Just About Coping

Ep 7: Tony Piper

December 03, 2019 MHFA England
Just About Coping
Ep 7: Tony Piper
Show Notes Transcript

Tony Piper is a stress, burnout and leadership coach. After 27 years in the IT profession, Tony shared with Simon his expertise on stress in the workplace, why it happens, and looked at this year's WHO definition of burnout as an 'occupational phenomenon'.

Simon and Tony touched on:

  • What burnout physically looks like, and how to spot it in yourself
  • The importance of line managers in preventing burnout
  • Why Chief Executives are not superheroes and the power of vulnerable leadership

Tony only shared his top tips on the best ways to properly switch off and some of his best self-care tips.

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More on Tony: twitter.com/tonypiper
Tony's coaching: tonypiper.coach/burnout
WHO definition on burnout: who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en
Article referenced by Simon: hrreview.co.uk/analysis/simon-blake-tackling-summer-burnout-in-the-workplace/119260

More on Simon: twitter.com/Simonablake
Simon Blake OBE is the Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. His mission is to improve the mental health of the nation and help build an inclusive and  society where attitudes and behaviours around mental health are normalised. Simon received an OBE in 2011, is Deputy Chair at Stonewall, and enjoys running, equestrian eventing, and walks with his dog.

More on #JACPodcast:
MHFA England: mhfaengland.org
Email: media@mhfaengland.org

Speaker 1:

The paradox of this is that my job is not to be the expert. You know , as a coach, my job is to help you tap into your own expertise. So this is my challenge, right? Hello, it's Simon and today's guests on just about coping is Tony Piper. Tony is a stress and burnout coach who first reached out to me on social media when I wrote an article about avoiding some of burnout and he took me to task a bit saying good article, but you forgotten one key point, which is to make sure that workplaces are doing everything they can to remove the causes of burnout in the first place. So I'm delighted that Tony's here. We talked about burnout, we talked about stress, we talked about self care, and if you're interested in those things, I'm sure you're going to enjoy listening to this conversation with [inaudible] .

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Speaker 1:

so do you want to just tell me a bit about who you are and how you came to be a person who likes talking about Ben?

Speaker 3:

Well, it's nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me Simon. So I'm a coach , um, before I became a coach, I had a 27 year career in the it industry. Uh, but I was always much more interested in the people side of things as much as the tech. And over the years I had , uh , my own experiences or things that I would later come to understand to be certainly on the road to burnout if not total burnout. And what I realized as I transitioned into being a coach is that this can be quite a , um, common journey for a lot of people, especially people who are high achievers, especially people who are maybe , um, promoted quite rapidly at a young age. And that was a lot of my story. Um, maybe people who have quite a caring disposition, there are all sorts of factors that can combine and mean the, in some situations you can be quite prone to this. And I suppose this is one of those law of attraction things is that once you start thinking about this, then you start meeting people who are in this situation. And I find myself working with people who are going through this. At the moment.

Speaker 4:

And so , um , the world health organization , um , defined burnout as an occupational phenomenon earlier this year and what they have described as just so that we're really clear what we're talking about is a syndrome which is conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Talk about three dimension . So feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy. And then they talk about burnout, referring specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of, of life. And so I think it's just really important because so often, yeah, we will talk about feeling burnt out and yet, yeah. Were we in this context, at least talking about it in a very specific sort of context. So if you were to just reflect a bit about what it is that you, so you've talked about the types of people that you've seen, but what is it that, that in your experience leads to people , uh, you know, getting that sense of burnout? Is it you know, too much to do? Too much on the to do list? Is it that the work is as outside the technical skills? Are there particular things which you , you, you, you experience lead to, to burn out or is it

