KuelLife Logo home 1000


Liza Baker April 2020

BurnOut Kuel Category Expert: Liza Baker

In January, we took a look at why burnout is endemic in the nonprofit world, and I ended by asking, why is it good news that the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed burnout as a diagnosable syndrome in its International Classification of Diseases, 11th edition (ICD-11)?

WHO done it.

Burnout was first officially described in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who saw it as “an utterly diminished capacity to perform.” Significantly, while the term has been coopted by the for-profit world, it originally referred to “the helping professions:” those in health care, social work, etc.

In May 2019, burnout was defined by WHO as a full-being (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual response to chronic stress in the workplace, resulting in exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, and this syndrome has landed in ICD-11, which is the standard manual used by doctors around the world to diagnose and treat illness.

Which means that a woman can now get a diagnosis of burnout from a medical professional, whereas before, she was likely to be told that she was overtired. If a syndrome can be diagnosed, it will also have relevant treatments—we’ll talk about treating burnout below.

The point I’m making here is that before ICD-11, a woman with burnout had two choices: keep struggling through work or quit; now, however, she will be offered treatment, and her employment should not be in jeopardy, even if she needs to take extensive time off from work.

In other words, WHO’s action is good news for individuals and creates difficulties for HR departments and organizations already operating on a shoe string.

Forward-thinking organizations will be proactive and strategic and will look to reverse and prevent burnout in their staff; those used to being reactive and simply putting out fires whack-a-mole style will suffer as they scramble to complete work done by individuals on medical leave.

Health Care / Disease Care:

As a health coach, I firmly believe that there is a place for every health care modality—from conventional/Western medicine to the deeply woo alternative practice—at the table.

It also disturbs me that conventional medicine is the dominant care system, as it tends to be extremely reactive, addressing a health issue once disease is already present and treating symptoms rather than addressing the root cause of the disease.

Yet many of us take our MD’s word as law and obediently pop pills to mitigate symptoms—and more pills to deal with the side effects of those first pills.

To truly reverse and prevent burnout, we will need to understand that just as menopause is not a Xanax deficiency, burnout is not a caffeine and sugar and willpower deficiency.

The cure for burnout is addressing systemic issues in our workplaces—particularly in the mission-driven sector—and allowing women to reclaim some agency over their own health. Truly preventative health care in place of emergency disease care.

I’ve heard a statistic that 80% of our chronic diseases are “lifestyle diseases,” meaning that they can be reversed and prevented through our food and lifestyle choices. Burnout definitely falls in this category!

Care in the time of a pandemic.

As I write this, 26 states have enacted shelter-in-place orders, the US and Italy have outpaced China’s number of confirmed cases despite having significantly smaller populations, and—as a friend of mine would say—“It’s only Tuesday!”

What’s The Connection To Burnout?

Lowered immunity almost always accompanies burnout, and as nonprofiteers, caregivers, and health care workers go into overtime and overdrive, their own immunity is seriously compromised even as they are on the front lines and in contact with the very populations that are at increased risk for carrying the novel coronavirus and contracting Covid-19.

It feels like every day brings dire new warnings, many of them conflicting: Disinfect your packages! Don’t use reusable shopping bags! Wear a mask! No—save the masks for the hospital staff! Etc. The result, especially if we can’t disconnect from the barrage of news, is more stress.

And chronic, unrelieved stress is the number one cause of burnout. What’s a woman to do? Stress relief + immunity boosting

If you are unfamiliar with the explanation of the stress response, I highly recommend you listen to Rhea Wong’s excellent podcast episode with Dr. Gabrille Francis.

The main takeaway is that there are no overnight cures to reducing stress, nor are there silver bullets for boosting immunity: these health care activities are practices that we can develop over time.

The good news is that you can start doing both—on your own and for free!

Self Care / Soul Care:

Every small act of care for ourselves is a step in the right direction—and every woman has the opportunity to get in touch with her inner wisdom and figure out what steps work for her.

I have a saying that I use frequently with my clients: self care is what Cosmo tells you to do; soul care is what the Cosmos is asking of you.

Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself: look at every list out there as just that—options rather than ‘shoulds.’ Does something feel overwhelming/impossible? It’s probably not the right step for you although it may work for someone else. Does something speak to your soul in a way that makes you light up and lean in an exclaim “YESSS?” Start there.

