59. Workplace Stress, Boundaries and Burnout: An Interview with Burnout Expert Chelsea Frost
Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. I’m here with Chelsea Frost and we are discussing boundaries and burnout. Hey, Chelsea.
Chelsea: Hi, thanks for having me.
Mary: I’m so grateful you’re here. Well, let’s talk about burnout. First of all, what is burnout?
Chelsea: So burnout is one of those terms that people use a lot and gets thrown around a lot and used very loosely when people are just describing stress that they basically are trying to say, I’m just tired of this. I’m really tired of the stress that I’m feeling, but it does have a specific definition according to the World Health Organization. It’s a workplace phenomenon specifically, and it’s described by three characteristics. So the first one is exhaustion. The second one is a mental distancing from one’s job. And then the third one is a sense of personal inefficacy. So the layman’s term for it is basically, burnout is a loss of energy, it’s a loss of enthusiasm, and it’s a loss of confidence in yourself.
Mary: All right. Thank you so much for sharing. Tell us a little bit about your experience with burnout. How did you get to be an expert and what do you know about burnout?
Chelsea: Well, my experience actually started with burning out myself, unfortunately. So years ago, several years ago, I worked in a job that I had actually recently started and I was very excited for this job. 1 of the, the I guess kind of telltale signs of burnout is when there’s a mismatch between expectations between the individual and then their job and what the job actually basically delivers for them. And so I had really high expectations for this job. And it, it just took a few weeks before I realized that, Oh, there’s actually not ongoing support for this job. They were very excited to have me and they got me started and then left me to my own devices. And it was a, it was a position that I had never had done anything like it before. And so the minimal amount of training and support was really not enough for me to be set up to be successful. So the unfortunate part was I was kind of left to train myself and I just realized that like, Oh wow, this is, this is not what I expected, which like I said, that mismatch in expectations is kind of a starting point for burnout and, there were just other issues that came up and it turned into eventually that I was every day I’d come home and I’d just be in tears after work. And I just remember my husband at the time looking at me and just being like, I just want you to be happy. I want you to do something that makes you happy because I was really torn about potentially quitting this job that I had only recently started.
Unfortunately in In the world of, of burnout, when someone’s experiencing it, there’s this stigma and this belief of there’s something wrong with me. And that I don’t like, if, if you can’t handle the heat, then get out of the kitchen. That’s kind of the phrase that comes to mind where people think that, if you’re burning out that you, you aren’t capable of doing the job, but it comes down to, it’s really more of an environmental thing. And there’s more going on than just you as an individual trying to deal with these things. So, for me, I ended up having to quit my job because I fully burnt out. I ended up developing, severe anxiety because of the burnout ended up developing chronic fatigue, where at the worst there is a period where I’d sleep the whole night and then during the day I’d be sleeping an extra six hours because I was just so exhausted all the time and I developed some like dietary sensitivities so I couldn’t eat gluten and dairy and things like that. So it just turned into kind of just a rollover effect of poor things happening in the workspace that then affected my health, my personal life and, you know, mental health as well.
Mary: Yeah. And how did you know that you were burnt out?
Chelsea: It was actually my manager, was the one who when I sat down to talk to her about the issues that I was experiencing, when I finally was able to get with her, she was very inaccessible. Like I said, there wasn’t a whole lot of support when we finally sat down and she said what you’re describing to me are the symptoms of burnout. And I said, like, my response, at least internally, I don’t know if I said it out loud, but internally was like, what? Like I, I haven’t even fully started working in my job and started working with clients where I worked in the nonprofit sector and so to me, I equated burnout with compassion fatigue. And if I wasn’t working with with clients full time yet in that position in my mind, I was like, how could I be burning out? So again, very much unfortunately instill that feeling of there must be something wrong with me. I’m failing here because I can’t apparently live up to the responsibilities of this position because all she could do, all she knew was to identify it. She didn’t have any suggestions for how to fix it. Which is part of why I’m, I do what I do now.