Speaker 3:

more random than that? Well, the clue to that is in a chronic unmanaged stress, which is in that definition you just read out and those stresses could be all sorts of things. You've already named some of them, so it could be about workload. You know , if you're working 18 hour days for a long period of time, you're going to get physically exhausted, right? If you're doing work that is boring, what's going to happen to you if you are being managed in a way that's not right for you, which is too much management or too little management, what's going to happen to you? What happens if you fall out of alignment with the values of your organization? Maybe they've changed over the years. Maybe there's been a merger and acquisition situation where all of a sudden a new culture has come in and you're suddenly, this isn't the company I used to work for. Um, often it can be a perfect storm. And the interesting thing about the who definition is they talk about workplace stress. In my experience as a coach, what I'm finding is that often it's workplace stress coinciding with other stress. Okay? Okay. Now the challenge for employers of course, is that you don't necessarily know what's going on outside the workplace. You don't know if somebody is, for example, caring for a relative and normally they can manage that and they've got flexible working and you know, they're managing to, you know , keep that going. But then what happens when that relative goes into hospital, for example? And as an employer, you may know about it, you may not know about it, and meanwhile it's a month end or there's a surprise unannounced audit team arriving or Offstead inspection or whatever it could be. And often these things all come together. And that could be the final thing , uh , that tips you into , uh, towards the end stages of burnout. But it's important to say that burnout is a gradual journey. Uh , the flame doesn't suddenly go out, it sort flickers and dins yeah , yeah. But it does eventually go out. So just tell us what does burnout look like? How'd you know it's happening? Well, it's this gradual journey of physical and emotional exhaustion of , um, cynicism about work and about , um, a lack of sort of achievement , um, sort of ineffectiveness . Maybe it's those, those three things that are in that world health organization definition. So to unpack those a little bit more , uh , physical and emotional exhaustion. I mean, physical exhaustion, we know when we're tired. Um, but it could be other things like, you know, ongoing headaches or stomach trouble or, you know, maybe blurry vision or can't concentrate and focus. Uh, we might be emotionally , uh, up and down. We might be , um , more sad than we usually are, or , um, all sorts of, all sorts of other, I mean, people that respond emotionally to stress in all sorts of ways. Some people almost get quite sort of , uh, uh, high on it almost. I've seen this [inaudible] which is an interesting response. Um, but you'll know when you know, physically and emotionally things are off, I think is the safest thing to say. All right . And then , uh , the next one is, is about cynicism and about how'd you feel about your job? Are you achieving anything? And if you do achieve it, is it valuable? Um, what's the point? You know, these kinds of questions start to come up and why am I bothering to do this? Uh, and you know, am I making a difference which sort of touches on the values stuff, you know, am I, am I actually doing work that's important to me? Am I connected to work that's important to me? And then finding the, the, the performance piece or , you know, am I getting stuff done? Am I doing it to the right standard? Um, have people noticed whether I am or am not doing that right? So there are those three groups and that's in the world health definition. Um, there are four questions I think you can ask yourself on a regular basis. The first one is how well am I sleeping? Am I getting to sleep quickly and not because maybe I've had half a bottle of wine or some sleeping tablets or anything else. And once I get asleep in my staying asleep during the night or my waking up in the middle of the night worrying about stuff that's going on. So that's the first one. Second one is how do I feel when I wake up? Am I refreshed? Am I excited about the day ahead or is it something else? Third one leaving work. Am I switching off but a physical in terms of my apps? Am I looking at my notifications and email and all the rest of it or , you know , mentally am I turning things around in my head, you know, and thinking about what's, what's just happened in the day. Uh , in a way that's kind of ruminating rather than reflecting, or am I worrying about this stuff I haven't done or am I , you know , worrying about, you know, an email that's going to come in from the East coast team in the middle of the evening and somebody's going to want an answer because we are a global company and, you know, that's kind of expected of me. Um , so I used switching off , uh, and then the final one is just about how am I with my relationships? Am I getting irritated with people , uh , or am I withdrawing from people? They're the two classic signs of that. So you can ask yourself those four questions on a regular basis and you know, the how, if you want to add to that, you know, how do I feel on Sunday evening? Am I looking forward to the week ahead or why got this sort of Sunday night blues? And you know, if this is going on for a while, then the chances are there's something you need to do about this. Yeah .

