Written by: The Circles Team

July 4, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Cara de Lange, an international burnout expert, speaker, founder and author of Softer Success, empowering some of the world’s leading organizations and their employees to proactively prevent burnout. Cara’s powerful techniques and tips, based on her studies, research, and experimentation, are transforming the lives of thousands of people.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I’m based in London, but I am a bit of a world citizen. I was born in South Africa, was raised in the Netherlands, went to school in Belgium, and then after a time in Australia and New Zealand, I moved to London. I speak multiple languages and worked for international companies in tech, retail, business operations, and admin all over the world. I spent about 11 years at Google. During the years that I was working for big international companies, I was always a bit interested in our human relationships. What is it that’s causing us stress? Why are we always stressed and busy? It wasn’t until my own burnout quite a few years ago, which I never saw coming, that I realized that it’s so easy for this to happen to us, and we often don’t see the pathways. I then realized that I wanted to dedicate my working life to helping people avoid going through the same thing. Helping people prevent burnout, and sharing and creating awareness about it. This led me to write my book, Softer Success, which was published in 2019, with the subtitle of “prevent burnout, find balance and redefine your success.” I talk a lot in the book about what is success for us and why we push ourselves so hard, and what if we can live a successful life but feel peaceful, balanced, and joyful at the same time. So I share techniques on that, and how I’ve managed to do that myself. And then I set up the business, Softer Success, where we help individuals and companies to prevent burnout. We do this by a burnout assessment tool, and we really look at helping businesses revolutionize their wellbeing framework. I believe that it’s a pivotal time right now for people to actually change the way that we do things.

Can you tell me a little bit about Softer Success?

Softer Success is a mental health and wellbeing consultancy. What we mainly do is establish the level of toxicity and burnout risk in organizations through our tool, and then we go in and provide consultancy and training. We have a couple of courses that are really effective that are aimed at preventing burnout, finding balance, and practicing compassionate leadership. We’re not robots, but we’ve learned to react as robots in the working environment, and I’m trying to get people to veer away from that. The consultancy is about helping businesses build and revolutionize their wellbeing framework because we need to do things differently and make the workplace more humane. We work with startups, small tech companies, but also larger businesses. Google is now one of our clients. We also run a podcast called “Work Reset Revolution” which is all about showcasing scientists, doctors, and experts that are at the leading edge of this revolution and changing the way we’re doing things at work.

You mentioned that you had a burnout experience. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that felt like for you? So many people say “I’m burnt out” so lightly, but I don’t think people really know what that means. So what was your experience like?

I think burnout has become a bit of a buzzword that people use. The World Health Organization officially diagnoses burnout as chronic work-related stress that hasn’t been properly managed. Now, I see that all the time, but I often see there are other things that contribute as well. So there’s maybe a lot of stress in the working life, but there may be some personal things going on, and eventually, that bucket gets too full. Now burnout would need symptoms and signs to look out for by the World Health Organization. There’s chronic physical and mental exhaustion, and when I say absolute physical and mental exhaustion, my own example was that I had to take time off work. I always say to people who are functioning in their lives and say, “I’m burned out,” I say, “Well if you were really burnt out, you’d have to be resting right now.” I had to take time off work. The physical point, I remember, was I couldn’t turn the taps for my children’s bath, because my body was just physically exhausted. I struggled with some day-to-day tasks. That’s the real sign of absolute exhaustion. Another sign that came up was the real negativity and cynicism towards the work. This disengagement is a way of us protecting ourselves so you’re not taking on any more. There’s also some science behind that. I was in denial for quite a bit of time and that’s also what I think it’s really important for people to realize. You either get people that say, “I’m burnt out, I can’t,” but then they continue, or people that are heading towards the burnout and are saying “I’m just exhausted because of this or that and it will be fine” even though your body is giving you some significant warning signs. My signs were that I had a really bad neck and back, I had insomnia, and my hormones went really haywire. Those were all signs that I would’ve acted on but I didn’t realize. I remember going into work one morning and got a takeaway coffee and feeling quite unwell after having had the coffee because my cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone, was already so high that when I had that coffee my body kind of went into a sort of “what are you doing to me” and I started shaking. It was too much, it put too much stress on my body. I did remember thinking there’s something wrong here, maybe I’ll switch to decaf, but I went on again. Then anxiety came up as well and at one point I went to the doctor who said “you can either take some time off or we’ll work out a schedule to work a little bit less” and I took the time off which I think I did really need. It was then that I just realized the enormity of how far I’d pushed myself. One of the big lessons I learned was to be a bit more gentle with myself and take a step back. That was the kickstart to my recovery. Now I am able to help other people in the same situation. For instance, a few months ago, a lovely lady had returned back to work after having had a baby. Within weeks of being back at work, she was already struggling. I helped coach her through this and now she’s got a really nice place where she’s comfortable with the work that she’s doing. That’s what I want to be for people.