But to share with you a little bit, I guess of the between that burnout experience and how I landed where I’m at now. I first I had to recover because again, it had such far reaching effects on my life. And it did took years it was about five years before I really started feeling like myself again. And the, the first kind of major shift that I experienced was when I, I finally realized, okay, I need to get out of the house more to interrupt my sleep patterning and get around people, I want to exercise and move my body more. So I joined a a women’s fitness class that was specifically weightlifting. And they had a challenge that they were doing during the second month that I was there. And I was still, my body was still getting used to lifting heavy weights. But this was a a squats challenge, a barbell squats challenge. And the first two weeks I ended up doing more than anyone else there, but I racked it when I was like, I think that I think 20 squats is plenty. That second week, I think 30 squats is plenty and I realized, no, it’s supposed to be as many reps as possible so I’m just not going to rack it until I’m actually done. And and so that third week when I really just set my mind to like, okay, no, I’m going to stick to this I ended up actually doing 76 squats again with a barbell on my back with weight on the barbell and the most that anyone else did was 20. So that was really the moment when I realized, okay, I can overcome this because my health problems, they just hadn’t really moved and with things like dietary sensitivities, chronic fatigue and anxiety for a lot of people, that’s a life sentence. They hear that they talk to a doctor and and there’s no, there’s no solution for it. We can try throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks or it’s just avoid eating those foods and I said no, I wasn’t born this way. This isn’t genetic. I recently developed it, so I’m gonna undevelop it and even though I didn’t have other people who were telling me that I could overcome it, that experience really told me, yes, I can. And so I kept looking for different ways to, to solve my issues. And the next major shift was actually when I started working with you, when I found you specifically because I was having problems in my marriage and…
Mary: Full disclosure, Chelsea and I have worked together and I have coached her as a client.
Chelsea: Yeah. And it’s honestly been life changing for me because of, again, coming out of the burnout. I just, the, the problems that had been going on in my marriage for several years had perpetuated the stress that I was already trying to overcome, my body was trying to deal with coming from the burnout. So because burnout is caused by chronic stress that hasn’t been managed. Well, that’s basically all it is. And so when I finally was at a point of like, okay, I need to do something about these marriage issues it, like, I need to do something different, I found you, and when I started learning boundaries from you and putting those into place with my relationship, it ended up freeing up something in my system where I had another major shift and all of a sudden it was like, wow, I’m functioning better and wow, I can go back into the workforce again when I hadn’t been able to, like I said, for five years, I had done little side businesses and stuff, but I couldn’t hold a job because of kind of the, the trauma from the burnout. And my anxiety started going down as well. And then the last bit honestly was earlier this year and getting a divorce when it was kind of finally kind of lifting the burden of those stressors. Once they finally were out of my life, then it was again, I, I just moved up to another level and was able to fully come back to myself and really, really just be the kind of person that I used to be, because burnout really challenges your self concept. Like I said, the question is asked a lot, what’s wrong with me? And so I’ve, I’ve now kind of returned to how I used to be, finally, after a year’s long journey.
Mary: Hmm. Thank you so much for sharing that. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about, like, what is life like for you now? And how have you taken this experience and moved forward?
Chelsea: Well, I feel so much more in control of my life. I feel a lot more empowered. Again, a lot of that comes from what I learned from you and kind of taking my power back in a lot of ways, whether it be in my relationship, in my work situations you know, having learned how to advocate for myself and be my own champion. And that includes now, with me kind of having been at this, this transition and crossroads of my life and saying, okay, well, what do I want my life to look like moving forward now that I’ve, I’m divorced? I made the decision that I wanted to help other people to not have to go through what I went through. And so I now am an executive coach and I specialize in burnout prevention, specifically working with nonprofits, just because that’s my history and because I mean, they’re not alone in really struggling with, with burnout, but it’s just a very kind of a labor of love industry. And so people put a lot of their heart into it and they don’t always know what to do to prevent burnout from really setting in just like I didn’t know. So I work in the public health industry now, and that really is is kind of what spurred me into realizing that because burnout is not a health issue, it can cause health issues, but it’s not an actual health issue, it’s not addressed by public health. And so I am bringing what I know about prevention science into the sphere for, for burnout prevention so that there can just be more support out there because there’s just not enough right now, even though burnout is really rampant in, in so many areas.
Mary: So for listeners who might be feeling burnt out, what do you wish that you would have known back then?
Chelsea: So I, I wish that I knew the symptoms of burnout. I’m grateful that my manager at least was able to give it a name and label it for me. But I wish that I would have known that if I’m feeling exhausted, or if I’m feeling a, a sense of cynicism towards my job, or some sort of mental distancing from my job or if I am starting to lose confidence in myself, if I’m starting to feel like I’m ineffective or starting to feel like I’m a failure and I can’t live up to my responsibilities, those things are what basically define burnout. And so I wish I knew those things so that I could identify it for myself early on.
And I also wish that I knew the risk factors for it. In field of prevention science and talk about risk factors, which is basically the causes of health problems. And so looking upstream from the actual health problem, in this case, burnout, the problem is burnout and the cause there’s six main causes according to the research that’s out there.
