How periodisation can make a difference in managing burnout

How periodisation can make a difference in managing burnout

According to recent reports, fatigue, lack of support and burnout are leading to record numbers of leaders resigning in what some are referring to as the ‘turnover tsunami’. Although COVID-19 continues to have an undeniable impact on burnout, particularly in certain sectors like health, managing burnout as an afterthought is not the key to resolving the issue. The key is to prevent burnout from happening in the first place. The way to do this is surprisingly simple, with a strategy that takes its cues from elite athletes. In this article, Human Performance Strategist Dr Craig Duncan explains how.


Nov 01, 2022

5 mins read

Are you burnt out? Do you feel you are getting nowhere fast? Do you sometimes feel so exhausted that it's hard to be motivated, let alone motivate others? If you find yourself nodding, you are certainly not alone. Over the last two years, the burnout rate has significantly increased, creating an alarming impact on numerous industries, particularly healthcare workers. Recent reports suggest that 50% of all leaders across multiple sectors have reported feeling burnt out and that they believe it is a non-negotiable that organisations prioritise wellbeing to decrease the onset of the ‘turnover tsunami’. Although COVID-19 has had and continues to have an undeniable impact, one of the primary reasons for burnout is how we plan our lives and implement this plan each day, week, month and year. It is impossible to be at the top of our game every day, but it seems the concept of always being ready is the present-day expectation in life and at work. This ‘always ready’ mindset will never maximise your potential or anyone else’s. Instead, it will result in poor physical and mental health, low productivity and, ultimately, an unhappy, unfulfilled life. So, what is the alternative? Since the ancient Olympics, those tasked with preparing the athletes to perform were aware that the planning of the training was as vital as the training itself. If an athlete were to train at the same volume and intensity day after day, the result would be injury, illness and, ultimately, poor performance due to burnout. In later years and today, the strategy related to varying the volume and intensity of training is referred to as ‘periodisation’. Whenever I have prepared teams or athletes for competition, including at top levels of competition such as the FIFA World Cup, I have always used a periodisation strategy. This involves first identifying when peak performance is required and then working backwards to divide the preparation into training cycles that vary in volume and intensity. Contrary to popular belief, it is impossible from a physiological and psychological perspective to train at our maximum level day after day. The same principle applies in the workplace and in all aspects of our lives.

A more effective way to manage burnout
The most effective way to manage burnout is to avoid burning out in the first place. Hungarian scientist Hans Selye demonstrated the negative impact of the absence of varying our exposure to physiological and psychological stress with his model that is known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The GAS model has three stages, as illustrated in the diagram below. Selye’s model clearly highlights that we need a recovery period to avoid depleting all our reserves and ending up exhausted or burnt out. Although this concept is well understood in the preparation of athletes, it is not utilised in the corporate world. I would argue that if we managed everyone as an athlete, there would be a decrease in burnout and, therefore, also the time needed to manage burnout. Having worked with elite athletes for over twenty years, I have witnessed first-hand how important it is to periodise the training process. The regular manipulation of training intensity, training volume, rest and recovery is vital to maximising an athlete's performance. There is no benefit in increasing capacity (fitness) if we also increase the noise (fatigue, stress). In more recent years, working with corporations and their workforce, it has become evident that most people are not maximising their performance at work or in any aspect of life, having to manage burnout as a result. I've witnessed people working very hard but struggling to find joy anywhere in their lives. These people are a product of the current life strategy that most of us follow: work long hours during the week and rest on weekends. A further problem with this strategy is that work has also taken over the weekends for many, meaning there is no rest or recovery period. Ultimately the ‘noise’ is overpowering our capacity, and consequently, our performance is suffering. It has become evident that we need a new strategy if we are to make the most of our relatively short time on Earth. Life periodisation could be the strategy we require to prevent burnout, workplace stress, negative wellbeing and the general unhappiness that seems to be clouding our society. How can you apply this in your own life and schedule? Start by identifying when you need to perform at your optimal level during your usual working week. Be specific and prioritise. While you might think you always need to perform at an optimum level, this exercise will highlight that this isn’t actually the case. It might help to break down your week into blocks and highlight the peak performance times. The next step is to divide the working week into periods of low, moderate and intensive work periods, the latter being reserved for peak performance times. Implementing positive recovery practices into each day and maximising your sleep will also enhance the entire outcome. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy for any of us to fall into the habit of pushing ourselves to the point of burnout. While we can manage our burnout when it happens, prevention is always better than the cure. Periodisation is a strategy that involves varying the volume and intensity of effort or output based on when optimal performance is required. Just as a periodisation strategy is effective in keeping elite athletes performing at their peak, it is an equally viable solution to preventing burnout in anyone’s life. In my company, Performance Intelligence Agency (PIA), our mission is to maximise human performance potential. With this mission in mind, all of our Human Performance Coaches are trained in the strategy of life periodisation when working with clients, be it on the sports field, in the boardroom or across entire organisations. I encourage you to try periodisation and see how it works for you over time. Hopefully, it will mean you will never have to manage burnout again because you will avoid facing it in the first place.


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