Awareness! The smaller the burnout, the quicker the recovery. If you are having a bad day where you can’t focus — STOP. Consider how much sleep you’ve had, how much stress you’ve shouldered, and what other exogenous factors are effecting your focus. Maybe the kids are sick, maybe you haven’t had enough leisure time with your friends or your partner. No reason is too small, and it’s always okay to ask for help and to say no to the things you can’t take on. Recognize that your capacity can change day to day, and that your team expects you to help them help you when they can.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Milburn. Tara is the Founder of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company that helps corporate leaders embody their corporate culture through their actions and their products. A certified B-Corporation, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability.
Authority Magazine: Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Tara Milburn: I’ve considered myself extremely lucky for as long as I can remember. I was born and raised in Montreal. My mother was a nurse, and she stopped working once my brother and I were adopted. My father was an entrepreneur who was born in extreme poverty in Ireland in the 1920’s and 30’s. Both of my parents were completely devoted to our family. They were older
than my friends’ parents, cooler than a lot of the adults I remember, and always 100% supportive of our endeavors. My father put himself through night school, graduating in his 40s with a hard-earned Bachelor's degree. He went bankrupt in the his 50s, and persisted through that challenge with more resilience and creativity than I could've imagined. My parents really embodied hard work and resilience; their example has been a part of everything I've done since.
AM: What or who inspired you to pursue your career?
TM: I was very good in science when I was in school. Because of my performance in physics and math, everyone was encouraging me to pursue engineering or medicine. I couldn't imagine myself in either profession, but I always felt draws to the business world. In that direction, I saw a puzzle I wanted to solve. Very early in my exposure to the business industry, I realized that I didn't really love how companies were run. There were very few women in positions of power, and there seemed to be an obvious disparity between those doing the work and those making the decisions (and making the money). Many 'normal' areas seemed broken to me. I've always wanted to start my own business to address those systemic issues. That insight was the beginning of my drive to create a different kind of business.
AM: None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today?
TM: My father was my biggest cheerleader! I remember when I was completing my business degree he would fax me job postings like “CEO of IBM”. He believed I could be anything I set my mind to, and it was hard not to be affected by his courage and enthusiasm. He started me on the ‘think big’ theme that’s characterized a lot of my career path.
At the same time, my mother’s complete support of my father’s entrepreneurial pursuits (including the shortfalls) taught me that nobody can do it alone. Her unwavering support was no small part of my father’s eventual success, and that was an equally important lesson I’ve carried with me.
AM: Can you share your favorite life lesson quote? Why does that resonate with you so much?
TM: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” ― Maya Angelou
Learning is a lifelong pursuit. But let’s not be immobilized because we don’t know all the answers. When the world feels polarized, people can feel a real pressure to erase their past if it isn’t perfect according to today’s standards. I am a firm believer that the act of doing is the best education — and it’s better without the expectation that we’ll always get it right the first time!
AM: What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
TM: Building Ethical Swag is extremely exciting! I have been taking notes and contemplating the art of entrepreneurship for over 20 years. Now I am finally implementing my ideas, and there are a lot of them!
There are so many people that think I am running a promotional products company but that is not what we are doing. Ethical Swag is a vehicle to reconsider and redefine success in business. We are focused on change: change for how employees show up to work, change for how we treat each other daily, change for how we define success in for-profit businesses.
Sustainability has a broad definition within Ethical Swag. It applies to the support of our staff, the implications of our actions, and the larger meaning of our work. It’s a part of every decision we make, from how we start a meeting, to who we choose to work with across our supply chain, and how those actions affect both our people and our planet.
AM: Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
TM: I like to call them my three P’s:
- Positive attitude: I am predisposed to view things from a positive perspective. I see opportunities, not problems as a general rule of thumb. While we can’t know for sure what instills those kinds of principles in us, I think my father’s entrepreneurial journey was a tangible lesson. In the harder moments of his pursuit, I saw that he only saw a growing list of opportunities, not a growing list of road blocks. I understood that outlook as a big part of his success, and as I strive to emulate it, I have to believe it’s played a similar role in my own.
