Laura Aiken, a recognized expert in stress management and resilience, joins the Work Done Right podcast to shed light on the pressing issue of burnout in the workplace. With a focus on industries prone to high levels of burnout, such as construction, offshore work, and finance, Aiken emphasizes the need to recognize early warning signs, including overwhelming stress, neglect of self-care, and disconnection from one’s body.
Laura provides valuable insights on how to reduce workplace stress by cultivating a healthier mindset through techniques like making lists, focusing on controllable factors, using humor, and practicing gratitude exercises. Don’t miss this episode that offers many practical strategies to manage stress and prevent burnout, ultimately promoting well-being and productivity in the workplace.
Laura Aiken is a consultant and resilience specialist who partners with businesses to build resilient teams and positive workplace cultures. She founded Thrive Leadership in 2020 after her own experience to help companies to help their people thrive.
Alongside her work with Thrive, Laura is an Associate Consultant with Kintla, a leading consultancy specialist in resiliency and resilient teams. Prior to consulting, Laura spent ten years in engineering, design, construction, commissioning and startup, working and leading teams on several international multibillion dollar projects in the energy industry.
Laura is a registered yoga and meditation teacher and has been teaching and leading global retreats since 2016, where she incorporates holistic practices for integrative solutions that help build leaders help leaders build lasting resilience.
Top 3 Episode Takeaways
1. Burnout, which is defined as total physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, is workplace problem with serious consequences that needs more attention. Early warning signs of burnout include overwhelming stress, neglecting self-care, and disconnection from one’s body.
2. Industries like construction, offshore work, and finance are prone to high levels of burnout, often due to demanding work environments, lack of support systems, and conformity pressures.
3. To reduce the impact of workplace stress, mindset techniques such as making lists, focusing on controllable factors, using humor, and practicing gratitude exercises can help cultivate a healthier mindset that notices stress, gains perspective, and redirects energy and attention. Further, these three categories of stress regulators can help manage stress and burnout:
- Bottom-up regulators include sensory activities like walking, eating, or listening to music that can help manage stress.
- Top-down regulators involve mindset techniques like creating a positive mindset, noticing stress, and refocusing energy.
- Relational or community-based regulators emphasize the importance of positive, frequent, and meaningful interactions with others to reduce stress and increase resilience.
Thanks Wes. Great to be here. Great to see you again.
Yeah, well, it’s great to have you here. Talking about an extremely important topic that I don’t really feel in our or really our former industries that they don’t really get enough attention and that’s things like burnout and really mental resilience.
So before we get diving in on that, Laura, would you mind telling me just a little bit about kind of what your background was prior to doing the consultancy that you’re doing now and just a little bit more about the work that you’re doing now?
Yeah, of course. Thanks. So, going way back, I grew up in the Middle East in a really multicultural and diverse environment. And it was a wonderful upbringing and I was really privileged to be able to kind of grow up in a place where so many cultures could could intersect.
Fast forward. I went to University of Bath and did chemical engineering and sort of set up for a career in the energy industry. And it wasn’t until I got into the workplace that I started to see some of these inconsistencies between what I thought positive culture was, work culture, life culture, whatever, and what was playing out before my eyes and stress and burnout.
And that sort of busyness culture definitely came into it, but also how that intersected with inclusion and allowing people to kind of show up as their best selves rather than a molded, conditioned, trained version of a proper corporate soldier.
Yeah. So I spent ten years in engineering, commissioning and startup construction in the UK, us. And Australia. And for the most part it was a great experience. And I got to work in really cool, challenging dynamics and projects and meet really wonderful people.
But I think that inconsistency just continued to grate on me and it was a sort of death by 1000 paper cuts type experience. You slowly get kind of eroded way. And on my last job, the combination of culture, a quite demanding work environment and a new job, and in a new country with a real lack of a support system, all of that meant that.
Burnout. I was sort of emotionally, mentally, physically tapped. Relationships were kind of put under strain and I was really in quite a bad shape. And I was fortunate enough to have a couple of people, a couple of managers who were kind of on side and allowed me to take some time off and get some perspective.
