Restart - Burnout recovery from a patient perspective
Rogier van Kralingen
Wouter: Rogier, super thrilled to do a podcast with you man. I obviously followed your career and read all of your books. You’ve always had a range of activities. Just to name a few about Rogier: Successful marketing consultant. Musician on a mission to make music his lifelong career. Self-taught musician. Regular appearing keynote speaker. You’re a true innovator, from a business point of view. Maybe even a philosopher, if I may say so, just a little bit?
Rogier: Haha, maybe.
Wouter: And taken the themes of your previous books, let’s point it out on marketing. Yes, there’s The Outerweb, but I’d like to pin it on marketing. I thought it would be a good idea to start off with Rogier as the author. You are so good at making big topics very small and conceivable. And I must say, reading this book, I was completely struck by the clarity and compactness of describing such a massive topic as ‘solutions for a burnout’. So maybe we can start with you describing how that huge experience of your burnout became such a clear book. So, what made you write this book? And how did you process this new book?
Rogier: Uhm, well it’s a very simple reason really. I didn’t start to think I was going to write a book about this, at all. It’s just that I found something in my own experience that sort of moved me to start doing it, to start sharing it with other people. And the thing that I found in my experience is that, when suffering a burnout everybody, including the mental health professionals but also your friends and your family and your colleagues, everybody starts to focus on trying to find the causes of your burnout. And trying to solve them. And those causes can be anything for anyone. It’s very personal. There are people who have war traumas, or depression, or their job doesn’t work out, or something happens in their family. And it’s very important that you fix those, or that you learn to try how to live with those, of course. But I found that was only half the story. The other half of the story is really about how you live, and what the triggers are, and how you build up stress, and what kind of person you are in the way you deal with stressful situations or things that put you under pressure. So I kind of found that we’re only telling half the story. Only like focusing on the mental aspect of things and how we should “cure” a burnout. But the other half of the story is that you should actually focus on removing triggers. On learning how you can make your life or your job, or whatever is going on with you, how you can make that much more relaxed. And how you can deal with those things much better. That’s what motivated me to write it. Because I was doing a lot of research and everybody was trying to help me but didn’t necessarily needed help. What I needed was people to understand that sometimes life just throws you a curveball. And that sometimes things don’t really work out the way that you want them to. That you don’t have control over all those things. And that there are a hundred, a thousand things you can do to better cope with that. Instead of diving deep into your psyche and trying getting your worst fears out there. That’s not the only thing that you should do. You should look at your lifestyle, look at how you live and how you experience things.
Wouter: But still obviously the burnout wasn’t a one day fly. For everybody, it’s a long process. Either it takes a year or a couple of years, there’s no precise planning for a burnout and that’s pretty much also the essence of it. At what time did you start writing? When did it become such a compact story?
Rogier: I started writing very late in the process. I had a burnout with huge anxiety disorder. And I was trying to find answers on how to deal with the anxiety and panic attacks, all that kind of stuff. That was sort of when the Eureka moment came. Because people were trying to help me, trying to get to the cause of my anxiety. But there was no cause of my anxiety. What I needed to learn, was that I needed to learn how to sort of breath better. Learn how to belly breath instead of breath from your chest. So there was no psychological cause of my burnout.
Wouter: There was no massive problem?
Rogier: No! I had basically solved all my problems, but I was still suffering from anxiety. And everybody was trying to solve the causes. And that makes you even stressed out more, cause you’re thinking: ’Ohh, I’m never going to get out of this’. And I started researching and I found a lot of things. Like, take a sauna or do tai chi. I myself am a boxer, so start doing more boxing. Do breathing exercises when you’re boxing. That kind of stuff. And then I had that lightbulb going on. Basically saying to me: ‘So ok, everybody is trying to look at the causes. But what you need to do is look at how your body works, and how you’re reacting, how you’re responding, that’s the other half of the story’. And you can do so much to alleviate all the symptoms of a burnout, by focusing on that. And if you’re asking me, that was very late in the process, where I basically solved all the causes of the burnout already. And how I got it so precise and compact (thank you for the compliment) because really I was very driven. I was really extremely driven. I was angry. You know, the mental profession, they're doing a good job, but they're offering you things like the 'Five-Step Program'. Trying to get into the mental stuff. Because that's their profession. But the other half of your burnout is your lifestyle. The other half is: taking care of your body. The other half is: tiny little things that can snap you out of anxiety, instantly. And there's so much of that, so I was angry. I was angry that there weren't a lot of people out there who was telling this story. That anger kinda motivated me to write. And it came out really quickly. It came out very concise.
