“I don’t feel like myself anymore.”
“I’m exhausted, and wondering if I need to quit the job that I used to love. Would leaving make me feel better, or would I regret it?”
“Am I still called to this work, or do I belong somewhere else?”
Two years into the pandemic, these are the comments and questions I regularly hear from clients, colleagues, and friends.
If you’re feeling drained, depleted, or burnout, you’re in good company. Polls of educators, clergy, and other professions confirm significant levels of exhaustion and pandemic burnout. But our fatigue shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve made it through two years of collective global trauma. As David Rock points out, we’ve had to manage the pandemic without three deep psychological needs being regularly met:
- The need for certainty.
- The need for control.
- The need for connectedness.
The result: we feel drained, stretched, and sometimes overwhelmed.
The big, obvious, difficult question stands in front of us is: what’s next?
- How do I get out from underneath this depleted feeling?
- How do I get emotionally and spiritually healthy again? Can I do so in my current position/job or do I need to make a big change in order to get well again?
- How do I regain my sense of purpose and calling?
- Does my feeling of burnout mean I need to find another calling?
Through my coaching practice, I’ve observed five steps that can help people to respond to these various “what’s next?” questions.
1. Uncover your subconscious needs.
We all have a degree of need for certainty, control, and connectedness. But we are also unique. Some of us have a more intense need for control than others. Others have a more pronounced need for a sense of belonging and connectedness.
We each have a unique blend of subconscious needs for our environments and relationships. The first step out of burnout is raising your self-awareness of your particular blend. The Birkman is a behavior assessment tool that is invaluable in helping people to discover and articulate their unique environmental and relational needs.
This laser focused self-awareness is an essential first step to recovery.
2. Understand the relationship between your unmet needs and your stress behavior.
Over time, unmet environmental and relational needs trigger unproductive stress behavior. We begin pursuing unmet needs in unproductive and unhealthy ways. For example, I once coached a client who had a significant need for solitude and independent work. Unfortunately, he spent his days literally sitting around a table with his team of consultants. He would arrive home depleted, exhausted, and began avoiding his family.
The consultant’s unmet need for solitude and independence was causing him to withdraw from the family he loved.
A different client had a significant need for collaborative work and to feel a strong sense of team belonging. As a pastoral intern, this person spent most of his week in the office of an empty church building. The pastoral intern felt isolated, unfocused, distracted, and unproductive.
He began to wonder whether pastoral ministry was right for him.
Our unique stress behavior patterns are linked to prolonged unmet needs in our relationships and environments. This link is the ‘key’ to unlocking our stress behavior and mapping a way forward to health and thriving. When we understand this link, we gain a sense of confident empowerment to disrupt our stress cycle.
In my coaching practice, we leverage the Birkman Method to get crystal clear on the relationship between needs and stress. This helps us to start problem solving a way forward.
3. Disrupt your stress cycle.
We don’t go from healthy to burned out and depleted overnight. So we shouldn’t expect to move from burned out or depleted back to healthy overnight, either. Imagine you’ve been clenching your fist for two years straight. Finally, you release the tension and relax your hand. It still hurts even though you’ve released the pressure. It takes time (and shaking your hand out) before your hand starts to feel normal again.
Similarly, pursuing your unique blend of needs in a healthy way over time will “unclench your hand” and disrupt your stress cycle. (We’re talking months and years, not days or weeks).
4. Define and pursue your replenishment cycle.
In my experience, people often need to be reminded that their needs are valid. Tired leaders – particularly those in non-profit leadership – fall into the trap of thinking that it’s selfish to set boundaries and prioritize their own personal needs.
Instead, I remind leaders that it’s a matter of replenishing and staying healthy so that we can help others. The consultant I mentioned earlier needs that alone time so that he can show up for his family.
We are in a better place to help others when we are healthy and regularly replenished. Therefore, a core part of my coaching practice is to help leaders define and maintain a replenishment cycle that is based on their particular set of needs.
Self-compassion is important here. It takes time and intentionality to move from a stress cycle to a healthy replenishment cycle.
5. Make big decisions.
There’s a saying, “Don’t quit your job on a bad day.”
I recently worked with a client who was stuck in a stress behavior cycle. This person was ready to quit their job and seek a new profession. Through coaching, they realized that in fact, they loved the tasks of their job, but that it was the environment in which they worked that was taxing and toxic.
The core issue was the work environment and how they were responding to that environment; not the career itself.
Rather than quitting their profession, this person is exploring whether there are ways to cope and remain healthy in their current environment. A key question is, “How long can I remain healthy in my current environment, given what I know about my needs?”
We can approach life’s big decisions with more confidence once we’ve gained fresh perspective and insight on our unique relational and environmental needs.
In the end, changing careers or finding a new environment might be just the right thing for you to restore your health. At the same time, you want to be sure that you understand your current situation from multiple angles before making that big decision.
Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.