How talking to a group of strangers on Zoom helped me beat burnout
After burning out at work, freelance consultant Dale Walker turned to journaling and time-management tools to try to change his relationship to his job. But it was a chance invitation to a small group session to talk about meaning at work over Zoom that proved most powerful. After joining over 10 of these sessions, known as Meaning Circles®, Dale now works behind the scenes with MeaningSphere to help make these sessions happen and support other people in finding more meaning in their work.
I’m not much of a sharer. Given the choice between spilling my heart out or keeping my cards close to my chest, I would choose the latter ten times out of ten. This is especially true when it comes to things that are troubling me or that I’m having difficulty with — be it in my personal life or at work. For as long as I can remember, family and friends have often told me things like, “we never know what you’re thinking,” or, “you’re very difficult to read.” Whether it’s my South African, colonial boarding school upbringing that prioritized a “keep calm and carry on” attitude, or just an innate desire for privacy, letting other people know the truth about what I am feeling has always been a challenge. So believe me when I tell you that I was profoundly shocked to find myself spilling the beans (so to speak) to a group of complete strangers in a virtual, small-group experience known as a Meaning Circle.
Soaring high and burning out The truth is that I have occasionally paid a high price for my closed-book attitude. In late 2017, I burned out. And not burned out in the sense of a soothing candle reaching the end of its wick and softly sputtering to a smoky end. What I experienced was more akin to a Formula-1 racing car approaching the final turn of a blistering race only to careen off the track and burst violently into a blaze of acrid smoke. The metaphor is apt because up until the explosive moment I was — for all appearances — a high performer winning the race that was my career. I had a dream job at a hugely influential global organization, doing work that was not only impactful but also that I found deeply enjoyable. Beneath the glossy veneer, however, things weren’t running so smoothly. I could barely sleep because of the stress of an ever-growing to-do list and was wracked by anxiety at the thought of my calendar full of critical meetings. But I told no one. I woke up every morning, put on my smile, and plowed on. Until I couldn’t do it anymore and found myself in tears at the annual office party while a bewildered colleague did what they could to console me. I was immediately put on leave and didn’t return to work for two months. The first thing almost everyone asked when I returned was, “Why didn’t you say that things were so bad?”
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking: Please tell me you learned from that horrible experience and started being more open with people about your state of mind. Well, yes and no. I returned to work at the start of 2018 and armed myself with a range of tools and practices to avoid a repeat occurrence. I paid strict attention to the hours I was working, I set up my email to auto-reply, politely informing senders not to expect an immediate response and I took up bullet journaling to get my to-do list out of my head and onto paper. Old habits die hard, however, and before too long these attempts at restructuring my relationship with my work — valiant though they were — started falling away one by one. By the time the pandemic barrelled into us, I was in a new job, working long days and sleeping fewer hours once again. All of the signs were there that history was ripe to repeat itself and yet, once again, I was the only one who knew. Until an invitation popped into my inbox from a former colleague to join a Meaning Circle — a short, virtual meeting in which a small group of people share and reflect on what they find meaningful in their work. Intrigued, I threw caution to the wind and replied, “Sure, I’d love to see what it’s about!” It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d made in a long time.
A break from the chaos A few weeks later, I clicked on the link to join the Zoom meeting with no idea what to expect. I was greeted on screen by the familiar grid, filled in this case with seven faces of people I’d never seen before, one of whom swiftly welcomed me and introduced herself as Nyla, our host for the Circle. Nyla led us through a quick round of introductions, sharing only our first names and where in the world we were calling in from (at least four different countries!); nothing about our jobs or qualifications or status. This was followed up by a one-minute breathing exercise in which we closed our eyes, calmed down, and disconnected from the madness of the day-to-day; focusing on the present moment and nothing else. Then, after instructing us to open our eyes, Nyla laid out the “ground rules” that govern a Meaning Circle:
Respect the privacy of others.
Listen with attention and express gratitude using non-verbal cues.