And so those six causes are workload; so if your workload is out of control, if you struggle with feeling a sense of control over your work, If you feel like there’s a mismatch in the rewards or recognition around your work, if there’s a breakdown of community or a lack of community if you struggle with things like if your workplace doesn’t have a lot of fairness, if you see that there’s like bias or discrimination, and then also if there’s a mismatch between your values and the company’s values. Those 6 things can all lead to burnout if there’s a mismatch between the individual and their work environment. So I wish I knew those things so I could identify them, look at them, and then say, okay, here’s what I, like, need to focus my energy on changing.
Which leads me to the other thing I wish I knew. I wish I knew boundaries. I wish there’s, there’s so many things that I think, man, if I, if I knew then what I know now and the skills that Mary’s given me, I would go back and I would have such a different experience because of what you’ve taught me about just about advocating for myself, about being able to communicate and decide what is it that I am willing to tolerate and what am I not willing to tolerate? And, you know, things like boundaries around my calendar, you know, around my workload and things like that. Between like the communication and the self empowerment piece and and also self care. That’s huge as well. And so those types of things that you talk about and that I’ve learned from you are absolutely preventative factors for things like burnout that I wish that more people knew. And that I wish I would have known because it, you know, it would have, would have saved me a, a few years of, of lost career capital, but you know, here I am and I’m, I’m making lemonade out of my lemons at least. And so, but those are, those are some of the things that I wish, I wish I would have known, and that would make a difference for people nowadays if someone is struggling with burnout, to just take a look at, at, are you experiencing any of these symptoms? And of those six causes of burnout, which of those seem to be mismatched for you, which are not aligned and, and aren’t feeling good and do what you can to to make changes to those and also learn boundaries. That’s really important. That’s like such an important skill.
Mary: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate you acknowledging that and appreciating the work that we have done together. So my question is about these risk factors, right? My understanding is that risk factors show like correlation to right and not maybe necessarily causality, but like correlation to. So let’s say that someone is listening and they’re like, shoot of those 5 or 6 things that she just listed, I’m self identifying 3 or 4 of those things I’m experiencing right now. Okay, then what? What’s the next step for them?
Chelsea: So I completely agree with you that it’s a correlation piece. It’s not necessarily a causation. So, risk factor increases the likelihood of the problem, it does not guarantee that particular outcome. And so what I would say to that is that burnout, it’s not like a light switch where someone’s burnt out or not burnt out. There’s really, there’s a spectrum. There’s actually different profiles that the research has come up with of someone might be struggling more with disengagement, someone might be struggling more with a feeling of ineffectiveness, and someone might be struggling more with a feeling of being overextended without actually being fully burnt out. So again, that’s where, where I come in as an executive coach in burnout prevention, I want to catch people when they’re on the spectrum before they’re fully burnt out so that we can change their trajectory. That’s really my role. And so if they’re seeing some of those, those causes, they’re seeing these mismatches again, I would say that decreasing those risk factors, so figuring out a way to align those mismatches is important and then increasing the protective factors such as learning time management skills, prioritizing self care, getting the communication skills when it comes to things like boundaries and whatnot, that’s how you prevent things is that when you see a risk factor is present you want to work on decreasing it and then work on increasing protective factors. It’s just like if someone has, they go to the doctor, their doctor says, Oh, you’re at risk for heart disease because you smoke, because you’re overweight. You have these risk factors. Those are two risk factors. So let’s decrease those. You know, let’s get you off of smoking and let’s help you lose weight. But then also let’s get you eating healthier and exercising. Those are the protective factors. So you want both in place to just get rid of the risk factors is, it takes you to neutral. It doesn’t necessarily take you into the positive.
Mary: Awesome. I love that. Great. Okay, so we’ve spoken to people who might be experiencing some symptoms of burnout. What about the people who are leaders who might be supervising someone who’s showing signs of burnout. What might you say to them?
Chelsea: So I would say that the best thing that you can do is is have a conversation. And actually maybe before that the first thing I would say is have the right mindset, that there’s not something wrong with your employee. In the world of trauma informed approaches there’s been a change in in how we approach situations when someone struggles to deal with situation that might be normal for someone else we have a tendency to ask what’s wrong with you. And in the trauma informed world you ask what’s happened to you? And so it’s really changing from the person isn’t a problem. It’s there’s something that has affected the person to cause the problem. And so that’s the kind of mindset that I would recommend is knowing that it’s not that there’s something wrong with your employee, it’s that there’s a mismatch between them and something in their environment or multiple things in their environment.
