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It’s Not About The Gunfire

It’s Not About The Gunfire

“It’s not about the gunfire” I said, trying to explain to my boss why I simply could not extend my mission as the Country HR Manager in workplace effectivenessBangui, the capital of The Central African Republic (CAR).  I was at the tail end of a one-year contract with Doctors Without Borders and on my fourth emergency response since signing the contract.  The plan was to be there for a total of two months and I simply could not imagine a third.   And it really wasn’t about the gunfire we heard almost daily or the horrible violence throughout the region.  It wasn’t about working and living in French, a language I was still not completely comfortable with.  It wasn’t about being restricted to working and living with the same people in the same compound day after day, night after night.  And if you think sleeping under a mosquito net every night is sexy, then you haven’t ever had to do it.  It wasn’t until months later, after some serious recovery time and honest reflection, that I could look back and see what “it” was.  The truth is that I was exhausted.

Doctors Without Borders, known around the world by its French name Médecins Sans Frontiers (and also by its acronym MSF), is an international humanitarian organization providing medical aid to populations in need.  At the time I was flailing around in my mind trying to figure out what “it” was, MSF emergency teams were in CAR bringing additional support to field teams already in place.  CAR is a country of over four million whose people have not seen true peace or stability in decades.  A country that in late 2013 saw increased levels of ethno-religious violence. Since that time thousands have been killed and over 600,000 forced to flee their homes.  If you don’t know what is happening in CAR I can’t fault you.  CAR is a country few know about or can even find on a map because it receives very little media attention despite the terrible and horrible things happening there.  One can imagine burnout in working conditions like this, but the fact is burnout happens in all working environments.

Regardless of the organization, context, or geographical location, part of HR’s responsibility is to manage employee wellness and reduce, if not eliminate, employee burnout.  No organization can survive high rates of burnout amongst their employees.  Morale drops, mistakes are made, creativity disappears, talent and experience walk out the door, and the working environment becomes oppressive instead of inspiring.  Knowing the signs and planning ahead with all team members to keep burnout at bay is critical.  And like the oxygen masks that drop from the compartment overhead in airplanes, when conditions for burnout are present we need to first help ourselves before helping others.

There are many roads to burnout, each one with its own unique characteristics and scenery.  At times the road is long, straight and well-planned.  A road that has been laid down as a vision before a team of dedicated individuals.  Individuals who will step onto the road to pursue their passions and give their all to a vision they collectively feel deep in their hearts somehow knowing when it is speed or endurance that is of the essence.  Other times the road is short and uphill both ways.  A team of people coming together in response to an unplanned crisis or need and using their knowledge, experience and creativity to put things back on track.

Roads can be lined by fans providing encouragement and support at critical junctures or be a single track road with a lone individual pushing themselves along, motivated by goals others cannot see.  But the most dangerous roads are those created from nothing.  Sometimes we adrenaline junkies get a taste of that lovely adrenaline rush.  We don’t want the ride to end and so we create more road.   The emergency has ended but we create new emergencies just to keep the high.  That adrenaline rush is better than anything you can buy on the streets.

It takes an immensely courageous individual to step out and announce when they see signs of burnout.  And for those able to recognize and admit burnout in themselves, well, let’s just call them this special breed of human what they are: highly-evolved individuals.   Calling out the signs is a difficult thing to do especially when the entire team is on the road going at an exciting pace with fans and support crew caught up in the frenzy.  No one wants to be responsible for slowing down the ride or admitting their own human-ness by putting on the oxygen mask dangling in front of their eyes.  And just to put it all out there, let’s acknowledge the fact that many times some may perceive someone who burns out as weak and no one wants to be thought of as anything less than strong and fully capable.  When telling someone you think they may be exhibiting signs of burnout, their immediate denial and reaching for another cigarette is a not an uncommon first reaction.