Speaker 4:

Yeah. It's interesting. You just reminded me, I did a commencement speech at my , um, uh, Cardiff university graduation ceremony last year. And this , you know , life isn't always up, but if it's, it feel , if it's down, you know a lot , then what are the changes that need to be making. And it's, you know, if, if one Sunday doesn't feel great, fine, but if seven Sundays in a row don't feel great, then there's different.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. This is the, this is the chronic word in that who definition is about something that's gone on for a period of time? Cause you say there will be fluctuations. Yeah. Yeah. There's an end stage of burnout where, you know, the flame does go out and for many people it can feel like a very strange absence of stuff going on in their head. A lot of the times we're more anxious and stressed about work. We have these voices in our head telling us about all the things that we have or haven't done and how well it didn't go. And the problem with that person and, Oh , if only this and all this internal dialogue that goes on. And one of the things about burnout is that all of that just stops and you're absolutely numb and there's nothing going on. And when you wake up in the morning, you don't even dread work because you're not even thinking about anything and you just can't get up. And if you do get up, you're not going to get anything done. It's this very strange state and I always think with a lot of these , um , responses to stress is helpful to think about. This is the body's way of telling you you need to do something. Yeah . Right. Yeah . And burn out like some of the other consequences of stress might be talked about , um , you know, heart disease and this kind of thing. This is your body really getting quite serious about this now. And it's like, if you're not going to do anything about this, I'm going to stop you even getting out of bed. This is the ultimate, right ?

Speaker 4:

Nope. Which is what Ruby , uh , in the first episode described, as you know, our bodies are onesy. We often think of our brain in our bodies as separate, but actually we've got, you know , this one's E which is going on. And , and of course, you know that , uh, the, the asking ourselves the questions , um, and we , um, have a , a weekly checkups of questions on , um, MHR FFA , England's , um , website is about trying to ensure that we , um , can notice and get help, get support, take action before that stage. But clearly , um, you know, it's really , um, vital that people , uh , absolutely do get that help and support at the point that burnout does happen. And

Speaker 3:

well , this is why all of this is so important because this is the end result. This is what happens if you don't. Yeah, absolutely.

Speaker 4:

So you're in bed, you're lying there, you can't get up. You know , my, my, my phrase I think I would use at that point is that you just want the world to do one, you know, is a , you know, what, what, what happens? What, what advice would, would we be giving? What F what , what should people be thinking about?

Speaker 3:

Well, the first thing you need to do is get some rest. And you know, that might be a week or so of bed rest . It could be, it could be that you need to go on holiday and if you're one of these people that doesn't take your holiday allowance, this is your time to correct that and get some time out of the situation. And hopefully you have an employer who's understanding and you can talk to them about this. Um, if not, you might need to see a GP and your GP is going to be wanting to know about the things that led up to this just in case there's other things going on as well. Um, so I think it's probably good practice to talk to a GP about this once you've started to rest and recharge on the basis that you are able to do that. The next thing you need to do is to identify the source of your stress and think about everything going on in your life. As I said before, this is often a , a perfect storm of workplace and personal stress that's going on. So it might be that on their, on by themselves, those sources of stressor are manageable, but it's the way they've come together. And then you're going to need to put some work in to figure out whether you can eliminate those sources of stress or whether you can respond to them in different ways. You know, it could be that some simple workplace adjustments , uh , or some stronger boundaries about timekeeping and making sure you're going home and switching off. Um, could be the thing that helps you. But it might be that , uh , there's something about your role that needs to change. Maybe you've been, you know, covering for other people. And you know, that's the, the article that brought us together in the first place around some of the , that where you're covering for people. Um, it might be that's been going on for a bit too long. It might be that your , uh, manager is also burning out and they've been pushing everything onto you because they can't cope with it and you know, guess what that's going to affect you. It might be that. So ,