- Persistence: In general I have the patience to keep up with something until I figure it out or find a way to move things forward. It is so easy to get discouraged when things are stagnant, or moving in the wrong direction. A key difference between those who accomplish things and others that don’t is the proclivity to jump ship or stay through the stormy seas. Those who accomplish always pick the latter!
- Perspective: I tend to view things differently than others. When I was a kid, my mother went to parent/teacher night and student artwork was hanging on the walls. All of the kids in the class had drawn portraits of their classmates — faces with bright eyes and big smiles with squiggly lines for hair. My mother tells the story that when she walked around the room, looking at the pictures hanging on the walls, she spotted mine before she read the name in the bottom right corner. She came home and asked why I had drawn it like that. I explained that the teacher had asked us to draw the person sitting in front of us. That was over 45 years ago and my mother has kept the picture all these years because she said it sums me up quite nicely!
AM: For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
TM: It’s with a sigh of relief and a lot of gratitude that I say I’ve not personally experienced a major burnout in my career. But I’ve witnessed close colleagues, leaders, and peers who have had an incredibly challenging time encountering it and working through it.
For a long time, I thought burnout was synonymous with corporate success; the two seemed to go hand in hand. But I have been working in the corporate world for over 30 years, and I wouldn’t trade the balance I’ve found for any extra inch of that kind of success. I chose a different path from the beginning.
It’s been really transformative that in recent years, successful people who have encountered a burnout crisis have opened up and offered their story to help other professionals avoid doing the same. Experience might be the best teacher, but I think people now have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, and to take proactive action to their own emotional and mental health, wherever they are on their career paths, and however they understand success.
AM: Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”?
TM: While I have never reached a breaking point from burnout, I have definitely had periods where the threat of a burnout felt like it was following closely throughout my workday. I know somerthing needs to change when I lack focus and joy, and I take that responsibility very seriously when those feelings persist over time. When everything becomes a chore, then it is time to take a break!
AM: How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
TM: Focus, engagement, and excitement are some of the signs within the workday that burnout has been effectively staved off. But it's also important to consider the rest of the hours that aren't spent working. For me, feeling a deep satisfaction and a peace in simple, sometimes tivial events - like driving somewhere, cleaning the bathroom, listening to family as they share their stories from the day - is a big green light that I've struck a sustainable balance. That's my favorite place from which to exist, both inside of and outside of work.
AM: This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some skeptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
TM: I do feel that we need to rethink our understanding of mental health and wellbeing. A simple ‘lack’ of burnout doesn’t mean that the right balance has been struck. Not only is it possible for work-life activities to add meaning, joy, and fulfillment to the rest of someone’s life, I think it should be expected.
In recent years, I have consistently witnessed my friends and family crash as we move into our 50s. If each case of burnout is traced back, it seems that there were ‘minor annoyances’ that signaled burnout many years prior. Those annoyances compounded as they built their careers, their families, and their own personal lives. Now, when it should be time to enjoy the benefits of all that great work and constant drive, they have a breakdown that steals that time and enjoyment from them. Worse, many of them are suffering in silence because their public persona is a successful human, a professional conquering the world! It is heartbreaking, and it should be on the top of our list of things to change. I have made different decisions throughout my career that could have been viewed as lack of ambition. But I’ve found this pace to be a pillar of my long-term happiness and my steady success. I offer my story to people at any stage of their career that share that aim.
AM: From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
TM: From my experience, if we ignore how we feel we are in trouble. If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. Business is too often worn like a constant badge of honor. The notion of not having the time to stop or slow down feeds our need to feel wanted and useful, but that source of energy is non-renewable; it drains us until our mental and emotional battery can’t be recharged. And when we are not operating at our best, we make bad choices.
