HOW TO DEAL WITH DIVE PRO BURNOUT
I used to think that burnout was just a phrase to help you articulate your feelings of tiredness to those around you. When I said "Oh, I'm just burnt out" I was trying to tell people I was feeling overly tired and not at my best.
When I actually did some research into it a few years back, I found out that burnout is a very real illness that affects both your physical and mental health.
I find myself burnt out at least once a year. I've been practicing ways to avoid it for a long time and the frequency and severity of each bout is definitely getting less! I'm convinced it would be worse had I never took the time to understand it.
I wanted to share what it's like, why it's really important to recognise it if you're a Divemaster or Instructor and some ways that I've learnt to cope with it. Hopefully it will help you to avoid dive pro burnout too.
WHAT IS DIVE PRO BURNOUT?
A quick google search shows there's LOADS of resources about burnout generally, but not much that's specifically about dive pro burnout.
Dive pro burnout is not just about being bored in your job or diving the same sites repeatedly.
Dive pro burnout is caused by long-term stress, working physically hard for extended periods, finding yourself in emotionally draining situations too often or a combination of all three.
Common signs of dive pro burnout include:
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached/alone in the world
- Having a cynical/negative outlook
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Not wanting to go to work in the morning
- Wishing you didn't have to go in the water
- Pushing away your team
- Struggling to make decisions
- Making mistakes more often
MY EXPERIENCES OF DIVE PRO BURNOUT
My first tangles with burnout started way before I was a dive pro. I've battled against depression since I was in my teens and I've always been my own worst enemy - putting pressure on myself to do the best I can in whatever I turn my hand to.
This started with exam stress when I was a youngun (no one ever pressurised me to get good grades, just me), followed me through to university (I was the one gunning for the first class honours, choosing challenging designs for my degree), into my career as a secondary school teacher (working weekends and school holidays to create new projects for the kids and making my classroom look amazing).
I'm the only one who's ever held myself to such high standards.
When I became a dive pro I was 110% committed to being the best I could be. I left teaching and worked in dive centres in Malaysia, jumping through promotions until I was managing one of the biggest centres in the country. I worked easily 90+ hours a week for 10 months of the year with rarely a day off.
I've been on and off anti-depressants since I was at uni to help cope, but looking back on it, I don't think I was depressed... I was burnt out! I just didn't realise that burnout was a real illness rather than just a feeling.
WHAT MY DIVE PRO BURNOUT LOOKED LIKE AS A DM/INSTRUCTOR
As a newbie dive pro, I was full of energy and enthusiasm. I also had youth on my side, which meant that I managed to sustain working full throttle for quite a long time. Yes, I felt tired but I was enjoying being on a tropical island, diving new places and having too much fun to really hit full burnout. More often than not, I was on my game and alert.
Early in my dive pro career as a DM and junior Instructor, I didn't really have much responsibility. I'd turn up to work, do the dives and chill in the evenings. There were even odd weeks where there was hardly any work to be done - especially outside the summer season. I didn't realise it, but I did have quite a lot of downtime in the days before I was a manager. I always look for work - little jobs here and there, I'm definitely not a slacker. Pottering around cleaning and fixing stuff isn't stressful.
This downtime helped me keep on top of my physical and mental health even though I wasn't aware of it. I had enough rest to let myself recover from the manual labour of diving and the emotional commitment of customer service and teamwork.
When I was managing, I saw dive pro burnout in the DMs and Instructors working with me. Looking back I feel like kicking myself because I didn't realise what it was.
As an inexperienced manager, I saw team members who weren't pulling their weight around the centre, who regularly showed up late for work and who often called in sick.
I'm sure you can imagine how I dealt with this... stern words and bollockings. In hindsight I made their burnout even worse, adding pressure to perform on top of their mental and physical fatigue.
My teammates showed low mood, and were sometimes visibly upset. I watched them slide from outgoing personalities into solitary room dwellers, hiding from the overwhelm of the busy dive centre and customers. I chalked it up to too many nights on the piss and burning the candle at both ends. I mean, that behaviour wouldn't have helped their situation, but neither did the way I dealt with things.
WHAT MY DIVE PRO BURNOUT LOOKED LIKE AS A DIVE CENTRE MANAGER
When I stepped up to become the manager of the dive centre I was working at, I started a slippery slope to regular burnout.
I took the whole weight of the centre on my shoulders. And guess what? No one asked me to do that! I put that pressure on myself. I wanted to learn everything, do everything to the best of my ability and prove that I could be a good manager. In hindsight, I was a very good operations manager (I'm really good at scheduling and firefighting problems), but an extremely poor manager of people.
As I took more and more responsibility on myself, I was battling back overwhelm. I worked 8.00am till after 10pm regularly for weeks on end to make sure everything ran smoothly. I couldn't see the wood for the trees as I worked in every department - teaching, customer service, scheduling, planning, loading boats, filling tanks, oh and there was a hotel to take care of as well!
I drank way too much. It was a false coping strategy that unfortunately still lingers to some extent. It would get to 5pm every night and I'd start on the rum because I knew I still had another 3 or 4 hours of work to do and the rum made it go quicker.
I was physically and mentally exhausted. I managed to keep on top of the day-to-day but only with James' help. I've been extremely lucky to work with him throughout my whole diving career. He's always been there to support me, he understands why I do things the way I do and always gives 110% to get me to where I want to be.
Although the dive centre was running smoothly (most of the time), I really let my team down because of the overwhelm. I got easily frustrated with them, berated them for what I saw as "silly" mistakes, and didn't help them achieve their own goals - I really should have taken a leaf out of James' book,
Eventually I got pulled by my bosses. They said they were sick of me neglecting the team and that I should give up some responsibility so there was bandwidth to work on that.
