Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders, and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Ficken. Angela Ficken, LICSW is a full-time psychotherapist in private practice based in Boston, Massachusetts. She specializes in OCD, eating disorders, and anxiety-related concerns. She started her career at McLean Hospital, which is one of the top-ranking psychiatric hospitals in the country and is affiliated with Harvard University. Serving as the head social worker on an inpatient unit, Angela worked with clients who suffered from anxiety and depression.
During her time at McLean, Angela trained in exposure therapy and became certified in CBT and DBT. Shortly thereafter, she worked at Harvard University as a primary therapist for undergraduate and graduate students. During her time there, Angela taught students CBT and DBT skills to help them manage a range of challenging emotions that young adults face daily.
Along with her work at McLean and Harvard, Angela had a small private practice for years before she decided to move full-time in 2013. From there, she focused her attention on working with young adults and entrepreneurs primarily after noticing that both groups struggled with anxiety disorders and stress-related issues due to life transitions and the uncertainty of what was coming next in their lives.
Angela spent years fine-tuning her practice and building her business into something more than a standard full-time private practice. She began writing for Huffington Post as an expert, which then catapulted her into writing for other major online sources which include Marriage.com where she is a verified expert, YourTango.com, ThriveGlobal.com, and has been quoted in Oprah Magazine, and on Allure.com, Newsweek.com, Fastcompany.com, Inc.com, Forbes.com, MSN.com, Bustle.com, Popsugar.com, Buzzfeed.com, Nylon magazine, Getstigma.com, and Justluxe.com. She has also been a guest on Onward Nation with Stephen Woessner where she talked about OCD and intrusive thoughts, as well as on the radio in Chicago and Reno speaking about stress and anxiety.
Through her writing and hearing from her clients how difficult it was finding an understanding therapist — one who could actually teach coping strategies to manage difficult emotions — Angela decided to create the Worried to Well-Balanced: Breaking Every Day into Slivers Not Chunks: Practical Skills to Deal With Everyday Stressors course to reach more people other than those she could meet within her office. The course is designed to help those who have significant stress in their lives and struggle to find ways of coping and managing their emotions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I started my career as a psychotherapist in private practice, but after hearing from prospective clients outside of the Boston area that they wanted to work with a psychotherapist like myself but didn’t live within a reasonable distance to my office, I expanded my practice by going online to work with clients all over the country. Now, I have a complete product suite that helps clients with all sorts of anxiety and stress-related disorders.
Despite all of the challenges and headaches, being a business owner was the best thing I could have done for my career. This allows me to be creative, expand my reach and share my expertise with others, and more importantly, affords me flexibility so that I can spend time with my daughter and family. It’s truly been a wonderful journey and I am so excited to see what else unfolds in the near future.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It does take a village! I am so grateful to have so many people in my life who are supportive and encouraging. But Progress Wellness would not be the brand it is today without my publicist and mentor, Kristin Marquet. She wears so many different hats for the brand and pushes me outside my comfort zone; she is a guide, creator, all of the things.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
I think one mistake that sticks out for me is when I first recorded the audio version for my course. I was nine months pregnant at that point, about to burst, and I rushed through the recording before I headed out on maternity leave. Because of that, even though I listened to sections of the course, I never listened to the entire recording as a whole.
Three months later when I did, I noticed I sounded monotone and boring — which is definitely not me! I immediately did the entire thing over. The takeaway for me was to not rush audio, and embrace that I need time for breaks when I am in the middle of a big project. Rather than trying to steamroll my way through which just leaves me feeling wiped out, taking breaks helps me reset and dive back in with more energy.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I have several life quotes I say on repeat, but the one I use the most is “If it makes me anxious, do it anyway.” When I first started the Progress Wellness brand, I was afraid of the “what ifs”:
What if I fail?
What if no one likes any of the products?
What if I look stupid on TV?