Um, and over the next couple of months, I decided that I really wanted to work on helping people not have to undergo severe burnout to realize that there was a problem in their lives and how they were living and how they were working.
So yeah, in 2020, when we were all sort of looking at ourselves in the mirror, figuring out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives, given this new dynamic, I left the corporate world and started Thrive, where we focus on helping companies build resilient and inclusive teams.
That’s excellent work. And I will say that I am sorry to hear that you had to go through that experience as I am sorry that anybody has to kind of go through similar experiences like that. It’s great to see that you came out the other side, really with a refreshed, new purpose kind of driving you forward to be able to do things like this to help other people, to learn to navigate those experiences in a different way.
Something that just came up a lot while you were talking. And I think a lot of people have heard of maybe in different contexts, but they might not understand kind of definitionally. What we’re talking about is burnout.
Could you kind of better define really what we’re talking about whenever we’re saying burnout? Not necessarily the I think what a lot of people would associate is maybe I worked a couple of long shifts and now I’m just really tired at the end of that versus more of a systemic and chronic feeling that kind of promulgates through.
The whole of your life effectively. So could you better define for us burnout and maybe what some of the frequent warning signs of burnout are?
Yeah, it’s a great question, a great comment, because I think the word burnout is banded about quite a lot and the more we use it without its full weight, I think we can devalue it quite a lot.
There’s few different scales that can represent burnout, but ultimately burnout is total physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It’s a sort of dorsal vagal shutdown terms if you’re thinking nervous system and polyvagal theory.
But it’s essentially you’ve worked yourself so hard that your energy is tapped and your body is essentially in a state of severe stress, maybe even similar to a state of trauma. So there’s a few different early warning signs that you can look for.
One of the first things that I look for is if a person has an overwhelming desire to kind of prove themselves or show other people what they’re made of. And lots of people have that trait, especially women or minorities or people who feel somehow other in a workplace, they’re showing up not just for themselves, they’re showing up for the people that they represent, for better or for worse.
So yeah, that sort of desire to prove oneself can be a slippery slope because what it leads to is. Compromising boundaries, which is another kind of early warning sign if you’re starting to slip on the things that are important to you and kind of sacrifice yourself and your needs for others and for the workplace.
Yeah, that’s a big red flag. And then some of the other signs are sort of disassociation when you’re completely kind of tapped out of your body and you’re very much living in a kind of stress state, kind of hyper arousal.
Go, go on, do. That’s a really common coping mechanism on the road to burnout. But what that means is you’ve kind of disassociated from your body and you shut off the intelligence of, oh, my body actually needs some rest and needs some recuperation.
Yeah, these definitely seem like these seem like typical actions that people could probably catch themselves doing. I mean, even thinking about it, I had, we’ll say, a similar burnout experience that was kind of brought on by a lot of personal things that were going on, which we can, I guess, cover that a little bit more a little bit later.
But thinking about what it is that you’re talking about, these are definite things that I think that a lot of us can associate with, especially in the construction industry, because it’s such a high paced environment all the time, things are always changing, and we’re always trying to drive to do more.
So if anything, that should just be kind of a big red flag. That we’re all, in some ways, kind of ticking time bombs, right, that we’re all just kind of normalizing this behavior, that we’re all trending in the same direction together.
I wonder in this you said that typically we’re talking about potentially women or minorities or anybody who feels like kind of an other. Is there anything else with that? As far as are there. Are there any, I guess, groups of people that are, we’ll say, disproportionately affected by things like burnout?
And how does that, I guess, tailor into their workplace actions and attitudes?
Yeah. So there’s not necessarily one group that’s disproportionately affected by stress and burnout. But I do so at anyone can face stress and anyone can face burnout.
Often our ability to manage stress or make workplace stress manageable is drawn back to the resilience mechanisms that we’ve built in ourselves when we were children. The ages sort of between zero and four, is when you’re building a lot of the sort of neural pathways that help you regulate stress and build resilience.
So childhood experience has a huge role to play in how well you can manage stress. What you do see in underrepresented groups is that kind of desire to prove yourself coupled with the lack of a support system.
