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Career blogs

How to lean in without burning out

Written by: Alex Cloherty

Burnout has been on the rise in the last years - and that has only been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. My personal brush with mounting stress in the lab both during the early phases of the pandemic, which coincided with reaching the halfway-point of my PhD trajectory, drew me to the recent TOPX meeting on this topic.
How could I manage the stress of finishing a PhD, while also leaning in to the parts of the work that I love?

Have a compass
Martine van Vugt, SVP Corporate Strategy and Planning at Genmab, has had an impressive career trajectory, in which she has time and time again taken on tasks that were completely new to her. Her secret? She was doing what she loved.

Martine stresses the importance of following your passion, and making carefully considered decisions.

"You can't do it all. That means you will have to make choices - and accept the consequences of those choices."

This idea is shared by Petra Dijkman, who co-moderated the TOPX meeting and recently transitioned to a new career focus in the field of circular economy. Petra, describes how making others happy gave her a lot of job satisfaction, but that in the end, doing work that aligned with her personal values was more important.

"I also have to work on my personal values - and that's why I stopped [my last job]. I wanted to make the world a little bit greener, and I hope that I can manage my energy a better if I do that. I now try to stop always pleasing others, and do more for my own satisfaction."

As Arjanna van der Plas, Independent leadership coach and co-founder of WOMEN'S HUB Zurich, puts it, working hard is not a bad thing on its own - but working hard on the wrong things can drain your energy. Being aware of who you are, and what you want in the world can help keep you not only on the right track, but also keep you energized.

And, in regards to taking on all of those new and challenging tasks in the workplace, Martine has another inspiring philosophy borrowed from a famous Swede:

"I act like Pippi Longstocking. She says, I've never done it before, so probably I will be good at it."

Let your KIWIs keep you in the green zone
It's natural for smart and ambitious women to experience stress. Arjanna, who had a brush with "bore-out" herself, advises that in order to manage that stress, it is important to take away the drama around the situation that you are experiencing. Arjanna advises to take it back to the basics, and remember that you are simply a mammal with a nervous system. And, that you should treat that nervous system well.

Whenever a mammal becomes stressed, it will enter the flight, flight, or freeze mode. While this mode can be helpful in short-term stressful situations, staying in the flight, flight, or freeze mode for too long can have negative effects on empathy, decision-making, problem-solving abilities, and self control. In other words, it can make your work far less efficient.

When we humans stay in this high-stress mode for an extended time, we tend to work ever harder to make up for our reduced efficiency - which can be counterproductive. Instead of overcompensating, Arjanna suggests,

"Stop. Say to yourself, I'm just a mammal, and I'm in the red zone of my stress levels. I need to take care of my nervous system. So, what do I do? Take action. Exercise, go outside, and just take out the drama."

Of course that sounds great, but how do you actually get yourself to stop, and get back to the 'green zone'?

One way to set yourself up for success is to get to know your KIWIs, or Key Wellness Indicators.

To find and use your KIWIs…
1. Ask yourself, when I'm in the green zone, what are the things that I naturally do to take care of myself? This might include activities like exercising, going to bed on time, or making sure to go outside every day.
2. Check with yourself each week - did I do these green zone activities?
3. Once you notice that things are getting off track - perhaps you're skipping your daily exercise or staying up late to finish work - let that be an early warning for you that something is out of balance for you.
4. The practice of noticing when you drift away from your KIWIs at an early stage - perhaps in the yellow zone - will make it easier to get back on track. When you're in the red zone of extreme stress, you will typically be less able to make good decisions for yourself and pull yourself back from the story of your stress. Catching yourself earlier will make the whole process easier.

Don't go it alone
Each of the speakers stressed that fostering connections with others in regards to your wellness and work-life balance can greatly help in managing your stress.

Arjanna suggests to tell your friends, family, or colleagues about your KIWIs. Petra agreed, saying,

"Tell your warning signs to somebody close to you - they can help you look at your warning signals and remind you to do good for yourself."

Martine describes the importance of communicating with her family. For example, she made a commitment to her kids that if they ever telephoned her, she would take the call no matter where she was - and she has kept that commitment, even when she is in the middle of tough negotiations. Martine summarises,

"If you make choices and you're dedicated to the consequences of them, usually it's very much accepted by the people you work with. And if they don't accept it, well, tough, because it was very important to me and my family."

Self-reported rates of stress and burnout amongst women tend to be higher than the rates amongst men. But, we don't have to go it alone. Supporting each other informally, at work, through coaching, or through more formal networks like TOPX, can help us nip burnout in the bud - and allow us to lean in to what we love.

About TOPX
TOPX is a network for female professionals in Life Sciences seeking career advancement in industry or academia. See for more information about TOPX and the TOPX meetings.

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