Focus on your own thoughts and experiences. Don’t offer any advice or judgment to others.
Speak with intention when you feel you have something to share.
Take the time you need while allowing time for others to share.
Join with an open mind and heart.
We all acknowledged these and Nyla shared the Circle’s focus question: What advice would you give to your younger self about work and why? There would be no order dictated to us and we wouldn’t have to speak if we didn’t feel up to it.
After a brief period of slightly awkward silence (not dissimilar to the quiet of an elevator crowded by strangers) one of my fellow participants bravely offered up, “Well, I’ll go first if no one else wants to.”
Sharing without fear of judgment The 45 minutes that followed were a revelation. One by one, each participant unmuted themselves and offered a brief glimpse into their inner thoughts and feelings. Someone spoke of taking opportunities before they pass you by; another shared that they would encourage their teenage self to prioritize their own wellbeing over meaningless career goals. Some spoke with confident assurance and others with quiet nervousness. Eventually, during another protracted silence, I realized that I was the only person who hadn’t spoken yet.
I had no idea what to say. I’d been so captivated listening to what others had been sharing that I hadn’t given any thought to my own response to the focus question. I spent a few seconds gathering myself before throwing caution to the wind and unmuting my microphone.
“I’d tell myself to ask for help when you really need it.”
The words were out of my mouth before I’d really come to grips with what I was going to share and from there it was like I was on autopilot. I told this group of perfect strangers about my experience a few years prior and though I mentioned some of the remedial actions I put in place upon returning to work, I could hear myself coming back again and again to the thought that I’d felt so alone and unsupported through it all. I wrapped up after four or five minutes of talking and watched as the faces on screen nodded back at me or clasped their hands in thanks.
Now that we’d all shared, our host invited us each to share any particular insights or reflections from what we’d heard or shared during the Circle. Were there any things we’d learned about ourselves or practices we might go away and try to implement? The conversation flowed smoothly now that we’d gotten used to the idea of sharing our thoughts with one another and we each talked about different insights we’d picked up on. Without a doubt, for me it was the firm resolution that there is strength in numbers and that at the very least, no harm would come from reaching out to other people for support when I needed it. Don’t get me wrong, this is something I already knew somewhere in the back of my mind or depth of my heart, but speaking it out loud to six other people that evening solidified it into something tangible that I could grab hold of and do something with.
Building a practice of self-reflection I’ve now attended at least 10 Meaning Circles. Some have been larger groups of about 12 people while in others there have been only four of us. Each has had their own particular focus question nudging you to reflect on different aspects of your work life; be it the importance of relationships, particular rituals you find meaningful (some time in the fresh air each day for me!), or moments when you celebrated small wins.
Each time, without fail, I have been taken by a catharsis of sorts that seems to come from sharing my thoughts and reflections, without fear of judgment or concern that someone is going to offer me some well-intentioned but unsolicited advice. And beyond that, I’ve found that listening to the experiences and reflections of others is both deeply comforting (there’s just something about hearing someone reflect on an experience that you can relate to) and full of useful lessons, whether it be a particular mindset they described adopting during a challenging moment, or a useful tool they tried in order to overcome a predicament.
Self-reflection is an oft-cited practice for understanding yourself better — and for good reason. Being able to look back on your experiences and proactively seek to understand your own actions and responses is a valuable skill if we’re to have any hope of change and improvement. In joining a Meaning Circle roughly once a month I’ve found a mechanism for practicing and strengthening my self-reflective muscle, so to speak, and as an added benefit I get to learn from others as they do the same. That perhaps is the secret sauce of Meaning Circles. Nothing else I’ve tried — be it journaling or meditation — has taken the power of self-reflection and turned it into a shared experience in the way that a Meaning Circle does. It has made a huge difference to my life and it might do the same for you.
Interested in trying out a Meaning Circle? Sign up for one of the upcoming Meaning Circles at meaningsphere.com/events. Each Circle is 60-minutes long and there is no cost to join.