“Are you depressed?" That's what my friend Daniel used to ask me. My response would be "How can you think that? I am the most high functioning person I know." In my mind, I wasn't sure. Could I be? I felt good 50% of the time, and that seems like a decently healthy amount to not be depressed. We all have our ups and downs.
I had just returned from a vacation in the Philippines, during which I learned a close friend of mine had suddenly passed away from a rare illness. Not even he knew he had. I was unable to attend the funeral, due to being overseas, and when I got home it was straight to work. I was indundated with more funerals than I have ever dealt with at one time. That very first day back I was given a printed copy of my friend’s obituary. I didn’t cry; there was no time, there was too much work to do. And I had an arrangement that morning.
“If I get one more duty from my manager, or one more of my friends passes away, I am going to lose it!” is something I used to say to myself. Then It happened: I had a breakdown. I didn’t attempt suicide, nor did I throw a tantrum, or ruin any relationships. I went home, turned off the lights, and stayed in bed for the next three days. When I had to go into work, I thought “I just can't do it anymore!” Jetleg, heartache, work stress, and isolation were all factors. I typed up my resignation and handed it in. I was burned out.
What is burnout?
Every professional has overwhelming feelings and experiences waves of disparity. When we are struggling in our personal lives, it feels like our work becomes insurmountable. We burnout when workload and life stressors pile up, unresolved. It would seem that the burnout occurs when work gets to be too much, and then to top it all off a travesty or some type of conflict happens in our personal lives. Perhaps your relationship with your partner is a little rocky, your kids are not living up to your expectations. Maybe a close friend or family member passed away, or your dog is sick, and you just don't know how you're going to cope; how you're going to complete that stack of contracts and pay all those bills on time and everything else going on! As funeral directors, we carry the extra emotional burden of the families we serve every day.
Some of us go home and watch television or bury our noses in a book. Some of us turn to drink or use drugs. A large number of people are on antidepressants. We go numb and we bury those feelings so we, our partners, co-workers, friends just don't have to deal with our problems.
It may seem as though burnout is the symptom of the tasks at hand, but it truly comes from the feelings associated with the tasks. It is intangible, which is why it is so confusing when we try to prevent it. We often believe the cause is our manager, or too many grieving families, or the drama at home and at work. They are the physical occurrences which happen in our lives, causing us to feel hectic and overwhelmed, but the tasks themselves are not the reason why we burn out.
We can be given a huge workload and still be high functioning, enthusiastic, never tiring. Examples of this could range from preparing for a baby to arrive or planning a party, to starting a new career. These circumstances can give us an equal workload to what we experience prior to the burnout, but our feelings behind them are completely the opposite. When our feelings are positive in nature, we are on fire with boundless energy to complete these tasks that we can't wait to tackle.
At large, we are never taught how to deal with burnout or how to manage our mental health. We aren't taught how to be vulnerable with our family or colleagues. In fact, society would tell us to do just the opposite. If we are going to make it in this world, and in business, we need to stay focused and be strong: show no emotion.
Every funeral director I have ever met (myself included) has decided that the best policy is to appear as a rock-solid shoulder to lean on for everyone they encounter. The industry is filled with strong men and women who somehow manage to juggle life and the grief of others on a daily basis. We don't talk about what is affecting us: not with our partners, not with our friends. And we think it’s because we will get over it; that we should get over it. We don't stop to think that each time we deal with a family’s grief, it weighs on us. And it might not seem like it affects us, because of the image we put forth.
We have all had days where we have been completely exhausted after work. We go home, eat dinner dinner, watch the game, and go to bed. The next day, we do it all over. When the weekend hits, we are useless. We have pushed an entire weeks’ worth of emotions to the back of our minds.
When you do over 100 funeral arrangements in a year, each of the accompanying emotions build up. You might blow up at the smallest thing like the house being a mess, someone forgetting to drop off a burial permit, or an error on some paperwork by your office administrator. You consciously know afterwards that this behavior is uncalled for and doesn't hold any relevance in your life. So why are you putting this energy into berating people? Often we don't want to be accountable for the small outbursts.
Lack of accountability in business is dangerous to your career, relationships, and to your health. It is a lack of emotional accountability which got us here in the first place. Every time you decide to push back a feeling, you are bottling up your emotions. They begin to leech out into your relationships in and outside of work. Which is why, when things become stressful at work, it is topped off with an argument with our partner or friends.