Wouter: How quickly is quickly?
Rogier: A few months.
Rogier: Yeah. Normally when writing a book it takes longer. It takes longer than a few months. But I was just so motivated. And it just rolled out.
Wouter: You mentioned you did a lot of research. Obviously also to help yourself with the burnout. I can imagine it became somewhat of a comparison research. Like, 'Hey, I'm developing this method in my own head and now I want to test out a little bit of what I see'. What books, blogs, and advice did you come across that surprised you or frustrated you the most?
Rogier: One of the most frustrating things I think is the people, mainly psychologists, who are offering methods and programs. It's BS. There is no method. There is no program.
Wouter: Disclaimer, haha.
Rogier: Yeah, disclaimer, haha. You don't need to cure your burnout. Because it's perfectly natural to be burned out. Sometimes it happens. It's just there is no cure. We need to stop talking about a cure. Or about a method. Or a program. There is sort of a period which I call 'treatment'. In which you, yourself start to examine and find out what works best for you. And the advice I'm giving of course is, don't just focus on the causes and the mental stuff. But really go for the body. Go for walks. Play racketball. You know, go have sex. That kind of stuff. And I think that annoyed me the most. All these people are trying to nail burnout. But burnout is something highly personal. Something happens in your life that makes you go over the edge. And the story I like to tell to everyone is that it's perfectly fine that that happens. It can happen to the best of us. And I have completely recovered, but...ehhh, there is no but. Everyone can recover.
Wouter: Still we cannot glorify solving a process like that.
Wouter: Obviously we are having an epidemic in the Western world.
Wouter: It's huge. In our own country (The Netherlands), it's literally 1.2mln people that have got symptoms of burnout. And obviously, the one is further ahead than the other one. In a previous publication, you stated that people have a need for balance. An increasing need for balance, in the broughtest sense. Can you dig a little deeper into the evolution of that symptom? What do we see happen in society?
Rogier: Well, you're pointing out the strange thing. Because a depression, a burnout, or a mental breakdown, is something that of course has happened before. The real question we need to ask ourselves is, why is it happening so massively right now? And that's because there's a huge amount of extra triggers. That's what I found. I call it noise. There's a huge amount of noise. Things are getting busier. We keep telling each other how to live. There's much more pressure on our jobs. We're connected 24/7. And what happens is that our bodies..... Our minds are saying that's all fine. You know, we're connected and everything is going well..... but our bodies don't know that everything is fine. Our bodies are building up stress hormones. And that's when you get into the situation of a burnout. You just have too much stress in your body. Too much stress hormone. I compare it to meeting a grizzly bear. Your body is basically reacting/responding as if it is seeing a grizzly bear. But the funny thing is that people who live in the woods, who are actually closely living to grizzly bears, don't suffer burnout. Because they don't have that constant noise. That huge amount of signals that are coming towards you. And it's the noise, the extra noise that has been building up the past twenty years, maybe because of the internet and all the apps and things that we have, that makes it such an epidemic.
Wouter: I think I recall a lecture from you years ago where you compared a homo sapiens millions of years ago in his grotto being attacked by this huge tiger thing. And that would be stress, times two, or times ten compared to the stress we are facing in society. But still, that was stress you know, millions of years ago.
Rogier: Yes of course.
Wouter: Do you think... it's a huge one... it's a big one.... but do you think we "society" can tackle burnout?