That fear stopped me from saying “yes” to opportunities. I have to see the humor in this because I am an anxiety and stress expert and here I was letting anxiety dictate my decisions! I knew that if I wanted to build my business, I was going to have to take risks, put myself out there, and really embrace goofs, missteps, and failure. How else was I going to learn?! So, that’s when I decided to tell myself “If it makes me anxious, do it anyway.” I forced myself to say “yes” to all opportunities and it was a game-changer for myself both professionally and personally.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We have so many exciting things going on here at Progress Wellness! Recently, we completed a workshop that comes with a workbook, and we’re getting ready to put our stress buster guide on Amazon. Our goal is to help you learn the best strategies to manage your stress.
Whether it’s at work, with your partner, your parents, or other areas, we want to give people access to the exact strategies I teach in my private practice. Trying to make a personal change can be daunting, and at times, difficult to know where to start. If you have a guide and skills that are fun to engage in, it makes making that change motivating and exciting!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
A sense of humor, ambition, and creativity are critical to becoming a successful business leader. I think having a sense of humor can help anyone get through missteps and failures with a bit more ease. It also helps in the creative aspect of the job. Keeping things light allows room for brainstorming and problem-solving. Being stuck in a negative mindset does not give room for growth and problem-solving.
Being creative allows me to think outside the box and focus on making products that are fun and different. My ambition is part of my personality and has been since birth. When I see an obstacle or I’m told I’m not going to be able to achieve something, and I know I can do it, I don’t let others’ opinions stop me from going for it. If anything, it makes me go for it harder.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
I’ve been a psychotherapist for many years and have special training in two of the best therapy modalities to help treat stress and anxiety — both can lead to burnout. I worked at McLean Hospital which is one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the country where I got to sit at the feet of giants and learn from the best in the world and was a primary therapist to undergrad and graduate students at Harvard University where students felt pressure in so many different ways, and how burnout can wreak havoc on accomplishing goals. My extensive training, the opportunity to work at some of the best places in the country, and the populations I have had the privilege of working with, make me an expert in knowing how to treat burnout.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
Burnout is a form of mental and physical exhaustion that is caused by prolonged stress. When you experience a long period of stress in your life, several symptoms can show and impact your well-being, such as difficulty sleeping, increased irritability, and appetite changes. These symptoms impact your brain functioning. If you aren’t sleeping and eating well, your brain does not get the energy it needs to move you through your day. Lack of sleep and appetite impacts your mood and increases feelings of irritability. Feeling this way for an extended period of time will impact your overall emotional bandwidth. Those smaller annoyances start to feel like major issues and you can no longer handle or see your way through your normal load. That’s when you enter the realm of burnout.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
The opposite of burnout is engagement. You are actively engaging in strategies that help you feel present and refuel your wellbeing tank even when you are under stress, and that you are actively engaged in your work and personal life. This doesn’t mean one’s engagement is one hundred percent all or even most of the time, but when you take care of yourself and feel present in what you are doing, burnout will be light years away from you.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some skeptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is not going to work when you are burned out. I understand how that concept can be helpful at times, but when your emotional bandwidth is stretched thin, you aren’t going to have the mental resources to do that. Everything is already depleted.
The long-term impact of burnout can affect relationships, work productivity, and taking care of your individual health. If you are burnt out, your irritability increases, stress goes up, and appetite and sleep change which means your brain is not getting the fuel or rest it needs to function at its best.
When you are in this space, your relationships with others suffer, your focus and concentration decrease making it harder to get work done and feel motivated to do it, and if you are feeling run down, your body is more susceptible to illnesses like colds. Burnout has so many negative consequences but the good news is there are so many skills out there that can help you shift how you manage your stress so that burnout never enters the picture.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
The main causes of burnout mean taking too much on at work or at home while struggling to ask for help or having difficulty setting personal limits- essentially not being able to say “no” to others, which leaves you taking on more than you can or want to.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”.
- Set personal limits and boundaries. This is being able to say “no” to others even if they might get upset. You understand what your limits and capabilities are and are able to set that boundary in order to maintain your wellbeing.
