Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Living and Working Better and Healthier”
According to recent studies, burnout is on the rise dramatically, and looking only at how much we are working is not providing all the key answers we need to address the critical questions of what causes this increasing physical and emotional challenge. More than 50% of managers studied have indicated feeling burnout, and other reports have shown that Gen Z, millennials and women are the most stressed.
In my work as a career and leadership coach, and formerly as a therapist, as well as in my prior corporate life, I have witnessed countless examples of people experiencing extreme stress and burnout in ways (and with symptoms) that they sometimes consciously understood, but more often than not, were not fully clear to them.
To learn more about what contributes to burnout and to learn key steps to help us address chronic stress and recharge ourselves and our lives and careers, I caught up this month with Dr. Neha Sangwan, a recognized expert on this topic.
Neha Sangwan, MD, is CEO and founder of Intuitive Intelligence, and an internal medicine physician, international speaker and corporate communication expert. Her private practice and corporate consulting focuses on empowering individuals, organizational leaders, and their teams with the tools for clear, effective communication. She addresses the root causes of stress, miscommunication, and interpersonal conflict, often healing chronic conditions such as headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and burnout. She consults with organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Express, Kaiser Permanente, and Google, and has shared her journey on the stages of TEDx Berkeley, TEDx San Luis Obispo, and TEDx Babson. She is the author of TalkRx: Five Steps to Honest Conversations that Create Connection, Health and Happiness and the new book, Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life.
Here’s what Sangwan shares on how to overcome burnout in effective and longer-lasting ways:
Kathy Caprino: Neha, as a physician and an expert in this area, what are you seeing today as a global epidemic of burnout/mental health? Why did you write this book now, and what are the key issues you address?
Neha Sangwan: Operating with a faster is better mentality and constantly aspiring to do more with less, our stress levels have been snowballing for decades. We have developed many time-tested strategies that were getting us by—but the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. Stripped of our coping mechanisms, we fully experienced our emotions and also had the time and space to reflect on whether we truly liked the jobs, relationships, and life we had chosen. Many of us were just going through the motions. As we sat in discomfort, we realized that something had to change.
I wrote the book Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life because it’s time we address the root cause of our stress and heal. Rather than offering people some time off and a cocktail of medications and then sending them back in the ring for round two at their job (with no new skills or understanding of how they got there), I wanted to demystify burnout and personalize the healing to each individual. With anxiety, depression and burnout on the rise, it was clear that the world needs root-cause solutions.
Caprino: You have a very personal and powerful story of burnout. Can you share that and the path it made possible for you?
Sangwan: I am the middle daughter of immigrants and sought harmony and peace in the household. My father longed for me to become an engineer (just like him) and my mother hoped I would fulfill her unmet dreams by becoming a physician.
As soon as I realized these professions were not mutually exclusive, my people-pleasing nature led me to follow a path that appeased not only my parents but also the Indian community. So, I became a mechanical and biomedical engineer, worked as a manufacturing engineer at Motorola, and I continued on to become an internal medicine physician.
In June 2004, I was caring for 18 hospitalized patients when I turned to a nurse and asked “Nina, could you please give 40 mEq of IV potassium to the gentleman in room #636?”
She responded “Dr. Sangwan, are you okay?”
That was my first indication I might not be.
I replied, “Yeah, why?”
“Because that’s the fourth time you’ve asked me that same question in under five minutes and I’ve answered you every time.”
Following my consultation with a psychiatry colleague, I left with two prescriptions—one for stress-related medical leave and another for Prozac. During my time off I learned that stress causes or exacerbates more than 80% of all illnesses. This gave me powerful insight into how to heal—by getting to the root of my own and my patients’ stress.
Caprino: We seek doctors’ help all the time for symptoms of ailments that are stemming from burnout, but I and many others have found that the type of “help” received from doctors is often unhelpful and doesn’t get at key root causes, so our challenges continue.
As a personal example, I suffered for four straight years with chronic, serious infections of my trachea, and I went to a number of doctors all of whom couldn’t identify a cause (and didn’t try) but simply plied me with antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my body. But ever since the day I left my terribly stressful corporate life behind (and launched my own business), I’ve never had a tracheal infection again. I know beyond doubt that it was extreme stress, exhaustion and a host of other emotional factors that contributed to my chronic illness.