Rogier: Well, I don't think we need to tackle burnout. Because burnout is normal. And it can happen. It can also happen without all of the noise. If something terrible happens in your life. Or you're in a bad situation, you can get burned out. So I don't think that as a society we need to solve burnout. That is something that you as a person, your personal journey, should be about. But as a society, we do need to start to understand something about ourselves. Our society has the illusion of control. Because of all the technology that is around us. But technology doesn't shape us. What we do with technology, shapes us. Society as a whole has been building up a lot of stress. And stress, like any emotion, is contagious. If people start laughing, it's contagious. If people start crying, it's contagious. And the same thing goes for stress. So if you're constantly in an office environment where people are stressed out. Usually about nothing. Then you get into a situation where you kind of take those emotions in, and you start to feel them too. And I think people are stressed out because we have the illusion of control. We seem to look at a lot of things very functionally. We think that money is something that we can easily control. While making money, and having money, is one of the most emotional things you can image. Because money equals survival. You know, it's basic animal instinct. I try to collect money because then I can buy food. But we kind of rationalize everything. For example, there's now that whole big data thing going on. I cannot tell you how opposed I am to that. People who are selling that, are selling an illusion. The illusion that 'with data, you can control things'. No, we're animals inside. And if you lose that animal in your underbelly, that's the moment you get a burnout. And if you, as a society always think that you can control everything, that everything can be made when you have the right data, that's what we need to solve. Unfortunately, we are living in an era where there is an almost holy belief in what technology and data and information can bring us. And the funny thing is, for a previous book (The Outerweb), I researched this as well and in that, I found that in history there has been a similar period. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, where humankind, the intellectuals, thought that everything was sort of programmable. They had just invented a lot of new stuff, watched the stars, they could navigate the sees and they had started to dissect the human body. And they, without calling it the name robot, they started to rationalize everything and thought: 'If everything in a human body works such and such and such, it means we're kind of like a clock'. You know, you can build it, you can control it. And we are living in an era where people are doing the same thing. Artificial intelligence, robotics. Houses, that we seem to think we can control. Data, that we seem to think we can control. And we're starting to see the cracks in that thinking. Relying on technology. You know, technology is nothing until you make use of it. The way we are using technology right now (for this podcast), is to spread a message of wellbeing. So we are using technology in the way I think we should be using technology.
Wouter: Too bad it still causes a little bit of stress here and there. Haha.
Rogier: Yeah, haha. Of course, it does. But the stress is always inside of you. You know, the big changes in society, in humanity, have been: thinking about democracy, emancipation. Things like that. And sometimes they are technologically driven. It does help to have technology advance certain things. But ultimately it is the way we deal with it, that makes it better.
To top it off. There are two things you see in society right now. That is that there's one group, who is very dominant, that has been living in the illusion of control with technology. And there is another group who is going into the psychology. Things like mindfulness. The advance of yoga. There's a lot of people who are doing that now. And those two groups are clashing, the way that I see it. Because one embraces the fact that you're an animal. Which is by the way what everybody in a burnout should do immediately, stop thinking and start reacting with your gut. And the other group is trying to push a society in which they sort of sell the illusion that you can control everything. And it really is a classic clash between control and letting go. And it happens inside you. And it happens in society at large.
Wouter: So, there we go for the bigger macro society level.
Rogier: Yeah, you wanted the big one, haha.
Wouter: Yeah yeah, I deliberately asked for it. Also to take it a step-down. To take it from the macro. The micro is in the book, obviously. That's where you get the (up to funny) solutions and very practical solutions. From the macro to, for instance, the corporate world. We have this concept of work-life balance. To my option that's just as elusive, (so, difficult to understand) as the burnout itself. Because it's very personal you know. What is your work-life balance? And what is my burnout process for instance? Where do we start corporate wise?
Rogier: I would say, start with the word natural. You're talking about a work-life balance. In working environments, there's a lot of stuff that is unnatural. So you can have the perfect work-life balance, with exactly enough time for the kids, exactly enough time to do sports and exactly enough time to do your work. But you can still end in a burnout. For the very simple reason that I think that the working environments where many of us are operating in, are mostly unnatural. The lighting is often very unnatural. The desk that we sit behind. The hours maybe. You know, maybe you should try waking up with the sun, doing your work, going to bed with the sun and the next morning getting up with the sun again. Instead of saying we're working from nine to five. Solutions like that. So if you're asking me for solutions in more corporate environments, my solution would be, or my suggestion would be, look at the environment. How natural is the environment? Because, that guy that lives next to the grizzly bear in the woods, he doesn't suffer burnout. So, how natural is it?