Speaker 4:

so I guess just to, sorry to interrupt on that. So it feels like what you're really saying is it's that deep reflection on where what, and then trying to work out how to, how to eliminate to manage and to,

Speaker 3:

and it , and it might be that you can do that yourself or it might be, it's easier to talk through somebody else. Yeah . And it doesn't have to necessarily be somebody who's an expert in this. It's just somebody who can listen and ask the questions. Yeah.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. And, and, and yeah, as with all these situations, you know , the most important thing is never thinking that you're alone and never thinking you have to do these things on, on , on your own. And that talking, helping, asking for help is absolutely the bravest and the best thing to do in all of these situations. Yeah . In your role as a coach where you've been , um, working with people, you will obviously have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Um , and it's often easier to talk about when things go wrong, but are there examples that you can draw on where you think about where managers, organizations, HR, whoever , um, managed to get it to get it right, either to prevent the burnout in the first place or , uh, to ensure that somebody was adequately supported through the process of recovery?

Speaker 3:

Okay. So preventing burnout is all about , uh , managing, identifying a manager, managing the sources of stress. Okay. So that could be a learning to cope with those sources of stress differently or ideally removing them altogether . Some things you can remove, some things you can't. And organizations that have managers who are well trained at , uh , really checking in with their employees. Uh , maybe there are also organizations that are really paying attention to employee engagement. Uh , maybe they're organizations that see the need for mental health first aid practitioners. Um , these are all organizations that are more likely to be having the kind of conversation about how an employee is feeling about , uh , showing up at work and how they're doing, what needs to change, if anything, and so on and so forth. Okay.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and if you were to, you know , the corroboree of that, think about just be really explicit where organizations are not , uh, not addressing the factors burnout or not noticing when people are being stressful. Are there any sort of real , um, uh, key things which, which organizations are failing to do in those moments? I mean , it's , it's , it's a slightly obvious question. They're failing to know stress. They're failing to remove the stressors , but are there, are there any sort of insights which you've got through the process in which you can, you can think about that.

Speaker 3:

Well, I had one yesterday that came up and that was about, now we're getting to the end of the year. And I was thinking about people who, and I'd had my own experience of this, where people can carry forward or cash in their holiday entitlement. Okay. That's quite a big red flag because it says you've not taken time off. Now, there might be good reason for that. Maybe you're saving for a big trip to the other side of the world, but it might be that you felt unable to take that time off because you've, there's a culture of , uh , sort of present tears ism , uh , where you have to be at work and be seen to be arriving at work before , uh, your line manager and leading afterwards. And that if you take time off, then maybe that would be perceived as a sign of not coping or, you know, back to this quote unquote bravery thing. But, you know, there can be these cultures that just reward people for working very, very long hours. And ultimately that's going to unravel. I do some work with people in consultancy and you know, they're all famous for , uh, working very, very long hours, often , uh, away from home for long stints on very challenging projects , uh, without the right amount of self care. They are quite dangerous places to work.

Speaker 4:

And so we'll come back to , um, self care , uh , a bit. Um, uh, in, in a moment, but I guess , um , just be , um, really interesting to just talk about, you know, holidays and , uh, the importance of , uh, people taking holidays. And one of the things which I know from personal experience is , um, that you can either go on holiday and property , go on holiday where you turn the phone off and you don't do anything or you can go on holiday and you're basically still at work, just not , um , in the office. Um , if you were thinking about , uh, your, your clients, clearly we as employers have responsibilities, but also as, as people, as employees, we also have our own responsibilities to turn off our phones and et cetera . Yeah. Are there, are there ways that , uh, people that you've worked with have coached themselves away from their phones, coach themselves away from checking , uh , the emails and, and really recognize that life can go on? Uh , you know , being connected into work while it's taking time out.

