. 

Understanding what you need to best do your job means you know how to treat others and how you need to be treated.

I hope that this post will help all of you who are going through this to reach out for help, to end the burnout, and to recognize that there is hope out there for all of us.

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Grace Appeal said...

Thanks for this great article!!!
What were you making with the oasis?

The Pink Blossom List said...

Dear Grace ---

We were making a cake stand with flowers!!!

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