So if you’re looking around and there is no one like you, it can feel really lonely and it can feel really isolating. And that’s one more thing that is draining you. I’ll say that, but at the same time, white men or men are not faring well in the construction industry either.
In construction, the suicide rate is five times greater than fatal work related industries. Injuries. Sorry. And that’s a 2018 study from the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So when suicide rate is higher than fatal work related injuries.
That makes me think, why aren’t we spending as much time on mental health which is predominantly impacted by workplace stress?
Yeah, that’s a good point. On project we talk often all about safety. The individual safety is the most important thing we have going on.
If there is a task that we get to that we cannot complete that safely and we’ll at least say with as low as reasonably practical level of safety or of inherent risk with that, I suppose that would be, then we’re just not going to do it.
And we dedicate all of this time and energy and money really toward promoting this safety culture. And to hear that suicide in the construction industry is five times as prominent for fatalities as safety incidents, when already you hear the statistics about how it’s more dangerous to be in construction than it is to be in active duty combat like war zones, that’s terrifying really, to think about.
That’s terrible to hear. Are there any, I suppose, looking across other industries, are there other similar trends, other similar industries to the construction industry? Are we really number one in this category?
I like to think we think pretty highly of us in the construction industry, so I suppose we could be number one very reasonably. Are there other industries where you see similar levels of burnout, suicidality or other associated, I guess, statistics whenever it comes to just high intensity jobs?
So consistently, what you see in terms of mental illness and suicide rate is construction is one of the worst offenders as well as equally sort of demanding and isolating fields like offshore work or extraction we often see is up there but you can pull at those characteristics into a lot of different industries.
The finance industry, for example is very heavy hours. There’s also quite a high level of conformity to be a certain type of person, look a certain type of way, speak a certain type of way. And when you find that high level of assimilation or conformity that’s again a drain for people because they feel like they’re not able to kind of show up as themselves, they’re not able to ask for help and they’re not able to take time off when they need time off.
So it does cross industry but some of the common characteristics to look for is do people feel safe to speak up? Are people overworked with unrealistic project timelines or workload or work intensity?
And do people have a support network of people around them? If those three things are not there then it’s a risky industry or company or workplace to be in when it comes to burnout, stress and mental health.
Yeah, that all makes very well sense especially having support network. I mean that. You cannot overstate enough how important it is to have really a group of people around you, even if it’s just a handful of folks that are there that you can speak openly with, that are there to support you in various.
Ways and in the workplace. That’s why things like employee resource groups can be really powerful. And I think the social side of employee resource groups or business resource groups can have a bad name sometimes, but it really serves a purpose in connecting people across functions, across job locations, across floors of an office, and creating a sense of community and people that you can kind of tap on when you need them.
So the team builders and the ERGs and the socials, it sounds quite frivolous, but it does serve a purpose. Yeah, there’s a lot that you keep saying that I definitely see myself in whenever you’re saying, like, with the resource groups.
Right. I have definitely been one in the past to look at these things like, listen, we have the job to do and everything else, so just work on the job. That’s it. Just keep moving forward. And even thinking about, like you were saying, kind of the behaviors of the expectations of kind of who you’re supposed to be, I’ve definitely caught myself into that, and I was in the industry for 15 years.
Again, it doesn’t really matter what we’re talking about. While we’re on the job, we’re on the job. And I don’t care if we’re working 50 hours a week. I don’t care if we’re working 90 hours a week. We’re here to get the job done, and we’re going to put in the hours in order to do the job.
And thinking back, I’ve always tried to be supportive of people whenever they’re going through something or whenever they’re looking a little bit kind of down, whatever it is. So I wasn’t necessarily an asshole, but I was very hard on myself.
Ah, thinking, you know, the hours are fine, I don’t really care. I can, I can keep doing this forever. I don’t know why anybody even needs a day off. We can just keep going, right? Just kind of blowing through all of the red flags that you were talking about earlier, about these are all of the ways that you’re going to get to a state of burnout.
And honestly, I’m pretty aware of myself health. I was fine until I was working on a project. I was working 13 to one or 13 days on one day off, ten to twelve hour days. And my wife, who has a chronic illness, was going through a treatment and it was very hard on her physically.