Those bad choices might seem small, but overtime they can lead to broken relationships, lost careers, mental breakdowns, and improper corporate practices that are passed down, putting others in the same position. While the problem can feel daunting, it’s also worth noting that small positive changes have the same compounding effect; when one person makes a chance, they invite the people around them to do the same, and to become a part of a larger solution that can be shared, enjoyed, and normalized.
AM: Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you get your mojo back? Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
TM: #1 — Awareness! The smaller the burnout, the quicker the recovery. If you are having a bad day where you can’t focus — STOP. Consider how much sleep you’ve had, how much stress you’ve shouldered, and what other exogenous factors are effecting your focus. Maybe the kids are sick, maybe you haven’t had enough leisure time with your friends or your partner. No reason is too small, and it’s always okay to ask for help and to say no to the things you can’t take on. Recognize that your capacity can change day to day, and that your team expects you to help them help you when they can.
#2 — Don’t be a victim: The number of times I have heard ‘I have no choice’ makes me more and more sure that something really needs to change within the norms of our corporate culture. I have found in my career that we make assumptions that are not always accurate. The best way to avoid slipping into the victim mindset is to set boundaries, share them, and keep them.
In 1997, I resigned from my job when my first born was just 6 months old. I worked in sports and entertainment which meant evenings and weekends. I didn’t feel that would be good for our family. Within 2 months, I was asked to lead the marketing and communications for Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. That was very professionally exciting, but it was personally misaligned. I said no. When asked why, I explained that I was looking for balance between my young family and my career. To my surprise, I was asked what I was willing to do. I suggested a 3-day work week and a full time assistant. They said yes! I was lucky, and it’s not always the case that people will be able to receive exactly what they ask for in those moments. But it’s truly impossible that they’ll receive that kind of support if they don’t ask.
#3 — Choose happiness. We do have choices. There is plenty of research to support the fact that happiness is a choice we make every day.
In 1991, I was working a temporary job at the Ministry of Social Services and Housing. I was staffing the front desk. Our job was to support those on social assistance. It was very difficult sometimes; I worked in some of Canada’s poorest postal codes.
One day a colleague of mine (she would have been about 28 years old) asked me why I smile so much. I thought about this and said, “Because I am happy”. I will never forget her response: “You will get over it”. It was disorienting to me that someone so young could have accepted that kind of baseline unhappiness. When I asked her about her response, she said she hated her job. When I suggested she find a new one, she said the pension was too good working for the government. She was over 20 years from retirement! I think if more people understood the choice they had in their own happiness, less people would be willing to put it off. It’s my sincere hope that that colleague has since changed her mind!
#4 Be honest about how you feel. A common piece of advice we get is to fake it until we make it. Call me old fashioned, but there is a whole lot of fake these days. The more we have the courage to be honest about how we feel, the faster we will respond to feelings of burnout (see #1 above).
I have a friend who was really hitting his stride. He had a successful career, lots of friends, plenty of money, a supportive and loving family. In February of 2020 he was fired. Totally blindsided, he questioned everything. He went into a deep depression and had a very hard time finding his way. I checked in with him regularly, we had long chats. We talked about life, family, everything. He realized that there were real problems in his life before February of 2020 that needed to be addressed. But he ignored the warning signs because by all traditional metrics, ‘life was perfect.’ Hindsight made him realize that the path he was on was not sustainable. Losing his job became an opportunity to create a more personally ‘perfect’ reality for himself and for his family.
#5 Don’t forget the Karma Jar! When you are doing well, make deposits into your karma jar.
Life and success is never a straight line. I prefer the roller coaster over the merry-go-round. With the highs come some inevitable and corresponding lows. Those lows are much easier to bear when you can pull a few earned credits from your Karma Jar, so make sure you add to it when you are not in need.
When I came up with the idea for Ethical Swag in 2009, I had 3 young kids, a full time corporate job and my parents were living in Montreal (20 hours away) when, one day, their house burnt down.
