Focus on personal self-care! This includes creating a structured routine for regular exercise, good sleep habits, engaging in enjoyable activities, spending quality time with loved ones and seeking professional mental health care if needed. Work is an important part of life, but it is one part of your life, not your entire life.
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 Dr. Desreen Dudley.
Dr. Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with more than 10 years of experience treating individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness. She serves as a Mental Health provider of therapeutic services to members using the Teladoc platform.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Of course. My parents migrated to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica in 1968, making me a second-generation American. They married and started their family of my three sisters and myself. While growing up, I felt that they were strict. Only A’s for grades were acceptable to them, which meant a heavy focus on academics. I watched them work very hard to build a stable home and life for me and my sisters, as well as navigating an American school system and adapting to cultural norms and customs which were foreign to them. What I admire about my parents is that while I grew up knowing my cultural roots, which I quickly realized differentiated me from my American peers, my parents were also willing to assimilate to a different culture so that my sisters and I were enjoying American norms of family vacations and extracurricular activities that we saw our American peers engaging in. As a child, I recall craving more flexibility and freedom, but as I grew older and wiser, I realized that my parents’ goal was for their children to achieve big dreams in the “land of opportunity,” which they always heard was possible in the U.S.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I knew from early on that I wanted to be in a profession that helped people. I’m an identical twin, so growing up I sensed from others that I was unique in that way — I was a part of a twinhood, instead of being a ‘singleton.’ While my twin sister and I look identical, our personalities differ and we were often compared, for good or bad. My biggest challenge since childhood and going into adolescence/young adulthood was understanding myself as an individual while differentiating from my sister. That question sparked my interest in gaining a deeper understanding of human beings, what makes us think, feel and do the things we do. In high school, one introductory psychology course I took gave me the answers that my curiosity was begging for! I knew from then on there was no other career path for me — I abandoned my earlier aspirations of becoming an actress and author and set out to become a psychologist — with the main intention of understanding myself and helping others to understand and help themselves, as well.
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?
Several individuals contributed to my success along my career path, including educators, supervisors and mentors, but I must say, my parents have been my biggest influencers. They worked hard to navigate a foreign academic system and never stopped pushing me to succeed. They always taught me to strive to be the best at whatever I was doing and saw any grade that was less than an ‘A’ as unacceptable. They never told me that I could not do whatever I wanted to do. They created a firm foundation for me to stand on my entire life, until I learned from them what it takes to create that for myself and my own family. I will always be grateful to my parents for who they are, and the person they helped make me to be.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
A significant part of a clinical psychologist’s training is constant supervision and observation. My licensed supervisors at agencies where I was practicing would review my video-recorded therapy sessions and provide feedback. Of course, the patients I saw understood that I was a student-in-training and consented for our sessions to be recorded. One of my first clinical supervisors would sit with me and we would view the session together. I recall one viewing session where he timed how long I spent talking about the weather with my client and counted the number of times I used the cliché term “like.” I was mortified! But this was a great learning experience for me and helped me develop as a therapist. The experience taught me how to be intentional in therapy, and how my own anxiety can interfere with helping others focus on their sources of stress. Professionally and personally, the experience also taught me not to be fearful of feedback and constructive criticism. Being a psychologist calls for you to have tough skin and requires you to seek out and openly accept feedback, whether positive or negative!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Without question, my favorite life lesson quote is simply, “Everything happens for a reason.” There are many variations of this, but one of my favorites is a direct quote from Ritu Ghatourey: “Everything happens for a reason. That reason causes change. Sometimes the change hurts. Sometimes the change is hard. But in the end, it’s all for the best.” I relate this quote directly to the most pivotal experiences I’ve had in my life, including a near-death car accident that my sister and I were victims of in 2002. The experience was harrowing and forced me to confront my mortality way before I was ready to do so. I found myself in an existential crisis. After surgery and during my recuperation, I found myself struggling for a long time to understand how my sister and I could have survived the tragedy. After much soul searching, I concluded that as terrible as the experience was, its occurrence and my survival was for a reason. My perspective on life and my priorities changed, and every decision I made in my life since then has a direct connection to this very scary experience. I view mistakes that I’ve made, missed opportunities and successes not with regret or as a stroke of luck, but with acceptance. I believe that the opportunities that I have been given to lead me to where I am now is all in my plan, and that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. This feeling and belief has given me peace of mind.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
In addition to being a provider of therapy services to patients virtually, I am also Teladoc’s Behavioral Health Quality Consultant. In this capacity, I serve as an advisor and clinical expert informing enhancements and progressing virtual care to better serve patients using virtual care for their mental health needs. The COVID19 pandemic has seen a quick adoption of the use of virtual care, especially for those recognizing that the trauma of the pandemic has triggered mental health concerns. I am passionate about providing effective mental healthcare, and strongly believe that developing virtual care to address individuals’ healthcare needs is and will continue to have a major positive impact on their lives and well-being.