And that I would have to take her to routine blood work and to get to routine appointments, I would have to leave work midday, or before work, or after work, whatever it was, and oftentimes actually having to carry her downstairs, carry her out to the truck and take her to these appointments.
And in going through all of that, I got to a position where the life outside of work was too much. The work was the work. The work’s always been the work. The work is fine, I enjoy it. But everything else kind of came crashing down for a little while and it got me to a point where burnout became very real and I started recognizing that I’m not the same person that I was two months, months ago.
I’m not nearly as capable. All of the full on fatigue and everything else that comes with it was there and very real. So this is now a topic that I find very. Yeah. To be very worthwhile to promote. And that’s why I’m happy that you’re here to talk through this.
So I’m wondering what that was. Yeah, it’s kind of difficult to talk about because again, it’s an important topic to talk about, though, and not just for my own story, but for everybody else’s. I know there are plenty of people out there that have gone through very similar things and it’s hard to recover from.
So, you know, I wonder Laura, say there are other people out there like me that just blew right past the stop sign, kept going and kept going and kept going. And then one day they find themselves and maybe they have some brain fog, maybe they have some fatigue, maybe they’re starting to see health issues pop up in themselves or they’re just not quite the same person that they were six months ago or a year ago.
What do you recommend? What techniques or tactics are there out there that people can employ to one really identify? Okay, now I’m in this state of burnout and then I guess moving on from that what they can do to start to improve their outcomes.
Yeah, there are a few things that people can do. And I guess I want to preface this with there is always individual accountability to our personal stress, personal resilience, and personal boundaries.
But at the same time, companies and organizations have a duty of care to their people as well. And you and I could be doing all this good work to make sure we’re showing up our full selves and we’re ready to go and the cup is full and we’ve got all the beans, but we’re working in an environment that’s inherently draining and that’s unsustainable.
The other thing that’s unsustainable, which is important to, I think, be aware of, is humans are not designed to be in a state of stress. Twenty four, seven, and we are stressed out much more when we need to be.
The stress response is designed to get us out of threat, get us out of danger. And it’s a short term response that fills your body with cortisol adrenaline. You fight or you flee. But what has happened now is we can’t fight and we can’t flee because often we’re in a work environment.
So a lot of that just kind of stays with us. And that even like the physiological sort of converting things into this hormone or this endorphin and then converting it back again, that can take energy and there’s a lot of physical symptoms that can result from burnout.
Step one, and the work that I’m about to talk about is really rooted in a company called Kintla that you and I know very well that I partner with a lot in this resilience work. So step one is really around noticing and naming stress.
And stress looks different for different people. Start to get a picture of what your stress response looks like. What does it feel like in your body? What emotions do you associate with stress? What sort of thought patterns do you have when you’re in a stress response?
What’s some of the body language that you can notice in other people when they’re stressed out? You can build a little team of accountability that’s saying like, hey, man, are you okay? Because you’re starting to look and name stress.
And the work that Kintla does, they just call this the red zone, which I love because it’s super disarming. It doesn’t have to be really emotional or anything like that. It can just be like. I’m feeling a little red zone today, and that just makes it a lot more simple.
Once you’ve gotten aware of noticing and naming stress, the step is to regulate out of stress. And there’s three different ways to do it. The first is bottom up, so that’s around using your body to signal to your brain that you’re safe and kind of overriding the nervous system response by using physical activity.
So that could be deep breathing. The military use like square breathing or box breathing. It’s also a breath work that we use in yoga. It’s called sivananda breath.
Would you like to describe to people what what box breathing is in case they’ve never heard of it?
Box breathing or triangular breathing or any of those? It’s great. So inhale for a count of four, hold for account of four, exhale for account of four, and hold for account of four. And you can repeat that five, six, seven times if you’re feeling stressed out.
And that’s one of the only and very powerful ways we have to consciously override an unconscious system. That is the nervous system. Walking, eating, having a cup of coffee, listening to music or blocking out noise, anything sort of sensory falls into that bucket.