Speaker 3:

Certainly there are some organizations where, for example, you have to have, you know, a work phone and a private phone and you can't access work email on your private phone and for as much of a pain that that can be in carrying two phones around and keeping them charged and everything else, it does mean that you can give your work phone to your manager , uh , the day before you go on holiday. And some organizations I know will turn off access to email for people who are going on holiday, which I think is a really progressive thing. Um, some organizations , uh, will have a culture where it's definitely frowned upon to send messages to people who, you know, to be on holiday and do something that, you know, you can expect to get some feedback on if you do it. Now, of course with automated emails for groups and all the rest of it that can be hard to avoid. But certainly creating a culture where , um, I didn't want to disturb you on holiday so I'm not going to , uh , is a lot more than what I'm going to send it and know that you'll come back to an inbox of, you know, 500 emails. Yeah. Yeah. So there's things we can do for each other as colleagues, let alone as managers to make it easier for each other to take proper time out. I think it can be quite a leap for people to think about it though . They ran, I mean , the way I always think about self care is self care is the thing that charges you up in order to care about other people and other things. So you start with self care. It's not something you do to fix things after you've run out. It's how you start from a place of caring for self. Because if you can't care for yourself, you can't care for anybody else.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. And I learned thing this week actually, which is that you can get all of your apps to close down at a certain time of night. So , um, the , there's, it's not tempting , uh, or it's not quite as easy. It's an extra couple of clicks in order to be able to get to your email. So for anybody that hasn't found it , um, uh , there isn't a facility on, on most phones now that you can get everything to close down a particular time. Um, and I've this week set mine to 8:00 PM fantastic. Uh, let's see whether I stick to it well and I can't

Speaker 3:

wait for the day. They , they allow you to set a pin number. That is the thing that lets you get back into the apps so that you can give that pin number to somebody else and ask them for permission before you quickly sort of , uh , uh, succumb to the urge to override it.

Speaker 4:

Never share pin numbers. What we learned in a financial wellbeing class is don't use the same thing as your bank card. Let's just, let's just move, move, move forward. Let's start thinking a little bit about , um, some, some States of utopia. Uh, you know, and , and thinking about if we were, if we were creating work cultures where , uh , burnout just wasn't , uh, something which , uh, yeah , was , um, was, was, was on the cards for, for most people. What, what things would be being in place? Your what , what , what would, what would chief execs like me , um, or managers be doing and thinking about , uh, in order to , um, to try and eliminate the , uh, the, the risks of people experiencing burnout.

Speaker 3:

The first thing I would say to any chief exec is to take responsibility for your own , uh, wellbeing. Uh , cause if you're not well, the chances are the rest of us aren't going to be well. Because as you , uh , struggled to cope, then it's probably gonna have a ripple effect. And one of the , uh , things that is often underlooked your wellbeing and engagement , uh , is around some kind of assumption that the people near the top of the organization are feeling better about things than the people who report to them. And that often isn't true. And as we know, you know, if you're a chief exec can be a lonely place and maybe you don't have people that you can confide in. Maybe you don't have the psychological safety to say, you know what, I'm really finding this hard. I'm going to get some help. Can you help me with this? That kind of bravery. And you know, we see the gritted teeth and we just, the determination to carry on and you know, if, if you can't look after yourself, if you can't stay, well then, then what? Hope for the rest of us. So that's the first thing to say. So create a culture. And this is what Brenae Brown talks about with this culture of vulnerability, vulnerable leadership rather than, than armored leadership. So as a chief exec being determined and say, I'm finding this really hard, or I don't know what to do, let's try and figure it out together, can you help me? Those kinds of things are more likely to create the psychological safety that says, Oh, okay. Yeah, the chief exempt isn't some kind of superhero . They're just another human being in a particular role. And it's okay to say I need help. Yeah. Right. Yeah . If you don't go down that route, then one of the signals that you send is that somehow you are in that role as the chief exec because you're somehow , uh , you know , have superpowers or invincible or sat here and make that kind of thing. Right. And whether that's what you intended, that's often how it's received. Okay. And people will tend to put people in authority on pedestals and you know, that's probably not very helpful. And certainly if they see behaviors in leaders , uh , that are unhealthy, there may be some kind of signaling that says, this is what we do around here. So, you know, if you see a leader is constantly , uh , going out , uh, entertaining clients , uh, till , uh, late at night and you know, showing up at work, not looking their best in the morning, what kind of signal does that send to the rest of the organization, for example. So it has to start , this is back to the self care thing. It has to start with you and it has to start at the top and to , to model the behaviors that you want to see in everybody else.