The following year was chaos! Meeting the needs of elderly, homeless parents that lived far away, while juggling a career and 3 small children meant that I needed to put Ethical Swag on the back burner. I committed to doing the minimum that year — I incorporated the business and secured the URLs. I allowed myself the time to focus on what was most important at the time, my family.
In the end, going slow was actually exactly what was needed for Ethical Swag. I had made deposits in my Karma Jar so we weathered 2010 very well, all things considered. And more importantly, committing to small and actionable steps allowed me to keep burn out at bay and achieve what was most important to me: being present for my family.
AM: What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
TM: Leave judgement at the door and be there consistently! Comments that diminish other people’s suffering, or write it off from a lack of understanding around its source, are helpful neither to the person suffering nor the person listening. Real concern and respect is best exercised by checking in regularly, committing to listening and trying to understand (and not deny) the experience the person is having. Sometimes, listening successfully is far more helpful than offering even the best-intentioned advice.
AM: What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
TM: Set boundaries and commit to upholding them. At Ethical Swag, we have team members that are so incredibly committed to our mission that they won't take time when they need it. While that commitment comes from a good place, it isn't good for them or for the company.
It's also important that as magers, we can accept criticism with openness and without reprimand, conscious, or otherwise. I've come to realize that sometimes my actions exemplify a pace or approach that sets unrealistic expectations for the rest of my team. I need to be reminded that what works for me doesn't necessarily work for others. My responsibility as a manager is to create an environment where staff feel safe to call me out and put me in my place! We do that by keeping our larger goals in mind, and understanding that bumps along the way - even when they feel like personal critiques - are a small price to pay for the kind of sucess we might see.
AM: These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
TM: We need to create environments where employees can show up to work as themselves. When I started my career, the industry ‘normal’ was to compartmentalize our lives between home and work. There is a blurring that is happening, accelerated by COVID, that I think is healthy.
One strategy is to implement a practice of trust and control with your employees. If we approach individuals on the basis of trust, and bet on their capacity rather than their incapacity — that they are reliable and self-motivated rather than untrustworthy — that baseline assumption creates a safe environment for employees to ask for help, step back if needed, and perform at the top of their capacities. If you assume the best, that’s often what people will show you.
AM: What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
TM: I have seen that you can’t use the same strategies that lead to burn out to get you out of it!! The key is patience!! It won’t happen immediately. The burnout didn’t happen overnight, it resulted from a long run of habits that weren’t serving the person, but were instead serving the work. It’s unrealistic to expect a full recovery to come with the dawn of that realization.
A series of small steps, exercised consistently, will go much farther in recovering a sense of personal trust than any strategy that’s meant to rush the process. We need to create space and allow time, with support, to heal — to reverse those habits and show up for ourselves over and over until we cement that as our new personal ‘normal’ moving forward.
AM: If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
TM: I would like to see us redefine what success looks like in business. Rather than shareholder value as the only measure of success, I would like to see us consider the well-being of employees and our impact on others as having equal weight.
We approach business like a machine. After many years of experimentation, we’ve learned real lessons in why that approach quite literally can’t coexist with a healthy human element. If we consider a corporation as an ecosystem, which it no doubt is, then the human side would be much more evident as a non-negotiable.
Corporations can make significant impacts with their income beyond paying dividends. If we redefine what success looks like, paying higher wages and investing in sustainable practices will increase benefits for far more people and our planet. That would be a more accurate understanding of the holistic sense of a business. Countless studies show that this is also a profitable practice; overall profits increase when employees are treated in a way that makes them more engaged and more present. But the intention comes first: business can’t come at the expense of the people behind it.
AM: Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
TM: I would love to have lunch with P!NK. She rocks, literally. I love her music, love her attitude and love her “don’t give a $#%^” factor. She is for art and music what we need more of in business!
AM: Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Originally published on Authority Magazine
Author: Authority Magazine
Disclaimer: This article is being reproduced in its entirety on our website because we have being interviewed, quoted, or mentioned. Ethical Swag is not the author or proprietor of this content.