And again, it’s like finding what works for you and having that list down so you know what to pull on. The second kind of category of regulators is topped down, which can be a little harder, but it’s more around mindset and cultivating a mindset where you’re able to notice stress and take a step to get perspective, essentially.
So that could be making a list. It could be focusing on things you can control, it could be using humor. It’s essentially like mindset techniques to get perspective and refocus your energy or attention.
I quite like gratitude exercises in that bucket as well because you’re starting to bring the feeling in as well and that brings you back down into your body. The last category of regulators is inter, like relational or sort of community based.
And the more positive, frequent, meaningful interactions you can have with other people, the less stressed you are and the more resilient you become. It kind of makes sense because humans, we feel safe.
It’s that safety in numbers. And if we have people around us, we have a support network around us, we’re better able to handle the challenges that sort of come our way. But it’s great because with having multiple avenues to pursue in the event that you do end up getting into this position, with having multiple levers to pull, maybe you’re not always in a place where you can find whatever your action is, right?
Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to go to the gym right now because you’re at work, you’re on a construction site. Maybe it is that you’re in an isolated location and you don’t have the opportunity to be face to face with somebody and have these conversations.
So it’s important to me to have like you’re putting it these three different pillars, I suppose it would be, in order to lean on in the event that you get yourself into this position or if you’re starting to see these warning signs.
The interesting thing is, while I think a lot of people even still now, they hear these things and they think, okay, this is very. Spiritual or kind of like voodoo magic. If anybody’s ever listened to the Huberman Lab podcast, one of my favorites of all time, I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to it, he’s a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford.
It’s really about as reputable as you can get. He actually talks about the neural mechanisms that are associated with all of these tasks. So this isn’t just some sort of woo foo thing. As a lot of people, again, I think on a construction site, they would look at this and say, you want me to sit here and breathe for a little while?
I don’t have time for this, or this is pointless. There’s a lot of science behind how valuable these actions, these activities are. And something else that you said that I think is just spot on is finding the thing that works for you, because this isn’t necessarily a one size fits all approach I have.
The things that I found help me, but maybe they aren’t as good for I’ve recommended some of them to my brother, who’s a project manager now, and not everything that it works for me works for him. So that’s great.
Something else that you touched on is kind of the responsibility of, we’ll say, the company. Something that I think about with this, though, is a company is really just made up of a lot of people. So a lot of people, whenever they talk about corporate or, or just, you know, business culture in general, they, they really, they they make these these entities out to be these these giant monsters.
But in all actuality, it’s really just we’ll say small circuits or small, small circles of people within your employer, within your project. Wherever we’re talking, I see this, as we’ll say, instead of necessarily a company obligation, it’s your circle’s obligation to you.
What can other people look for to see if somebody is. Is in route on their way of getting burned out or how can other people that are around you, if you’re a manager, how can you identify in one of your employees that they’re burnt out and that maybe you need to help them along in this journey?
Yeah, it’s a really great I really love that observation that companies are just collections of people ball and that’s really why I love working at the team level. Like, if you can work in team units, you create these little ecosystems of support who are mutually accountable to managing stress and building resilience and that kind of radiates out.
So things that teams can do together, I’ll start with is getting some well, having a conversation about stress, right. In a way that, again, in a way that works for them. And this could be it can be a toolbox talk, it can be a safety oriented conversation.
It could be something that’s more of a team builder or done socially, but have conversations about stress and start to notice and name how different people experience stress. And people are like, we are much more intuitive and intelligent than we give ourselves credit for.
You know, when someone’s come into work and they’re off, right? But often we’re just so swept up in the work that we just keep going and we don’t pause just like we would pause that it’s built into our safety processes that we pause and evaluate before we start a job.
Why can’t we build into our safety processes that we pause and evaluate people’s sort of mental and emotional state before we start a job? Because also, if you’re stressed out, you are more likely to have a safety incident and you’re a risk to yourself and you’re a risk to other people.
So I think creating that yeah, that ecosystem of intelligence around what does stress look like for different people? And then build in team rituals that help people regulate and manage stress and build resilience.
So the team coffee or a team lunch or strategy sessions where you’re kind of taking people’s brains out of the day to day and you’re getting a little bit more big picture. Walking exercise challenges sometimes can walk, like can work or meals even having maybe music on in a certain workspace if the workspace allows for it.