In the “honeymoon” phase after the argument, we apologize saying: "I'm sorry. I’ve been really stressed out at work." I have done it too many times to count. I have damaged friendships and relationships and created distance between me and my loved ones. Yet we still don't tackle the issue, because it's too uncomfortable. We just push it down a little farther. We constantly apologize for showing our feelings. We have been taught that we should be ashamed of any emotion which isn't positive. We believe people will lose respect for us, or not want to be around us, if we are not that rock. It is this expectation that is responsible for creating unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Perhaps you feel isolated or distant: viewed as grumpy by people in your workplace. People outside of the families you serve, may begin to think you're an asshole, or lazy, or inconsiderate. If, like me, you binge sleep your days off because you just don't have the energy to socialize, and your friends stop calling because you never go out when they invite you, then you are on the road to burnout.
You might not consciously realize how this affects the people around you. Your partners, friends, children, and colleagues all notice your unintentional tone, which is subtle in your body language and voice inflection. All because you believe that you are strong and independent, that you don't have to express your feelings, you can deal with them silently. But, if you're like me, then you often don't deal, even though you know you should.
Realistically, we are not going to go home and cry about every arrangement that we make. It wouldn't serve us to yell and scream any time someone says something we don't like. Nobody wants to deal with an overly emotional colleague. Lighting a scented candle and having a bath is not going to solve the problem, unless we burn the house down with ourselves in it. So how do we teach ourselves emotional management?
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we are processing a new emotion every time it changes. We need to identify that emotion and determine what exactly it is. Only then can we ask ourselves why we are choosing to have that feeling.
Example; you are angry about something that happened today. You ask yourself, what am I feeling? You realize you’re not angry, but actually frustrated, or defeated or hurt. Then you ask yourself, why you are choosing to have this emotion. This empowers you, because you choose to feel the way that you feel.
Your thoughts determine your feelings. Identifying that you feel an emotion allows you to articulate that feeling. It creates constructive self dialogue so you are responsible and accountable for your own feelings. Nobody else.
Once we are aware of how we’re feeling, we need to create a healthy outlet. This brings us to step two.We need to communicate our emotions so we are not isolated. As Allan Wolfelt says, "You cannot get over grief, you can only go through it." We teach his teachings never recognizing that they apply to us daily. We are the grief experts. If you are a hypocrite like me, you teach positive grief tools, but don't always practice them yourself. Acknowledging an emotion requires conscious effort. Communicating our vulnerabilities, is uncomfortable and scary. Especially when we are the ones that caused them in the first place. So how and when, is a safe time and place to do this?
I am a big fan of talking to myself in the car. I am sure it is comical to see me yelling, crying, or laughing like a maniac while I drive. I think you owe it to yourself to drive the long way home from work every day, without any music on, so by the time you get there, you can talk to your partner or friend about it in a constructive manner, after you have identified the emotion and held yourself accountable.
If you are not comfortable talking to your partner or roommate or friend about it, then I would highly recommend doing some writing. I am not the best emotional communicator, but I am improving. This blog has saved my sanity. I have years of built up emotions from experiences in, and out, of the funeral home. So many of which, I didn’t know were still a burden until I wrote them down. I believe this writing has and will continue to help me and other professionals by breaking down the barriers of isolation.
You might be a rock for your family and employees, but how much stronger could you be if you were practicing psychological self-care on a daily basis? I believe the key to eliminating burnout is rooted in constructively dealing with emotional stress, both personal and professional. Once we can break past the stigma of experiencing and communicating our emotions can we truly shift our entire outlook on life.
We need to practice this daily. I don’t believe this should apply only to unhappy emotions: we need to practice even when we have positive emotions and we can’t wait to get home and tell someone about our day. We need to identify our emotion, be accountable for it, and then communicate. Humans are creatures of ritual and habit. By practicing daily, we can process all the smaller events, positive and negative, so they don't build up and damage our relationships or careers.
So as a recap, the answer to avoiding burnout is to understand the feelings behind our strife and have an outlet regularly which is healthy and non damaging to communicate. I am continually learning how to deal with my own personal and professional emotional burden. And as I do, I will keep building on these ideas of self-care, communication, and ultimate freedom from burnout. I know there is much more to discover.