You mentioned that when you were experiencing burnout, you were initially in denial. That reminded me of the five stages of grief, with denial being the first one. Does burnout work in a similar way? Do you see that there are stages to burnout?

Burnout can take months, years even to build up. There are usually some unhealthy patterns that we determine. If somebody is chronically overworking that is one that you can adjust probably more easily, but if you’re finding it hard to concentrate, or there’s the desk creativity, or there is this negativity or cynicism, that’s when your body’s going into this protective mode, and we got to be really careful. I’d say that that’s one of the stages that you got to watch out for. We use this burnout curve to identify where people are in the curve to help reverse them back to get to a point of flow. What you don’t want to get is that ongoing exhaustion and negativity because then it’s very easy to get to burnout. I wouldn’t say that denial is this part of the process for everybody. It’s very, very different. Some people are like that, and other people are not so I like to look at the individual.

Yeah, for sure. Everybody is different. This might be a very reductive question, but how much is involved in terms of the mental and the physical when it comes to burnout? What’s the interplay of those two aspects when it comes to burnout?

Well, I like to say three aspects actually. The mind, body and soul, and they’re all interrelated. For someone who’s working a lot, there could also be things nibbling away at your soul that have not been let go of or not being processed. They have a lot of pressure and a lot going on in their personal life, so these things all sit together. It could be that if they had just been working hard on their own, they may be all right, but sometimes when these other things are added, it just builds up the risk of burnout.

There’s this famous quote, “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” So let’s say someone is working 15 hour days but they love what they do, can that person still get burnout?

Yeah, that burnout can still happen that way. What I think the good thing is there is you can tweak some things more easily to reverse the curve and the risk of burnout. It’s important that we want to find that meaning and enjoy our work. For me, for example, I love my job, but there are also things about it that I don’t like, let’s be real. What I do is I just make sure that I find joy, I have been planning some joy every day. You can’t really necessarily plan joy, it’s more spontaneous, but I do actually have these moments. This morning, I was doing a session, and then I kept half an hour free to go for a mindful walk. I make sure that I have these little things throughout the day so even for somebody that’s working 15 hours to plan the night before, where your little breaks are going to be, even if it’s two minutes, helps that person get through those 15 hours in a more balanced way and in a more mindful way. Even those micro wellness breaks can make a difference.

You mentioned earlier in our conversation about the fatigue following the pandemic. Can you discuss a little bit more about how the pandemic and being at home has actually increased burnout?

University of California Irvine and Imperial College London have been doing some research on the effects of the anxiety that we felt around the pandemic and they found that it’s causing more tiredness and memory loss. This has taken a big toll. What I encourage people to do is take even better care of themselves than ever before. I had one client that said, “I find everything so noisy.” Yeah, it’s because we’ve been working in isolation for quite a time. So really take it slow, and give yourself that time to adjust. If that’s months, that’s months. Don’t rush into everything again just because we can. Otherwise, there can be potential burnout risks, and that’s what we want to avoid.

Absolutely. That’s why this time is being called a “new normal” because it’s not the normal we were used to. On that note, we mentioned that burnout is different from person to person, but what are the most common signs of burnout?

I’ve got a few questions that people can ask themselves that we’ve established to show the signs of risk:

Do you feel exhausted all the time?

Do you feel a strong aversion towards your job?

Have you been stressed for a long period of time?

Are you less productive?

Do you find it hard to concentrate?

If they all come back with “yes” they need to be taking a step back and giving themselves some rest. We have a burnout tracker tool, actually, we call it a burnout scorecard, which is really helpful and scientifically backed. And that’s the kind of thing that people could use to check.

Amazing. Last question: can you tell us about your Circle and what people can expect?

I’ve called it “Healing from pandemic burnout and fatigue” because I think it’s very apt. I want to help people that are really struggling and feeling quite overwhelmed at the moment with an approach that’s going to share techniques to help soothe them a bit and help them recover. It’s about showing what burnout actually is and ways to find balance as we go forward. There will also be space for sharing knowledge as I want to give people the chance to share their experiences as well. The goal is that people leave feeling balanced and calm, and with an understanding of burnout so they can make the right choices.