So how do you use some of those concepts in the bottom up, top down and relational, but build them into a team ritual that everyone’s involved in? And that’s how you start creating this kind of support system that supports each other, manages each other’s stress, builds each other’s resilience, and kind of radiates positive culture out through the organization.
Yeah, that’s great. One of the things that it kind of sounds like is kind of permeating through most of those, I guess, actions that people can take is having some level of dialogue with people, promoting conversation with the people around you.
Something that I used to used to say to the folks that would work for me in whichever various contexts is I can’t read your mind, you can’t read my mind. So we need to have a conversation. And I think about this in the same way whenever it comes to burnout and mental health.
We need to encourage people to have a conversation. We need to encourage people to get everybody on the same page and. And when somebody brings something to you, because as you were pointing out, the rate of suicidality is horribly high in the industry, the level of burnout, it’s bound to happen to somebody that’s around you that you’re connected with.
When somebody inevitably brings this to you, just have a positive conversation with them and listen. But promoting that conversation has to kind of start before any of that. Would you agree? And is that something that we usually see?
I mean, you were in the industry for ten years. Did you have people around you that encouraged you to talk whenever you started feeling a little burnt out or stressed?
I think I was usually that person.
For others, I had a couple I had a couple in my corner, yeah. Positive, frequent, meaningful interactions with other people is one of the most powerful ways you can manage stress and build resilience.
But this kind of comes full circle back to our first conversation, which is around inclusion. And often you find in a construction site or in any industry that has a bit more of a maybe monolithic culture or an expectation of this is the type of person who is in this work.
Those frequent, positive, meaningful interactions happen with the dominant group, but there are exclusions or silos, which means other groups may feel unsafe or unsupported. So to kind of up level this connection, it’s thinking about the people who you maybe feel a little bit disconnected from and being proactive in reaching out to them and having those small, frequent, meaningful interactions.
Even and especially with the people who you don’t necessarily mesh with straight away because that’s where real magic happens and you’re starting to include people who may feel excluded.
Yeah, that’s really interesting to think about.
I think it’s interesting to think about because I reflect back as you’re saying this to the different social groups that I was in when when on Project, when I say social groups, I mean you will end up gravitating toward people who are like you in some fashion.
Right. And I’ve said this to people. Yeah. It’s the natural thing to have happen. And when people disagree with this or whenever they try to put it in kind of strict buckets, I’ve related it to if you’ve ever been to the gym and you’re in a new gym, you’re going to go to the people that are effectively built like you, right.
So they’re in a physical aspect. You can see how you do that same thing. And then whenever you’re in an educational setting, you’ll go to people that are kind of testing like you, so well there’s that right.
We have these kind of domains that wherever we are, we kind of associate with those that are on our level. And I very much did the same thing on Project. Right. I have a demeanor and I have a goal and I go to the people that have a very similar demeanor and goal and we’re all there and we’re there for each other all the time and it’s a great time.
We’re in pursuit of a common goal, which is one of the best things that people can do in my mind. But there are a lot of people that aren’t on that same level and that can actually kind of perpetuate this cycle for them of, well, maybe I’m already kind of failing in a particular area, and this only kind of exacerbates that and perpetuates this and keeps it going because now I’m not part of the social dynamic that’s going to help encourage me and bring me along on this journey.
And and and I feel like I could have done a lot more whenever I was on Project for people. Now that I’m saying this out loud. So it’s one of those things that I have to reflect on and be honest with myself with, right?
Yeah, I’m the same. And there’s not an expectation here to be friends with everyone, nor is there an expectation to create a tight knit tribe of really diverse people. All the ask for me when I work with companies is write down some of the people on your team who you feel less connected to and spend some time with them because that does make a world of difference in both their experience of the workplace and the overall culture.
That’s simple actionable. And I think that we can all take five minutes to do this, so no, that’s great. And it just kind of promotes, again, more people getting involved in this. So it’s not just you being the solo person on a project that’s trying to talk with others and be there for people.