You are a successful healthcare leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Patience — I knew early on in life that I wanted to be a professional helper because I was always told by others that I was “patient and kind.” These sound like simple character traits, but patience has been a virtue for me in treating individuals’ mental health needs. It takes patience to invest time and effort in understanding another person and to intervene effectively.
- Perseverance — In my academic, personal and professional spheres of my life, I’ve experienced setbacks and disappointments along with success and joy. I believe that disappointments are just as necessary as success; both experiences have taught me that accepting disappointment and failure is crucial to development, as it has helped me understand where and how I move forward.
- Resilience — Being a professional helper can be challenging. I often find that I am walking through the darkest period of an individual’s life right along with them. There is a such thing as vicarious traumatization. I felt this strongly as I treated people struggling with illness, grief and loss of loved ones afflicted with COVID19. As scary as this time has been, I remind myself that as a healthcare provider, I am needed to help support others in their time of need.
- For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
The nature of my job as a professional helper makes me susceptible to experiencing burnout. My feeling of success is heavily tied to how effective my patients feel in helping them care for their emotional well-being. Many therapists, especially those who treat patients dealing with trauma, may experience what’s called vicarious traumatization, or compassion fatigue, or having a negative emotional reaction to hearing about a patient’s traumatic experiences. A crucial part of a therapists’ training is learning how to effectively care for others while taking care of ourselves. I’ve learned since I was a doctoral student the importance of self-care to remain an effective therapist.
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 term we often hear in relation to the workforce. Burnout refers to being in a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion that is caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout occurs when the level and severity of chronic workplace stress exceeds one’s capacity to manage it. These are some signs of burnout to watch out for:
- Emotional signs: Feeling like a failure or having self-doubt, feelings of helplessness and defeat, decreased motivation, feeling detached from others, negative attitude and feeling a lack of accomplishment
- Behavioral signs: Irritability with others, socially withdrawing, failing to perform responsibilities, procrastination, poor time management, or using food, drugs or alcohol to cope
- Physical signs: Fatigue, frequent physical illnesses, ailments such as headaches and muscle tension, changes in sleep and appetite habits
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
Burnout is a disengagement from your work due to mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. It is the lack of personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Therefore, the opposite of burnout is engagement in work. I see the path to achieving work engagement as establishing a good work-life balance.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics 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?
Burnout can have long-term negative impacts to overall health. Studies have found that chronic stress, which is a part of burnout, can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depressive disorders as well as physical ailments such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and more severe heart problems such as heart disease, stroke, and premature death. The costs of burnout are steep to employers as well, resulting in decreased work productivity, absenteeism, resignation and termination from employment, as well as poor workplace morale.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
Because burnout is such a common and serious phenomenon, research has focused on the causes of it. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout can be caused by:
- Feeling a lack of control in one’s job
- Unclear job expectations
- Toxic workplace environment
- Lack of social support
- Lack of appropriate work-life balance
- Lack of diversity in job responsibilities
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?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- First, pay attention to how you are feeling and thinking and acknowledge that you are burned out. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge to ourselves that our mental, physical and emotional capacity is maxed out.
- Speak up by sharing how you are feeling with your supervisor. You and your supervisor can discuss options to care for your mental health.
- Take time off of work for either a vacation or staycation, in which you do NO work. Removing yourself from the stressful work environment can allow you to reset and identify priorities, goals, limits, and changes that need to be made.
- Focus on and remind yourself of what you find enjoyable about your work. If you are coming up with nothing, this may signal that you may be ready for a different job or position.