To that end, here is my own “lockdown survival(ist):” remember, this is not a “you must do all of these every day” kind of list—it’s a “pick something that feels manageable and start there” list. Try something out for a few days, then see if you can add one more tiny tweak.

Food Choices:

  • Stick with whole foods cooked from scratch at home and avoid highly processed foods —no need to megadose on anything, especially not on foods that make health claims.
  • Focus on nutrient density: for every calorie you get from macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), make sure you’re getting a whopping dose of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals). Get plenty of fiber and remember to hydrate!
  • Skip the ice: Americans tend to prefer cold drinks, but the best way to keep your system healthy is to drink warm liquids: hot or warm water (with or without lemon), hot teas, soups.
  • My personal pick of whole foods, that are nutrient-dense and considered to help with strengthening your immune system:
    • Hot or warm water with a little honey, a squeeze of lemon, and a few slices of fresh ginger in it
    • Hot tea—regular or herbal
    • Homemade chicken soup
    • Garlic and onions—raw if you can handle them and everyone’s doing it!
    • Dark green leafy vegetables (that’s right—I push kale for a reason, and you can choose between a lot of different greens if kale’s not your thing): try to eat at least 1 portion per day, more if you can (1 portion raw = the same volume as your two fists; 1 portion cooked = the same volume as 1 fist
    • Sweet potatoes: again, aim for 1 portion per day
    • Broccoli
    • Mushrooms
    • Fresh ginger root
    • Citrus fruits
    • Kiwi
    • Cantaloupe
    • Berries
    • Cinnamon
    • Cardamom
  • Obviously, not all the fruits and veggies on that list are in season, so if you can’t find them fresh, go with frozen. Yes, they may be less nutritious than the fresh ones—and it’s still better than not eating them at all.

Lifestyle Choices:

  • Check your personal hygiene: follow the information provided by the CDC regarding hand washing, covering your coughs and sneezes, and social distancing—especially if you are the sick person.
  • Get some sleep: this is when your body repairs itself—give it a chance!
  • Now’s the time to quit smoking, once and for all, and start reducing caffeine and alcohol to moderate levels.
  • Try stress reduction: mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, time with pets, yoga…. The possibilities are endless! Most importantly, stop “future living”—if your mind automatically jumps to “but what if,” start to recognize that the energy you expend on worrying will not change the future, and while we cannot change it, we can prepare for it—without obsessing.
  • Physical activity: get your body moving. If you are not quarantined, find a time and place to go for a brisk walk outdoors, away from other people. If you’re stuck at home, consider workout videos, walking in place, body-weight strength training exercises, stretching…. The internet will help you with this!
  • Sun exposure: especially if it’s sunny out, try to get outside or sit at an open window.
  • Develop a positive mindset: start a gratitude practice, celebrate your own awesomeness, laugh, check out what you can find for positive mindset exercises online.

Practice Mental Hygiene:

If you want to practice some mental hygiene along with all the hand-washing and sneeze-covering, join me for “5 Days of Simple Mental Hygiene” on my podcast—the episodes begin on March 22 and run through March 27, and there’s a handy download to follow along with it.

Think Long Term:

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be like an earthquake: there will be the initial shock—followed by long-term aftershocks in the worlds of health, economy, and politics.

Life as we know it will change—and if we want it to change for the better, we will need to be flexible and creative. We can think about building up our own immune systems and stress management techniques in the short term and about increasing the resilience of our organizations, workplaces, and communities—local and global—in the long run.

In July, we’ll take a look at how some of the systemic issues of mission-driven workplaces can be shifted for more resilient organizations in the future.

Did you enjoy this article? Become a Kuel Life Member today to support our ad-free Community. Sign-up for our Sunday newsletter and get your expert content delivered straight to your inbox.

About the Authour:

Liza Baker is a full-time health coach and nonprofit consultant, self-published author, blogger, podcaster, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Her favorite women to support are the under-appreciated, under-listened to, under-taken-care-of, under-valued, overwhelmed, overworked, over-scheduled, overtired, and OVER. IT. ALL. women 40+ who work in the mission-driven/nonprofit sector. Put more simply: she helps women be well while doing good.