Yeah, and I think I was you are part of this industry for a reason. Like, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be challenging, it’s supposed to be work is supposed to be a medium where we can exercise our potential and our purpose and have a good time and feel accomplished and create this good work.
And if we just do ourselves a little favor in making it a positive place to work, if we just get out of the way of people, then they will deliver. People inherently want to deliver.
Nobody wakes up and says they want to go to work and do a bad job. Right. We just need to do what we can to provide the right environment for them to be able to do. So I was listening to a podcast that you were recently on, I think late last year, called The.
Unffing the workplace or something like that. Yeah, by the work pirates. It’s great. Yeah, something like that. You said something in there that kind of trauma or this burnout experience is very subjective experience.
Not everybody is going to go through the identical situation and respond to it in the same way. Right. Five people can go through this and they’re totally fine. And then one person goes through this exact same experience and they are left extremely stressed.
They have a difficult time coping with it. And I think that really well speaks to what you’re saying, that some people may have the social group there that they’re around that helps to kind of carry them along on this.
And if we just extend out to this other individual, we can prevent a lot of this from happening. We can ultimately get to the end goal, which is a safe, high quality, reliable end result of this project that we’re able to carry on from and go to the next one.
So I can definitely see how this all kind of interplays. Is there any information out there about how level of burnout or level of engagement affects things like safety or quality or productivity of workers in a given workplace?
Well, the work that Kintla does, they’ve associated what they call the gray zone and the red zone with the highest number of incidents. So the gray zone is kind of where you are checked out, tired, disassociated board, which can be a consequence of too much stress, but it also can be related to kind of not enough stress in the work environment because we need a certain level of challenge to be engaged and energized.
And the red zone is that. Too much stress. You’re in a stress response. Your primitive brain has taken over. You’re essentially in a fight or flight mode, which means that you actually lose some of your thinking capacity.
You’re in a sort of brain hijack because your primitive brain, or the ancient part of your brain that’s responsible for your sort of unconscious functions and keeping you alive, it takes over the rest of the function because it’s like the main priority here is to keep you alive.
So I’m shutting off the impulses to all the rest of this. We don’t need any complex problem solving right now. We don’t need any creativity, we don’t need any relationships. We just need to get out. So you’re not using your full brain, which means, yeah, you’re more likely to have a safety incident.
And of course, that would impact performance and productivity as well if you’re showing up in some cases with half your IQ.
Yeah, like I said, I’ve listened a lot on this topic whenever it comes to listening to the Huberman Lab podcast.
Really? Again, anybody who’s never listened to it, you’re missing out. But I’ve never really thought about in the sense of realistically, whenever it is that you are shifting toward this more sympathetic mode instead of a parasympathetic mode, versus you have effectively, your cerebellum taking over the majority of the daily tasks instead of having work going on in the prefrontal cortex.
And inherently with that, you’re losing executive function. And I’ve never really even thought about kind of connecting those together. I would think about in the positive aspect, not necessarily in the negative aspect of what you’re losing.
So that’s dire the consequence to all things for. Productivity or safety or just generally speaking, fine tuned tasks, which is what quality effectively is. Wow.
I wanted to touch on something that was the experience that I was having, and it sounds like the experience you’re having and a lot of people are having, which is we get into this stuck on mode, and it’s that stay of hyper arousal.
You’re almost constantly in the sympathetic nervous system, and it’s go, go, and you think that you can handle it, but what’s actually happening is you are so close to capacity that if anything, like, whatever straw comes next is the one that breaks the camel’s back.
And for you, it was obviously dealing with really serious health issues with your family. For a lot of people, it is the physical impact of stress on your body. I had loads of things going on, and I thought, like, I was getting tests.
I thought I had maybe a hormone imbalance or something. It was just really confusing physical symptoms that were starting to add on to this state of emotional strain that I was in. Almost 24/7. Yeah.
And I mean, again, for me, it was a new a new city, a lack of a support network. The construction culture was difficult for me. I had unwanted attention from someone on site that I was trying to manage.
Going to HR and having to do that whole process for better or worse, I don’t know if I would do the same thing now. And it’s just like one thing on top of another. And I felt, you know, excluded and sort of lonely and unsupported.