Can you explain what doctors DO and DON’T know about burnout?
Sangwan: Traditional medicine is very useful for crisis care. If you get into an accident and break your leg, need surgery or are having an acute illness, our Western medical system is the perfect place to go for antibiotics or acute pain relief.
In 1994-1998, when I was a medical student at SUNY Buffalo, I didn’t learn about burnout. My medical training was about pushing through my body, not partnering with it. My education focused on the anatomy of our bodies, the pathophysiology of disease, and drugs to relieve symptoms. These are often helpful short-term to stop a patient’s symptoms or discomfort, but the bigger question remains—what’s the root cause of my ailment and how can I best heal?
For chronic conditions or prolonged stress that result in burnout, traditional physicians have a toolkit to avert you falling over a cliff by giving you paid time off and a cocktail of medications that can help you with anxiety, depression or sleep.
The problem is that 10 days or a month later, you get sent back in the ring for round two with no new understanding of how you got there or how to do it differently. As a physician wanting to get to the root cause of my own burnout, I was surprised to discover this huge gap in our ability to help our patients heal.
Caprino: In your book, you discuss the core relationship between boundaries and burnout. Can you share more about that?
Sangwan: Boundaries serve an important function: helping us navigate safety, growth and connection in our lives. In our childhood, we learn boundaries from observing family interactions and noticing what connects us or distances us from others. Boundaries can be a way to protect ourselves and are often where we learn about vulnerability and what’s safe (or not safe). How well your boundaries match your relationships, job and environment will determine how you feel in them.
To evaluate where you are on the spectrum from burned out to fully charged, determine whether you’re experiencing a net gain or net drain of energy on a physical, mental, emotional, social or spiritual level.
As life changes, boundaries that once served you can now be too tight or too porous. Wherever you discover a net drain of energy, that’s the right place to consider adjusting your boundaries.
If you’re feeling exhausted, it may require a mindset shift from what your education, professional training and cultural norms may have taught you, in order to draw healthier boundaries around your own physical health, and to get more rest and prioritize good nutrition.
Caprino: Where does conflict come in? What are the long-term consequences of avoiding or mismanaging conflict?
Sangwan: Conflict arises when we go against what we want or value in order to please another person or fit in with a group.
When interpersonal conflict arises between two people and they ignore it, they may get temporary relief, but the conflict doesn’t go away. In fact, most often the conflict festers and creates distance in their relationship. And the most interesting part is how conflict changes location—from being an interpersonal conflict to an internal one. When this occurs, the person who didn’t speak up starts beating themselves up for not having the courage to address the issue. This often results in their frustration surfacing at an inopportune moment.
By avoiding conflict in the moment, you can escape temporary discomfort, but this choice often sacrifices the quality of your long-term relationship. When you’re willing to experience the short-term dip of discomfort that comes with addressing conflict, you gain the opportunity to have a more authentic and aligned relationship and grow together in the future.
Caprino: Finally, what are three instrumental steps we can take today to help us start healing from and overcoming burnout today?
Sangwan: I’d suggest these:
Assess: Know Where You Are – To figure out where you are on the spectrum from burned out to fully charged, you can answer a few questions to identify where you’re experiencing a net gain or net drain of energy on a physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual level. Here are some key questions.
Listen: Tune In To Your Body’s Unique Language — Learn how to interpret the unique physical signals (e.g. heart racing, throat constriction, muscles clenching, stomach turning, etc.) that your body is sending you. Check out this body map to help.* (*Warning: Please get any physical symptoms checked out by a medical professional first, then consider other potential causes.)
Release: Empower Yourself – Learn the powerful connection between your breath and your emotions. Just by deepening your breath, you will learn a powerful way to facilitate challenging emotions moving through you. There are many ways to do this (soft belly breathing, autogenics, guided imagery, to name a few). Here’s a link for you to experience them and discover which ones resonate most.
Overall, remember, burnout is not a personal failure—it’s a wakeup call—telling you it’s time to up level the way you’re living and being in the world.
For more information, visit Intuitive Intelligence and the new book Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life. To hear Dr. Sangwan speak in-depth about this topic, click here.