Speaker 4:

So , um, okay, let's get personal from Ireland. Um, uh, so your self care, how do you , uh, look after yourself?

Speaker 3:

I do go to the gym. I am one of those people I didn't use to be actually, and I used to have all sorts of problems as a result of it. So it's only in fairly recent years that I've become that person. Um, and I enjoy being outside. I enjoy being out on my bike. Um, I have my little folding Brompton, which probably looks like a clown bike from a distance, but actually it brings me much joy. Um, and I'm also a singer. Uh , and until recently I did a professional job singing for seven years and I'm having a bit of a break from that, but that brings me a lot of joy. And if I'm not doing that , uh, I'm trying to make sure that I'm getting enough sleep and that I'm not putting too many harmful substances in my body in any one moment. And just paying attention to what my body tells me about how I'm feeling and what I need to do.

Speaker 4:

Yeah . Interesting. Say a bit more about that.

Speaker 3:

Well, I think recognizing that, you know, we all have limited reserves of energy and at any given moment, you know, they're going to be drained in all sorts of different ways. So for me, for example, a might be a surprising fact to some people, but actually I'm quite introverted and yet I'm a coach. I spend all my day with people and I know that if I've done six hours of coaching, I'm going to be no good for anybody. And what I'll need to do is just to go home and curl up with a book and not talk to anybody. And then, you know, in the morning I'm fine, but if I was then to be booked into a party, you know , that evening or some other kind of social gathering , um, I wouldn't show up in the way that I wanted to show up. So it's about having the, I suppose the self awareness and you know, acceptance that you can't do everything.

Speaker 4:

Tony, thank you. I think , uh, yeah , I just want to end by really just going back to , uh , that sort of definition and reminding people that what burnout is, is about chronic workplace stress that isn't managed and work will be stressful sometimes, but it is our absolute responsibility as line managers, as chief execs , as organizations to ensure that stresses are managed , that staff supported. Um, and that , uh, alongside that , uh, organizational , uh, responsibility. There's also the personal responsibility that we all have to do the best we can to look after ourselves. So thank you for , um, your challenge , um, to me , um , in the first place, which was don't just deal with the symptoms, make sure that you're trying to do everything you can to prevent it in the first place. That appreciated that deeply. And thanks very much coming to talk to me today. My pleasure.

Speaker 1:

So I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Tony. If you want to find out more about Tony and his work, go to his website, Tony Piper . Dot . Coach next week will be the last episode in this series of just about coping and I'm delighted that my final guest is Phil a [inaudible] and Phil is the executive director of the kaleidoscope trust and founder of UK black pride . So just to finish this episode of just about coping, a couple of reviews. One person talking about the conversation with Johnny Benjamin really found the , uh, the point about hope and the importance of hope at the point of diagnosis and in conversations was really powerfully made. And the second review on iTunes was said, just found, finished listening to Simon interview and dr Rand stuff to relate to stuff, to get inspired by stuff, to make you optimistic and stuff to make you laugh. Thank you very much for all of your views. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being passive. These conversations. Please do continue to leave us reviews on iTunes. Please do continue to join the conversation on social media using the hashtag Jac podcast I and Simon Blake. Thanks very much for [inaudible] .