And so if they’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, I would just have a conversation around it. And I would ask them about those six causes. I would ask them, how do you feel about your workload and really listen when they tell you the answers? I would ask them. Okay. How do you feel about your ability when it comes to control? How do you feel about your ability to direct your work? And, you know, do they feel like they have enough autonomy or do they feel like they’re micromanaged? Or like, there’s decisions that are made up top that affect them and force them to, you know, that they don’t have any say, basically. When it comes to rewards and recognition, asking them, you know, if it makes sense, ask them, do they feel like they’re being compensated appropriately, or, you know, what are ways that, that I can better support you with feedback. You know, ask them, how would you prefer to be praised or recognized for your work? When it comes to the community piece, asking them like, what their experience is working with their colleagues, their coworkers you know, how they feel about that. Kind of getting a pulse on, you know if it’s a good culture and environment for them, if there’s a sense of, of teamwork and camaraderie or not, when it comes to fairness asking them you know, if they feel like they’re treated fairly in the workplace, and when it comes to things like values, I would say finding out about them, really learning about who they are, what matters to them, you know, learning about their aspirations and their communication styles and things like that, that will tell you their values and therefore what their goals are, what’s important to them. You know, again, how they prefer to be communicated with or recognized. And if you find out that they have family and things like that, and what they prioritize in their hobbies, then maybe you’ll learn things that, you know, maybe they’re okay with, you know, overtime work, but it’s unexpected overtime work they really struggle with that because of their kids, their a single parent or something like that. You just getting to know them and understanding their values will cover that piece.
And so it comes down to really just being I’d say a good listener and bothering to ask the questions to get their own just kind of personal assessment on what’s happening in their environment, how they’re perceiving their environment and then having, you know, co creating with them, having a conversation on what can we do to make adjustments to make this better for you? Because that’s that’s ultimately people aren’t usually just going to come out of burnout, unless it’s just a very busy season and workload is the only issue and it’s going to end after this season. Again, usually it’s an environmental thing. And as a leader who’s overseeing people, you have the power to really help people to be in a different environment of what is, is causing them to struggle in the first place.
Mary: Yes, I, I love this idea that if you are the leader, let’s focus on what you can be empowered to influence and to change and to control there. And if you are the person experiencing burnout, like, let’s focus on what you can influence and change and where your empowerment spaces are there. Um, All right, well, let’s wrap up here, Chelsea. If you had kind of one or two main takeaways for listeners, what might you say?
Chelsea: I would say that if you’re feeling burnt out, it’s not your fault. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are having a natural human response to some problems in your environment and mismatch between just you, whether it’s your expectations or your, maybe it’s just personality, you know, temperament values, whatever it is, and an environment. And I would encourage you that you can recover from it, that whatever your outstanding issues have been coming from it, that keep pushing to overcome it because I did and I am back to my old self again today. And I want that for everyone. And again, I don’t deal in burnout recovery because I really want to prevent burnout recovery, the recovery piece from ever being a part of anyone’s story. I’d rather just make it so no one has to go through it. So for those that are starting to feel burnt out and are not fully burnt out, but are starting to feel it, my encouragement would be really that control piece that you just mentioned. Of that you have the ability to influence more of your circumstances than you realize. And again, I learned this from you, Mary, I really did, the being able to understand that there are more options available to me than I at first generally seemed to think. And so really taking the reins on my own experience and not tolerating things that are going to be damaging to me, but actually influencing what I can influence, controlling what I can control and and really assessing if something is a good fit long term, because sometimes the answer is you need to go on and actually put yourself in a different environment.
Mary: Yes. Thank you so much. And that’s what I’m feeling in this moment too, is that, you know, there may be situations where you are not the best fit for your current work environment. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with you.
Chelsea: Yeah, yeah, it’s not the answer for everybody because it’s not that an environment is always wholly wrong. It’s just a mismatch and that mismatch can be brought into alignment sometimes, but you need to do what’s best for you because if you don’t put your own mask on, you’re not going to be any good to anybody if you fully burn out. Because I know I wasn’t during my years. So I would encourage everyone really to just make a point to take control where you can take control.
Mary: Yeah. If listeners want to reach out to Chelsea, what’s the best way for them to find you?
Chelsea: So I’m on LinkedIn but you can go to my website at stopburnout. co stopburnout. co.
Mary: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here.
Chelsea: Thank you.