Wouter: It might be very drastic to change from sunrise to sundown, for instance. Because I was about the say, there's also the other side, which would be the perception of the person itself. But if we go for a drastic solution as starting work when the sun is up during winter time, let's try that for a while first and then see what happens. Yeah, I can hear what you say.
Rogier: No, of course. It might not be the right solution, of course not. The reason I say it is that I want to get people out of their mindset, that the environment, the working hours, the dogmas, the paradigms that you have with work and work-life balance, they might not be the right ones. I think everything should be tested with the word natural. Is this a natural way for me of a group, to do this? And I have found that embracing much more natural practices, things that come much more naturally, have made me a lot more productive. I was forced, of course, to look at that because of the burnout. But if you want to prevent burnouts, that would be my starting point.
Wouter: Let's not make it Utopia, so the sunrise-sundown kind of examples. We still, obviously you know how corporate worlds or organisations work, you know, a change doesn't happen overnight. Let to say it happens over a couple of months. For instance culture, like internal culture, do you think that company culture can prevent a thing as burnout?
Rogier: Oh well, I think the answer is no, unfortunately. Because a burnout is a very personal thing and it can happen to anyone. But I think there is a yes-answer to your question. I think corporate culture can prevent burnout that is caused by work. Not all burnouts are caused by work. But work, and the way that we do that, especially if it's very unnatural if we're sitting on our asses for twelve hours a day. Of course, that doesn't help. That really could be the cause of a burnout. It could be the cause of a lot of stress. And a lot of stuff that makes you less productive. So the answer there is yes. I don't think companies can prevent burnouts perse. But a company can do a lot preventing a burnout, that is related to work.
Wouter: In comes communication. I did a previous podcast with a guy that owns a company that runs vitality programs for organizations. And we basically ended off by saying the question, the honest question of one person to the other asking like 'how are you?'. 'Is everything ok?'. That's basically culture. You know, I'm not saying a fitness room, that's not culture. Culture is an honest question of caring about the other person and being very interested about their wellbeing.
Rogier: Yeah, that's true. I think it's harder in highly competitive environments.
Rogier: The big law firms, the big banks and other places where there's a lot of competition going on. That's when it becomes harder. Because it's not in their natural culture to ask each other how you are doing. So I do think that there are differences per sector.
Wouter: So if the financial world would have a more natural culture, do you think we can solve many more big problems? Or is this too far-fetched? haha
Rogier: Yeah, haha, I get what you're saying. Absolutely! The answer is, yes absolutely. But I think that in those environments you still want to have the competitive edge. So you want to hold on to that. Those cultures and those companies are not going to be open to burnout prevention and burnout solutions. But burnout happens a lot in those environments. And deep depressions, that go even further than burnout, happen there too. So I think they are forced to look at it differently. I think for them, working on the fringes, like looking at working hours or looking at the working environment, kind of the stuff you can do in the details, for them that's even more important than looking at a very relaxed company. I think to work on those details for them, will have sort of a double effect.
Wouter: So ok, there we are. We went down from the society level, down to the corporate level and I would like to take another step back to your personal experience. As you know, I also had my fair share of anxiety, depression, burnout or whatever you want to call it, but the one thing I knew from the very minute it came to the surface, is that it was meant to be. You know, it was me myself and I saying, up to here and no further. So myself basically pushing the restart button, so spot on for the book title. That's exactly how I experienced it as well. So, when the burnout is such a destined thing to happen, how do you see your burnout as your destiny in life? We're going poetic here, but what did it ultimately teach you about the new path you will be following and in what way did your experience of your burnout give you possibly a new meaning of your work?
