Great Minds: Felt like I was going crazy: Former cop/entrepreneur shares the brutal reality of burnout

It was a supersize coffee that did it.

Duncan Faulkner was abroad, on a business meeting, away from his family, when the drink arrived.

“It just triggered a response in me,” the entrepreneur tells the Herald.

“It was almost like it tipped me over the edge of being able to focus. I just had too much on my plate. I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I was going completely crazy.”

The South Island-based Faulkner is not the type of person you’d describe as lacking control of his emotions. Before he turned his attention to tech entrepreneurship, he worked as a police constable in both the UK and New Zealand and he’s also a trained helicopter pilot. Being calm and in control has long been non-negotiable in his life.

When burnout struck him the first time it was the loss of that intrinsic serenity that hit him the hardest.

“When it hits, it’s just completely debilitating. I was scared of what was happening because I’ve always been able to think really clearly. I’ve always been really motivated. And when it hit me, the energy that I had and my clarity went.”

“It’s almost like when you pull a leg muscle and you end up limping.

“Kind of the same thing happened, but for my brain. I just couldn’t make my brain work the way it needed to.”

Looking back on this moment now, he says it’s easy to identify how he got into the position where a mere coffee sent him near the edge.

“I just had too many balls up in the air at the same time,” he reflects almost matter-of-factly.

“I wasn’t giving my brain enough time to relax. I wasn’t taking any time for myself. I wasn’t doing much sport, I wasn’t eating as healthily. It was all those classic things that you probably get taught as a blimmin’ 12-year-old.”

Faulkner’s experience with burnout is far more common than we realise, given the general reluctance to express when things aren’t going well.

Researchers have identified burnout as a common problem that manifests in either active or passive forms that bosses and employees might not even be able to recognise at first.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, associate professors Margaret Luciano and Joan Brett say that passive forms of burnout include weariness and can be accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and sadness.

“These employees may disengage from work because they feel like a failure at everything they do, leading them to ask, why bother trying only to fail again?” the researchers write, explaining that passive disengagement can also result in a worker lowering their usual standards, dropping their effort, missing deadlines and expressing cynicism.

Active forms of burnout will see workers using negative coping tactics, like adopting unhealthy eating and drinking habits or neglecting healthy routines like workouts. The impact can also bleed into the workplace, with workers expressing impatience or discontent more readily than they usually would.

“If left unchecked, this can lead to more insidious behaviours like incivility and blaming and even explosions like angry outbursts and frequent, unprompted crying,” the researchers say.

Breaking the cycle

Once Faulkner recognised he was no longer in a good space, he started to take steps to rectify the problem. But recovery isn’t something you can do over a weekend. It takes time and dedication to change habits.

For Faulkner, that process took around six weeks.

“It was back to the basics for me,” he said.

“One of the good things about having your own business is that you can take a step back if you need to. I just became really focused on my health. I acknowledged that if I wasn’t looking after myself, then the family wouldn’t succeed and the business wouldn’t succeed.

“And looking after myself was going back to that simple stuff I learnt at primary school. It was about going out and exercising, eating healthily, not drinking, and looking after my mental and physical health.”

Running became a big part of Faulkner’s new routine.

“It was a case of going pure Forest Gump and going out to run a bit further every day. And when it felt like I couldn’t go on, I just pushed that little bit further. On those cold Otago winter days, it was just about putting one foot in front of the other.”

The physical process of running tied into Faulkner’s mental health.

“I started feeling that I had succeeded at something. I succeeded at running and I succeeded at getting fit. It’s just such a basic primal instinct to be able to say you’re fit.”

Faulkner said that running allowed him to shift his focus from the many tasks he had to do and really let his mind rest.

But old habits die hard – and Faulkner would eventually fall into the same cycle that got him into trouble previously.

“The second time I suffered burnout, it caught me off-guard again but the circumstances were exactly the same,” he says.

“It hit and I looked back and thought: ‘Well, that’s just stupid for it to happen the second time’. And unfortunately, it’s the same playbook to recover from it – and it again took around six weeks of focusing on yourself.”

Faulkner says that one of the toughest things about this overcoming the fear you have of being perceived as a selfish person for focusing on yourself to address the problem.

“It’s a mindset change. I felt the same way. I would always put myself last and the kids and my wife first. But you have to understand that you can’t provide for them if you’re broken or burned out. You have got to put yourself first. Once you do that, you can provide for other people.

“If you’re just a big mess on the floor, you’re not much use to anyone.”

'Burnt out, unproductive'

The stories and anecdotes of burnout across New Zealand are starting to meld into a worrying picture of the New Zealand workforce.

A recent survey of 1012 New Zealanders, conducted by workplace management platform Employment Hero, showed that 45 per cent of employees rate their work-life balance as average or poor, 53 per cent feel burnt out from their work and 43 per cent rated their productivity as average or low.

Employees who have a poor work-life balance were 74 per cent more likely to feel burnt out and those who felt burnout were 12 per cent more likely to cite productivity problems.

The major encumbrance employers face in solving this issue lies in the reluctance among staff to talk about it, with more than a third of respondents saying that they avoided reporting mental health concerns for fear of repercussions.

Hearing statistics like these and talking to other workers silently suffering mental health strain is part of the reason Faulkner talks frankly about his own struggles.

He’s even gone a step further and is currently working on the development of an app called Focus that aims to help business people, break down their big ambitions into smaller achievable objectives that eventually lead in the right direction.

“I’m trying to help myself and in the process help other people achieve what they want without stuffing up,” he says.

Leg day for your brain

That’s all easier said than done – and Faulkner says that in his experience, it’s the little rituals that combine to make the big difference down the line.

“It can be as simple as taking one hour a week of sitting down with the door closed and a nice cup of coffee and thinking about what you’re trying to achieve. What’s preventing you from getting there? And what can you change this week to help you get there?”

Committing to habits like running or giving yourself that hour of quiet time is only possible if you learn to say no and disconnect – something which has become incredibly difficult with the proliferation of workplace communications tools. Every ping we receive across these channels adds to the overall sense of fatigue we feel, says Faulkner.

“When I go to the gym and work out my legs, I can feel they’re sore the next day. And I get a similar feeling in my head when I’ve got my phone going off, my Slack going off, emails coming in. Your brain just ends up doing too much in the same way that you fatigue your legs at the gym. And you actually achieve less by trying to do too much.”

Saying no to bosses, colleagues and clients is never easy, but everyone has a limit. There’s no shame in acknowledging that you might no longer have the capacity to carry the weight of yet another meeting or task in the same way that there’s no shame in stopping your leg workout before your knees collapse.

Fail to do that and you too could find yourself eventually overwhelmed by the weight of (an admittedly large) coffee.

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