Laura Brassie, Scribd Coach author and therapist, has seen burnout happen to clients, co-workers, and friends. She’s even experienced it herself. She finds common burnout advice to be frustratingly generalized: Sure, meditation might help some people, but for others, it actually might make matters worse. In her quick guide, Preventing and Treating Burnout: Knowing Your Personality Types to Manage Trying Times, she explains how to think about dealing with burnout based on your specific personality. Here, she explains why personality matters so much when it comes to burnout, and how to start thinking about your own plan for coping with stress at work and in life before it overwhelms you.
What’s wrong with common burnout advice and articles that are out now?
Laura Brassie: This is something I hadn't really thought about a whole lot until I worked on a multidisciplinary treatment team, where there were 10 of us in several different fields, like couple therapists, case managers, peer specialists, psychiatrists, nurses — all these different fields — and we met every single day. I started recognizing that tips for avoiding burnout weren’t blanket statements: You couldn’t apply them to everyone. It wasn't just because of our different jobs, it was very much about our personalities. What burned me out could be totally opposite of one of my co-workers.
Is there a personality test we need to do to find our burnout personality, or is it more open-ended?
Laura Brassie: There are great personality tests out there, like Myers Briggs or the Enneagram, but [all] of them are really just frameworks for us understanding ourselves and knowing when and how to ask the right questions. Doing any kind of self-reflection is helpful. Personally, I like to start with the work-life balance spectrum of integrators and separatists, because that’s really practical for addressing burnout in different ways. It also resonates a lot more due to the pandemic.
Can you explain the difference between integrators and separators?
Laura Brassie: Integrators sort of blend their work and life together. I’m an integrator, and working from home has been great for me. When I was in the office, I found that for me, I was more likely to feel burned out. If I had a client cancel, there wasn't really anything I could do [with] that time. Maybe I had notes to catch up on, but mostly, it felt like wasted time and that really affected me negatively. But in that same exact scenario when I'm at home, it doesn't bother me at all because an hour at home lets me get so much more done around the house. Being able to blend my work life and my personal life is good for me. Now, of course there are issues with that: Many people are working longer hours from home and it's hard for them to really disconnect and that totally makes sense. Because of that, you may think that being an integrator is a bad thing, but it’s really not.
On the other side are the separators, and typically, they get held up as the standard of wellness. These people are the ones who keep their work and life completely separate. For people that are on the separatist side of the spectrum, working from home is the absolute worst and that's a huge source of burnout.
Integrators in jobs that are separator-oriented tend [not] to do very well. I experienced this when I worked in an emergency room. In that job, you have no idea what's going to happen [on] any shift, but you also [are] never bringing your work home. There’s no expectation that you do work outside of your shift, but the shift itself is full-on and you have no idea what’s going to happen. It was incredibly stressful, because I’d constantly think about it outside of work as well as during my shift, because I naturally integrate. So it pushed me towards burnout, while people who love being separatists would thrive in that environment where they let their brain shut off work mode and turn on personal mode after they clock out.
How do you create a strong schedule as an integrator?
Laura Brassie: It’s important to have some boundaries around work, both in terms of actually getting your job done and not missing appointments, but also in having bookends on your day so you do stop working and make time for your personal life.
If you love your job, can you still end up burned out?
Laura Brassie: Absolutely. In fact, if you’re super driven by this constant passion to do your work, you miss a lot of the red flags around work-life balance. Unfortunately, that's something that is praised in work culture: The person who’s most passionate and puts in the most hours and just loves what they do is applauded. I hate the saying that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. That’s just not true. The more realistic view is: If you love what you do, you may work way too much and have an epic burnout to the point where you can't love your work anymore.
How can we handle burnout, regardless of personality?
Laura Brassie: No matter the personality type, I always start with schedules and boundaries. Step one is looking at the actual time you’re working: Ask, do I hate my hours? Can I move them around? Are there some practical stressors here? For example, if I need to go pick up my kids from school at 3:30 p.m. and I'm supposed to work until 5 p.m., it's going to stress me out every single day. But could I start earlier and end earlier? Do I have the freedom to work for four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days? Sometimes we just keep doing the same thing over and over again, because it's the norm. But sometimes you can change the norm.
Next, I encourage people to set boundaries, especially around how people communicate with you. Turn off notifications, and try to check your communication channels as infrequently as possible. I actually set a timer so I don’t distract myself and start checking them. Many of us have this micro mentality of needing to be so immediate in our responses. But rarely do we need to be. Creating that space can make a big difference.
What about during the workday, especially for people with long to-do lists?
Laura Brassie: I use the Eisenhower matrix a lot: Create a grid with Urgent and Not Urgent across the top, and Important and Not Important down the side. Most of the things that get us stressed out fall into the Urgent category, but how often are those things truly important? They are usually notifications or communications (texts or emails) from other people, and rarely are they actually urgent or important. Using that grid to create your to-do list, and focusing on Important tasks rather than getting distracted by Urgent or Not Important tasks can be really helpful.
As far as the cliche self-care advice goes, any tips?
Laura Brassie: Absolutely. These also need to take your personality into account. Taking a walk, doing yoga, and taking bubble baths are all nice things, but only if that feels good for you. It's really about learning how to be in touch with your body and your emotions and what you need. That might be watching some trashy TV one day, and doing yoga the next day. Being social and spending time with loved ones is great, but when I'm physically exhausted and need to go to bed, social self-care is not going to help.
Is there a time of year when burnout happens the most?
Laura Brassie: It really depends. For example, for me I know it’s not as busy because people are busy with everything else. But then I know that it’s going to be busy in January, so taking time to relax in December becomes really important. On the flip side, that same month looks different for teachers: they're slammed in December prepping for break, finishing the semester. So they might find that time of year makes them feel more burned out.