Rogier: Well, I experienced it as a restart. And just like you, I immediately knew this was meant to be. I think everybody has that. The problem is that the burnout itself is so excruciating. The symbolism that I chose (I'm not doing this to advertise anything), the symbolism that I chose was the butterfly. Because you're in a cocoon. You're not yourself. You have the parts of yourself ready, but you know you're not who you are supposed to be. And going through the burnout is going through that cocoon. It's extremely painful. But in the back of your mind you kind of know you are going to come out, I wouldn't say a totally new person, so the butterfly is maybe a little exaggerated. You do kind of come out a little bit reborn. So you get a stratification factor.
Wouter: Describe. Elaborate on the new you.
Rogier: Oh well, I as a person am very focused. I have now a very good understanding of the flaws of my character. Which means in situations in which people might take advantage of you, or people might push the wrong button with you, I now know that that is going on. So I'm much more relaxed, I'm more productive. I'm entering a very productive part of my life, to be honest. There's music, there are books. There are all kinds of video productions going on. It's kinda crazy. So I am experiencing it now as something very positive. But I do know that when I was in it, it was something very painful. So it's bittersweet I think.
Wouter: Nice. Nicely put. Bittersweet symphony.
Rogier: Like a lot of stuff in life it's bittersweet.
Wouter: Besides the book, that is obviously determined to get across a message. Are you on a bigger mission to let the platform around the book evolve?
Rogier: Well, it's not really a big mission, it's kind of a small mission. The platform, people can leave their own little solutions. I am trying to break a big paradigm and that is, we shouldn't look at this like a cure we shouldn't look at this like a disease, we shouldn't treat it that way. So I'm trying to send a signal to the world of psychology that they are missing the other half. But the other half is kind of small and is supposed to be very personal. I have about, I don't know, thirty-five or thirty-six solutions or something in the book, but I know there are many more out there and I kind of like people to share it with one another. You know, you can leave your solution or what worked for you, you can leave that behind on the forum on the website. And that's not really for me. I know of want people to share their little solutions and to keep it really positive.
Wouter: ou recently started a company with others called ‘The Whole Story’. And I quote: "We at The Whole Story write, film, edit, compose and design cultural, societal and corporate stories. We are a Production Studio, modeled after successful movie studios, which means our focus is on writing and scripting. We build your story according to the principles of storytelling taught to us by famous authors, filmmakers, and composers. When we build your story, we build it to last". In the book, you mentioned you find it important that there’s now a book about burnout, with a story from a patient perspective. And again you mention ‘the whole story’. So, what parallels or similarities are there between the name of your company and ‘your whole patient’s story’?
Rogier: Well, I didn't think of that really in the sense that just as my burnout hit home, everything was just fragmented and going all over the place. Right now, with the company and this book, and a new book coming on how to make stories, it kind of comes back together. I was making both of them apart from one another. But this is now kind of the way I want to do everything. Not just the story about burnout, or how to restart from a burnout, but basically all the stories that I tell. Whether they are music, or whether we do interviews or whether we make a video, I kind of want to show everything bittersweet, because that is what makes stories interesting. And I think it's a really good question you're asking me because the thing that I want to say to all the burnout victims that are out there, or all of those family or friends who are coping with this, is that the whole story of a burnout, is that it's ok to feel very bad. We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded with happiness or what is supposed to be happiness. We don't get a lot of room for the negative emotions. And negative emotions are a very big part of our survival. To feel them is to react to them. Is to do something with them. And that really is the whole story of burnout. Sometimes we don't need to talk about causes or solutions or triggers or whatever, but we just to look at each other and acknowledge that things went south.
Wouter: If we look at the whole story from the business side. So maybe from your company's side. Another trending topic obviously is that of purpose. Either it be personal or professional. How do you define purpose?
Rogier: Well if the purpose of a company is true, if it is heartfelt, that would be my definition of purpose. It has to be true, it has to be heartfelt.
Wouter: That makes it whole? The story itself, not telling it.