And I was going home, and I felt lonely and excluded and unsupported. You know, so so many people think that they’re fine and they’re coasting, but it’s just going to take one more thing or two more things, and then the ship capsizes to use your expression.
So don’t wait for the ship to capsize. Build in time for rest. Build in time for joy, for something that is fun. Build in time to move your body. Even if it’s like walking or hiking or dancing or something, there’s a lot of power in moving your body.
The mental, physical, and emotional impacts of moving your body is really important. Yeah. So after I had the sort of one serious episode of Burnout, I took a month off with nothing. I went home, I stayed with my mom.
I did almost no work. I was kind of keeping a few things running with my team, but ultimately that was rest and recuperation and by using a lot of tools that I’ve talked about. And I was really fortunate to have to be teaching yoga and have, like, a toolkit of more woo tools as well that I was using.
I went back to work about four or five weeks later with. Quite a healthy attitude and a bit of a healthy dissociation and a depersonalization of the work from me. I had a little mantra, and it was like, have fun, make money.
And it just disarmed the whole thing. And it was just like, it’s going to be okay. And then COVID hit and it was just another thing, you know, on top of it was just more and more and more to deal with all over again.
And I felt that stuff all coming back up to the surface again. So it really is a journey that you have to commit to and habits that you have to commit to consistently. It’s been way better since I left that environment completely and built a life around me that is inherently nourishing rather than inherently draining.
So I don’t have to fight against a system every day, but even now I’ve got a lot of internal stories or training or, I don’t know, habits. That is hustle, hustle, hustle. Go, go. Urgency, urgency, urgency.
And that’s the stuff now that I’m addressing even three years later, is the internal dialogue that contributed to my stress and burnout.
Yeah, it’s understandable so many people. I mean, I was and am still largely the same way where you associate your character, your whole personality and persona with your job.
Ah. And in some ways for better, in some ways for worse. That’s just kind of by by nature of, say, modern society, kind of what we do. But that’s not always the right answer. No. We’re so much more interesting than that.
Life is, and it’s one of those things. It’s funny. I was talking with my father in law here recently, and he had come over, he recently retired. He’s doing consulting now. He used to travel all the time for work.
And we were talking I did the same thing at the time. Whenever I left my last project, out of the ten years that my wife and I had been together, we lived in the same state about four and a half of those years.
So traveling around was kind of what I did. But I was talking with Tim here recently, and he had said, yeah, I travel maybe a week, a month now. I’m home all the time. I said, Tim, what was it like for you whenever you realized what people were talking about whenever it came to work?
Life balance, right? What was it like whenever you found weekends? Like, actually had time at home on the weekends? It’s just the craziest thing that for the longest time, I would hear people talk about this, and I was like, you’re joking, right?
Get over yourself, you’re fine, keep going. And then I got to actually live it for a while. And this is amazing. There’s so much more to life than just working all the time. So I think that gets lost on a lot of people, especially in the construction industry.
It does. And living a good life contributes to being able to do good work. If you’re looking after yourself and you’re having a good time at home, you have more energy to commit to those fun and interesting challenges that we encounter in the workplace.
Rapid Fire Questions
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, Laura. I think we’re coming right up on time, so I’m going to ask some last minute wrap fire questions to get to know Laura Aiken, the person, not just Laura Aiken the professional.
So even given the fact that you don’t necessarily associate so much of your identity with your career anymore, what would you say your number one motivator in your career is?
Quality of life. It’s changed so much.
Yeah. We should all strive to get a little bit more of that. I will say what one word best describes you right now. What’s coming to mind is full. I feel full. Let’s see. What is your idea of a perfect vacation?
Perfect vacation. I love a little bit of variety. So somewhere where I could spend a good couple of days just lying down on a beach, but have the opportunity to explore some cultural sites, eat good food and drink great wine.
Fantastic. What is your favorite book?
Favorite book? I love the Alchemist by Paolo Coello.
What is your dream job?
I think I’m doing it. Yeah. Running retreats, coaching people, consulting, helping organizations help their team stress a little less.
Helping people live nourishing lives. Yeah. This is it.