A VISIT TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM

It is the middle of the night, and I am sitting in the middle of the emergency waiting room.

But that isn’t where this story begins.

Early in my career, I worked at Susquehanna University in event management. One particular busy weekend, my boss and mentor invited me and a few others to hang out at his house to celebrate our hard work. It had been a particularly stressful week for all of us but more so for our boss, who was responsible for ensuring all the events met the expectations of the President of the University. My boss received numerous calls from university officials during our celebration.

As the evening wore on, he started to complain about chest pain. His wife expressed concern and told him he should go to the emergency room. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to ruin the evening for everyone. He didn’t think it was necessary.

Finally, his wife demanded that he go to the emergency room.

Last month, I was reminded of this as I sat in our local emergency room with intense chest pain. They triaged me quickly and then sent me to the waiting room. Where I waited. Day turned into evening, which turned into night. They ran a battery of tests until they could rule out that I didn’t have any cardiac event.

Like my mentor before me, there was not a single cause for my chest pain. Well, maybe one. Stress.

Our bodies are designed to experience stress in certain situations to keep us safe. It is our body’s response to pressure. It signals to our body that we are in a situation that we are uncomfortable with or have little or no control over. Typically, when the event is over, our body returns to normal, and there are no lasting effects.

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However, chronic stress has long-term effects on our bodies and mental health.

I am a recovering workaholic. I have a compulsion to be working consistently. Like the rest of you, I find work rewarding. I love being able to assist a client in solving a problem. I identify with working.

I also find work stressful, sometimes very stressful. I know this, and I have learned the importance of meditation. The importance of realistic expectations. The importance of deep breathing exercises. The importance of not working. The importance of setting boundaries.

Still.

Stress.

Ugh!

As I returned home from the emergency room, I was greeted by my family, my wife, and two dogs with concern written over their faces. I wondered how I had arrived at this moment.

It wasn’t until a week later, when I had a meltdown at work, that I realized what had happened.

I was burned out.

It is a word that has gained popularity during the Covid pandemic. It is a word mental health professionals use to define chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. We use it to describe feeling overwhelmed with no clear path to move forward.

I experienced burnout. I had depleted my energy level in such a way that I was only using it for the self-define most essential tasks, letting everything else fall by the wayside. (Yes, Mom, that is why I haven’t called you.) I cranked through the work but without much celebration or excitement. My emotional regulator was faulty, either wide open or completely closed.

(Deep breath)

It is hard to admit. Embarrassing. For an individual who facilitates workshops on emotional intelligence, to say out loud that I have experienced poor emotional regulation due to long-term stress causes trepidation, angst, and maybe a little bit of vulnerability.

But here is the point. If I don’t say it, who will?

According to Deloitte’s marketplace survey, seventy-seven percent of us have experienced burnout in the workplace. Covid, financial concerns, career instability, productivity pushes, and social injustice have only increased the stress level we experience in the workplace over the past year.

Recently, The World Health Organization changed the definition of “burn-out” in the International Classification of Diseases, defining it as an occupational concern resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. I can relate.

In 2022, chronic workplace stress is one of the significant derailers of careers, organizational productivity, and increased employee turnover. If we don’t deal with this, it will only get worse.

So, I say it; I am burned out. Exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. And the cause of it is chronic stress due to work. Over the next few weeks, I plan to make subtle changes to my lifestyle to reduce stress and learn better ways to deal with stress in the workplace. (See my list below).

However, since I write to an audience of small business owners, entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders, and managers (the group with the highest level of burnout), we must ask ourselves, “How do I improve our workplaces to reduce chronic stress for my coworkers?”

Based on research, Burnout or Chronic Workplace Stress is an issue. It is as if our coworkers have been asked to lift a gallon of milk for extended periods of time. It isn’t hard at first, but as time passes, it becomes harder and harder and impacts how they perform, feel, and interact with each other.

Why does it matter?