Rogier: Well no, that makes it believable. But f you want to make your story whole, then you need to also show the bitterness. Because people don't relate to.... you know... there's this fantastic thing, you have those movie trailers, right? If you would say (you have these movie voices, I'm gonna try to do it, don't pin me down, it's not going to be perfect). But if you would see a movie trailer that said: "In a world (haha)...where life is perfect, and everything is perfect, and your job is perfect, there lives a family whose lives are absolutely perfect, the new movie Everything Is Perfect now in cinemas near you", would you go? The answer is no. What makes a story interesting is the heartship and the things that go wrong. If you're talking about purpose, for companies, for organizations, they often try to sell themselves as if they are making something perfect, that's how a lot of companies present themselves. But in this day and age, where there is so much information coming towards you. So much that you even get burned out, no story like that, no perfect story is ever going to come through. People are just not interested. But if you start telling the story bittersweet, if you, for example, try to become more sustainable, you know, being much more green and better for the environment, if you present that as "I'm the greenest of the green", people are not going to be interested. They're not going to believe you. But if you show them just how tough it is to be really sustainable, to really make it happen, which is extremely hard, and you tell that story, including your failures, including where you screw it up, that's when people are going to relate to you.
Wouter: Well you basically answered one of my next questions, which I thought would be a challenger. I was about to ask you, if you were to make a connection between burnout recovery and the way businesses should behave. Maybe it's a crisis situation but many many of the world's companies need to change. If you were to make a connection between the burnout recovery and how businesses should behave, what is the connection?
Rogier: It's very simple. Tap into your inner grizzly bear. Your business, whatever it is, is always about emotion. Everything is about emotion. And if you connect with your emotions, and you connect with the emotions of the people you are trying to convince of buying something or joining along or clicking the like button, things should be emotionally appealing. And unfortunately, the corporate world is very functional, is very rational. And that's where a lot of mistakes are made. Again that illusion of control. And there's a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff you can save, from all the processes you have in place to control everything, you know, to make the bottom line look better. There is a lot of stuff you can do just out of your underbelly. Decisions you can make, which are quicker, much better, it's quick to your feet, that can save you money, that can save you a huge amount of stress, and that can make you come out, well, as a better grizzly bear really. So that is my message. But that is my message with burnout but also my message with all the work that I do. You know, I don't teach people anything. I basically tell them to stop doing anything. To stop trying to control things, stop trying to be rational about everything, stop trying to make everything functional, and start really feeling. Start really doing things out of your underbelly. And that when you start connecting to people, you start connecting to clients, and you start connecting in the offices, which is a great burnout prevention method.
Wouter: So it doesn't matter if it's about the personal approach or a company approach, it's about the grizzly bear.
Rogier: It's about the grizzly bear! haha.
Wouter: Awesome pitch there! haha. The approach in your book is very exciting. You and I know that burnout is a life-changing opportunity but still is such a big and growing problem and the right tools or solutions are not available to the masses.
Wouter: Good for a lot of people hopefully that the book is here now.
Rogier: I hope so too.
Wouter: I hope many people will know about this book. Big praise to you for writing the book. And putting so perfectly in writing what so many others who recovered from burnout think and most certainly agree upon. I at least can agree upon it. Well yeah, so people who are listening, read it and recommend it to others. It's available on Amazon. It's called Restart - Burnout Recovery from a Patient's Perspective. Please share your thoughts on the special Restart forum. You can find it at, there you go Rogier....
Rogier: It's www.restart-burnout-book.com
Wouter: Cool. Do you maybe have a final question or comment for our audience?
Rogier: Owww, there are so many things I would like to say. Well obviously, tap into your inner grizzly bear. Connect with what you're feeling. And, just go out there. Go for walks, go for talks. Do all the stuff that's physical, that makes you feel alive. Sing. Dance. Make love. Kiss. Cry. Everything that emotional. If you do that, you will feel a lot letter if you are in a burnout. And to all the people who are not in a burnout but still have to deal with it from a company perspective, this message is the same, haha!
Wouter: I agree totally on all of the above and my personal addition to that would be 'Let Go!'. Peel off the onion and find the core that makes you truly happiest and from there evolve again. Then you'll be exactly the same person with even more strength because you're just enjoying whatever you are doing. I will include all the important links in the show notes on www.whaka.media. Thank you again Rogier for writing the book.
Rogier: Thank you!
Wouter: It really is important to keep it hopeful. Thank you for your time. Good luck with getting the word out and thank you man!
Rogier: Cool! Thanks!
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