There are as many signs for burnout as there are individuals.  More importantly than memorizing a list of signs, the better approach is for all team members, not just the HR person, to be aware of what “normal” behavior is for one another.  I have worked with people for whom drinking a liter of diet soda a day is normal for them.  When they start adding Red Bull to the soda when before there was none, this is when I start paying attention to make sure they are still ok.  Typically it will be a close team member who first notices when someone is deviating from their “normal” and depending on the force or duration of the deviation it will warrant attention, monitoring and or possibly a heart to heart discussion.

Signs can generally be put into one of three categories: changes in personality, changes in performance, or changes in physical appearance.  In the name of helping ourselves first, following are some key questions I now ask myself at regular intervals to keep burnout at bay.

  • Has one or more team member come up to me wide-eyed, put a hand on my shoulder, stared deep into my eyes, said “are you ok?”, and then, actually waited for a response?
  • When my computer dings to indicate an incoming email, do I audibly take in a deep breath, think “what now?” and then forget to let the breath out?
  • Are my shoulders at a natural level below the ear lobes or are they resting just at the level of the temples of my forehead?
  • Is everyone being unreasonable, demanding, or lacking a sense of humor?
  • In the past 3 days have I averaged more or less than 4 hours of sleep a night?
  • When was the last time I ate a fruit or vegetable?
  • What is my water to coffee ratio?
  • When was the last time I exercised?
  • Where does personal hygiene stand in my list of daily priorities?
  • When someone asks me to do something that I normally do with my hands tied behind my back, am I smiling because I envision them suddenly dropping through a hole in the floor or am I happy to help?
  • Do I see colors?  Not just the color red but the entire color spectrum.  Has life evolved to be only variations of black and white?
  • Can I read and comprehend an entire email, article, chapter, or traffic sign without becoming distracted?
  • Have I recently tried to convince someone else that I am not tired and that I just need a nap?
  • Have I found myself in a rut?  Right there in the middle of a civil war?

Perhaps your own questions will be slightly different but probably not much.  What you are looking for is anything that indicates you are operating out of the realm of what is normal for you.  And sometimes we have to look at ourselves through the eyes of a trusted friend or co-worker in order to see clearly.

Like most catastrophes, the better prepared we are, the more we can do to mitigate the actual impact of the catastrophe on our lives.  Catching burnout sooner rather than later decreases recovery time and increases the chance an individual will return as a contributing member of the team.  If you know of a team who is or soon will be stepping onto a road that can lead to burnout, as an integral part of the project plan, create a wellness plan and have the team talk about how they are going to avoid burnout before it happens.  Then, build into the project planning time and money for recovery.  Trust me, it is easier to have this discussion before rather than later. It is simply no fun trying to tell someone, and even worse, yourself, that they are not their normal selves.

Like the signs for burnout, there are as many methods for recovery as there are individuals.  What works for you might not work for someone else.  Some prefer beach time, hiking time, or travelling time while others prefer going deep into their high-speed Internet accessible caves with a healthy supply of Dr. Pepper and Cheetos for super long periods of time.  Allow people to define for themselves how they recover and ensure your policies are flexible and not prescriptive.  Eliminate the concept of fair (i.e. everyone gets the exact same thing) and allow for flexibility (i.e. everyone gets to pursue recover in their own way).

Lastly, for those courageous and highly evolved individuals who have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge signs of burnout in themselves, know that you are not weak and that you are in fact human.   Know that you are indeed highly evolved and have a responsibility to yourself, your family and your team to take care of yourself.  Pay attention to what becomes normal in your work and in your life.  If your normal has evolved over time to be consistently less than 4 hours of sleep a night and a compulsion to cause more damage than the typhoon caused a month before, you have to know that this really is not normal behavior.  Take the opportunity to be a role model and take the recovery time you need before you need it.  Show by example that on the road to accomplishment sometimes we have to take a few steps back in order to take a giant leap forward.

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Catherine has been working in and around the Human Resources field as a generalist since starting her career oh so many years ago. In the more recent years she worked with a non-profit organization that provided support services to children and families in crisis where she began to see firsthand that sometimes people just need help. Currently she is working with Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders ( as an HR and Finance generalist. She travels to the countries that MSF sends her to and does her best to support the MSF staff as they provide the help that is so desperately needed in this world.

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