First, burnout or chronic workplace stress doesn’t stop when employees leave the office. It impacts every part of their lives, relationships, and physical, mental, and emotional health. Second, it affects their ability to be productive at work and therefore impacts a company’s ability to reach profitability. If you improve all your employee’s performance by one percent each month, what would that do to your impact on your clients or customers? We can do that if we build better stress management programs at work.

How do we make a difference?

  1. Increase awareness about Burnout: Click for information about burnout from Gallup:  
  2. Design Jobs to reduce chronic stress in employees. Look at workload, downtime, stress decisions, and support from coworkers and leadership.
  3. Review cultural norms: Cultural Norms are essential to a well-run company, but they will also negatively affect stress levels. Is the organization putting employees in stressful situations on a regular basis?
  4. Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Employee assistance programs are a great support system for employees dealing with stress in and out of the workplace. If you have one, ensure you communicate its benefits and how employees can use it.
  5. Make Managers Responsible: Coworkers dislike talking about workplace stress because they believe it makes them look weak. Managers should incorporate discussing stress into their safe work training classes and provide employees with the tools to reduce stress in the workplace. (See list below)
  6. Reduce Stress: Easier said than done since each coworker responds differently to stress in the workplace. However, if stress is recognized as a negative factor in one’s performance, employees will naturally find ways to reduce it.

Over my career, I have worked in many a high-pressure work environment where a high level of stress was the norm, and it didn’t help that I was a workaholic. However, along the way, I learned to deal with chronic stress (see list below).

But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything I knew I should.

Like the example of the milk jug, I could handle a lot of stress, but it wore me down over time. I started not making the best decisions for my long-term health. I was chasing the work (and maybe the money) and forgetting that the journey was long and I needed to take care of myself. All of myself, physical, mental, and emotional.

And suddenly, my body was telling me to stop. At first, I ignore it. Then, I ignore it again. Until my body said, “You can’t ignore me anymore.”

And that is how I found myself sitting in the Emergency waiting room in the middle of the night.

Everybody’s story is different, but stress is a common factor in our lives. Please learn the best way to deal with it physically, mentally, and emotionally.

John Thalheimer

A Burned Out CEO

Here is a list of recommendations to handle stress.

  1. Increase Stress Awareness: Even a low level of stress can cause us to tend towards burnout. If we do not recognize the signs of burnout within ourselves, it could lead to a cycle of ever-increasing stress.
  2. Improve Social Connections: According to HelpGuide, social connections are nature’s antidote to stress. The simple act of talking to a friend face to face can reduce stress and calm your nervous system down. Gallup maintains that the number one way to tell if someone is engaged in the workplace is to ask if they have a best friend at work. The more social connections we have, the greater our ability to handle stress. Even the simple act of volunteering our time for a cause dear to us can help reduce the amount of stress we are experiencing.
  3. Reframe Your Work: Have you lost sight of the purpose of your work? Why do you do what you do? When you work, who are you serving? When you ask these questions, you start to see the connection between your effort and its impact on the community at large, even if that community is your coworkers.
  4. Control Your Priorities: What is most important to you? What are your boundaries around how much effort you will put in, how long you will work, and how perfect a project needs to be? Do not let work be your only focus.
  5. Chill Time: Humans can only productively work about six to seven hours a day. Spending time away allows your mind to refresh and build different neural pathways, which can help you in the long run.
  6. Exercise & Diet: Yep – exercise and diet help reduce stress. You know it, but sometimes you will forgo it to take care of work tasks. Taking care of your body and mind should be your number one priority.
  7. Mindfulness:  The act of being more intentional with our thoughts and feelings is one of the best ways to understand the impact of stress on our minds and bodies. You might be asked to do a deep breathing exercise during mindfulness practice. This is to help you stay calm and focused in the most stressful situations. If you don’t believe me, check out this article explaining why the #1 best military unit practices deep breathing.

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