- Schedule in brain breaks. Taking five minutes periodically throughout the day can be exactly what your brain needs to stay refueled, focused, and motivated. Oftentimes people think if they just work more and have longer hours they will get their work done faster and be more productive. The ironic thing is the opposite tends to happen. You become less productive and more stressed out. If you give yourself an opportunity to move your body, refill your water glass, have a snack, text friends, or do whatever you’d like, you’ll notice that taking those few minutes several times a day helps your concentration and motivation to do your work. You aren’t going to get fired or the company isn’t going to burn down because you take 20 minutes’ worth of breaks each day. People will survive, and most importantly, you will feel more engaged with what you are doing and everyone benefits from that.
- Shut down work laptops/computers after regular business hours. Take a look at how much work you are doing off-hours. It’s harder to disengage with work now that many are still working from home and you can easily respond to just one more email. Resist this and honor your time after you leave your office or WFH office. When you give your brain a break from work and engage in other activities that bring you joy, your productivity, relationships with others, and your overall level of happiness will increase. Turn your computer off.
- Turn off work notifications after working hours and/or on weekends. Similar to shutting down your computer, please turn off work notifications. It only increases stress and though you might tell yourself if you respond to this one thing it will be off your plate tomorrow, it gets you in the cycle of engaging in work instead of being present with your loved ones or enjoying some solo time.
- Take a mental health day or schedule in taking a few days off or even a string of Fridays. Some people will take Fridays off for an entire month. With burnout usually comes the acknowledgment that you haven’t taken time off in a very long time. Use those vacation days to your benefit and refuel your wellbeing tank.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
You can ask your loved ones how they are doing. “How are you feeling? It seems like you are stretched thin these days. Does that feel true to you? Is there anything you can take off your plate or can I help take something over for you?”
If you have experienced burnout, you can share what happened to get you there and what worked for you to get out of it.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
Encourage brain breaks throughout the day, a model for your employees by turning off your work notifications after 5 pm, and only if needed responding briefly to emails over the weekend. If they see the boss making wellbeing a priority and creating a work-life balance, they will feel the freedom to do the same. Encouraging time off is also helpful. If you want to help your employees avoid burnout, think about what you want the work culture to look like. What are your values and how does that translate into a well run, mentally healthy, accepting environment.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Create an anonymous survey to gather ideas on what your employees would find helpful. What helps workers for one company might not work for yours. I am aware of one company that reimburses employees $100/month if they engage in mental health activities such as therapy or an exercise class. Those perks can go a long way because it says to the employee that their wellbeing is important.
It doesn’t have to equate to a monetary reimbursement, but your genuine interest in how your employees are doing and what could be made better in the work environment will provide you with ideas for how to improve and prevent burnout.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
A common mistake is someone will go all in an attempt to make several changes at once, then feel overwhelmed by those changes, feel stuck, and not know how to move forward. For example, someone might say they are no longer checking email after 5pm and will go to the gym every night, and make time for dinner with friends, and go grocery shopping and cook meals for the week.
All of these are great strategies for reversing burnout, but I typically recommend one thing at a time. When you try to revamp your entire schedule in a single swoop, you leave yourself open to more stress. Now there are more moving pieces and you aren’t sure what’s working and what’s not. It can end up being a mess. Good intentions, but a mess.
I’d suggest you pull over and ask yourself what do you need to take care of yourself today? Asking yourself that question every day can help you reverse burnout because you are now paying attention to your needs and making yourself a priority. What you need can change each day, so that’s why that question is so important.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think if I could inspire a movement, it would be to engage in the act of contributing. When we give back to others, it does two things. It provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose which can dramatically improve our mood, but it also directly impacts someone else. It’s a win-win. Contributions can be donating to a charity, volunteering for an organization that matches your values, and smaller tier contributions like letting someone go in traffic, holding the door for someone, offering to get your elderly neighbor groceries, or doing something kind for a stranger. Just think of where we could be if we all decided to contribute every day. Making a choice to positively impact one person each day.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Michelle Obama all day. If I were to ever have the privilege of meeting her, I would want to ask her questions about parenting. I’d hope to ask what it was like raising two girls, and what mistakes has she made that gave her the biggest lessons.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can connect with me at ProgressWellness.com and WorriedtoWellBalanced.com. I am also on Instagram @Progresswellness.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!