- Focus on personal self-care! This includes creating a structured routine for regular exercise, good sleep habits, engaging in enjoyable activities, spending quality time with loved ones and seeking professional mental health care if needed. Work is an important part of life, but it is one part of your life, not your entire life.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
These are some tips to support a loved one who is dealing with burnout:
- Ask them if they’d like to talk about their stress.
- Ask them what kind of help they would like from you. Avoid assuming what they need and giving advice
- Show them patience and kindness. This can include inviting them to do a social activity which is fun, or as simple as sending them a supportive text message or small token of appreciation
- Encourage them to seek professional resources or help from a mental health specialist
- Show that you are a trusted friend by checking in with them regularly
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
- Employers/great leaders show that they care about their employees’ mental well-being as much as their work productivity.
- Employers should model for their employees the importance of keeping a healthy balance between work and personal life.
- Have open and regular conversations with employees regarding their work performance and workload. These conversations should also include focusing on encouraging employees to not be afraid to voice their questions and concerns and identify their professional development needs, strengths, weaknesses and career goals.
- Employers should encourage use of vacation time, offer flexible work schedules, and encourage positive workplace morale by arranging social engagement activities.
- Employers should demonstrate to their employees that they care about their well-being by informing them of relevant resources, like Teladoc, and encouraging them to make use of resources to care for their physical, mental and emotional health.
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?
Strategies to raise awareness of the importance of prioritizing mental health wellness in the workplace are:
- Employers and employees should be educated about burnout and signs and symptoms
- Mental health resources should be offered and easily accessible to employees to help them manage stress and uncertainty.
- Employers should examine emergency benefits such as providing flexible work schedules, additional paid sick time and paid family leave.
- Employers should create safe work environments which allow employees to take breaks during their workday, connect with co-workers, and feel comfortable voicing concerns directly to supervisors.
- Wellness communications should be commonplace and circulated to remind employees to take care of their whole beings, physically and mentally.
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?
- Failure to acknowledge that one may be experiencing burnout — To avoid this, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re thinking and feeling. If others point out to you that you are not your “normal self,” listen to this warning sign.
- Working harder — When feeling burned out, some believe that if they increase their work hours, thereby decreasing time for their personal lives, this will help them to complete all tasks. This often proves to be a falsehood. When you realize that you are suffering from burnout, this is the time to take a break, take time off from work to reset, rest, and re-examine priorities.
- Remaining silent — the most difficult thing about burnout is that although it is common, individuals often feel that it is reflective of their personal inadequacy. The sense of personal failure and defeat makes people hesitant to discuss how they are feeling with others, especially their manager, for fear of being blamed. Instead of keeping it to yourself, set up a one-on-one meeting with your manager to have a conversation about your experience. A good manager wants to understand what your work experience is, and they won’t be able to feel effective in resolving problems if they don’t know that one exists. Having a conversation about what you are going through can help improve your situation by providing you with options.
- Failing to consider all options — Burnout can sometimes be a sign that your current job may just not be the best fit for you. Instead of focusing on working harder in your current position, take some time to consider your strengths, weaknesses and work-related goals to assess whether they may be best suited in a different position.
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 would love to start a movement that focuses on teaching and mentoring youth to pursue careers within fields that lack diversity. The fields of psychology, information technology and chief executives are some examples. This could involve creating programs for middle and high school students of color to spark their interest early on in these careers. The movement for social justice and equality that we have seen in 2020 has highlighted the need to level the playing field. I once heard a Black woman who is a medical doctor state that she did not conceive of pursuing a career in medicine until she visited an African country and saw Black doctors. When you don’t directly experience professionals of all races in any field, it is difficult to envision yourself as a person of color in that role. Personally, as a Black female psychologist myself, I see that this profession lacks diversity. I would love to be able to create interest in pursuing psychology in the minds of youth, as I found the field so intriguing myself.
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 🙂
I would love to have a conversation with agencies governing mental health care in our country, such as the National Institute of Mental Health and state and local entities which determine compensation for mental health professionals. I would like them to know that I am passionate about working in the field of helping others, as are so many of my colleagues, and our important work warrants more competitive compensation. In a field that is in such need of a diversity of professionals, I often hear that the cost of becoming a mental health professional outweighs financial gain. I would love it if the lack of diversity in the field of mental health can be eliminated.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow Teladoc on Instagram at @teladoc, and my Instagram is @desreendudley.
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!