In my head I was screaming "DON'T YOU KNOW I'M DOING ALL THIS FOR YOU?!" My warped view of course - no one asked me to do EVERYTHING. I felt like I was being punished for working my hardest. I was so defensive, nothing of what they said could penetrate. I was sobbing. I was angry.
They took some tasks away from me, which only now do I realise saved me from myself. If I'd been left to continue down that path, I would have crashed and burned completely. It's only recently that I've realised how important their intervention was and I've never thanked them for it. If you're reading this Ben and Martin - awak sangat pandai. Terima kasih!
WHAT MY DIVE PRO BURNOUT LOOKS LIKE AS A DIVE CENTRE OWNER
In 2016 I left Malaysia to set up The Fifth Point with James. As you can imagine, I've poured my heart and soul into the project. I wanted it to be the best it could possibly be (and still do!) Dive pro burnout was inevitable setting this place up - after all, there were only two of us to do everything for the first few years.
I've only recently understood the ins and outs of dive pro burnout. During the first 3 years at The Fifth Point, I carried over all my bad habits from Malaysia. Working crazy hours, grafting in every area of the business, drinking too much... there was such a fine line between the novelty of the situation giving me bouts of enthusiastic energy and the stress of having the buck stop with me (and James) causing burnout that I flip-flopped between being OK and not OK regularly.
In some respects, COVID lockdowns might have been the best thing to happen to me. They forced me to stop and step back. They gave me the time to rest and also reflect on my mental and physical health.
I looked into coping strategies for dive pro burnout (there's a whole section on this below) and while I'm still not immune from crashes, I can recognise when it's coming and do something to make it less of an issue.
If I don't nip it in the bud, then I'm like a zombie:
- I can't concentrate on anything - want to watch something on tv? I'll be looking at cat videos online instead.
- I can't make even the tiniest decisions - what do I want for tea? You'll have to choose for me.
- The simplest tasks are overwhelming - sometimes I can't even leave the house to take the dogs for a walk.
If I'm a zombie in my personal life, how the hell am I supposed to cope at work? And this is the whole reason I wrote this blog. You must recognise burnout and do something about it because other than the massively negative impact it has on you personally, dive pro burnout leads to mistakes at work, and we can't afford to let that happen.
THE TRUE RISK OF DIVE PRO BURNOUT
Dive pro burnout is a massive issue in the diving industry for a number of reasons...
- The culture of diving and partying leading to burning the candle at both ends
- The prevalence of commission-based wages - the more you work, the more you make
- The relatively low wages available - you're forced to work more to make enough money
- The constant pressure to make diving commercially viable which forces dive centres to do things like reducing the number of days for a training course or increasing group numbers and increasing the stress and workload for dive pros
- The high churn rate of dive pros - there's always someone waiting to take your place if you're not performing as the dive centre expects you to
- A lack of psychological safety in dive centres and teams makes it incredibly difficult to speak up and say that you're struggling
Dive pro burnout feels awful. All the love you have for diving is leeched from the activity. You don't want to go in the water. You don't want to go to work.
But it's our job, so we show up. Exhausted and miserable.
If diving was an office job, we could probably hide our burnout. We could keep our heads down and ride it out, hopefully trying to grab some rest here and there on a slow day or a weekend to make it go away.
Unfortunately, there's nowhere to hide when you're a DM or Instructor. You're customer-facing. You have to teach and entertain. You have to take people into harsh environments. If you're not on your game, shit could hit the fan.
I've done countless dives on the verge of burnout because there was never the option for me as the dive pro to pull the plug. If I could ignore all the pressures listed above, it boils down to a very simple decision. Refuse to dive vs dive and risk something going wrong.
If you make a mistake, people could die. You could die. When you're burnt out, the simple answer is to not dive.
But in reality, it's just not that simple. When the threat of judgement, losing income, losing your job, upset customers, and angry dive centre owners is hanging over your head... the decision is based on so much more and we rarely, if ever choose to not dive.
As a dive pro, you must realise that even when you are at 100%, you will still make mistakes. I guarantee it. We're human, it's going to happen. You also need to understand that if you're heading towards dive pro burnout, the likelihood of making a mistake will inevitably increase. You're making the decision to dive and risk something going wrong while at the same time increasing the odds of the mistake happening.
If you're interested in learning how dive pros make mistakes, I urge you to fall down the rabbit hole that is Human Factors in Diving. Here's a good blog post to start with that explores how when a mistake happens, there's rarely only one thing we can blame - there's a whole sequence of "things" that on their own, probably wouldn't cause an issue but on one fateful day they might line up and an accident happens. As you're reading it, think about how dive pro burnout fits into the picture.
When we're facing dive pro burnout, we need to take a stand against all the pressures that we face and say "I don't want to dive".
Any diver can thumb a dive for any reason. Easier said than done though, right?
In the next section, I've outlined some ways that you can deal with dive pro burnout to try and minimise its impact. I've also listed some resources that can help break down the industry-level problems we have, and if you can implement some ideas at your dive centre you'll be well on your way to managing the effects of burnout in your team.
HOW TO DEAL WITH DIVE PRO BURNOUT
To deal with dive pro burnout, you need to come at it from lots of different angles. It's not just about fixing things at work, to keep it at bay long term, you need to look at your lifestyle too.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR GENERAL HEALTH
Keep physically active. As dive pros, we do need to have a certain level of fitness to do our jobs, but exercise also helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It doesn't mean you have to hit the gym every day, building in time to your day to take a walk is a great stress buster. One of my team, Laura is a clinical psychologist by day and PADI Master Instructor by night. When I was struggling to process some stuff, she told me that a good walk can do wonders. If you just let your worries flit in and out of your mind as you're walking along, your brain actually starts to file stuff away and make sense of everything. (Check out her stuff on diver psychology at Fit-To-Dive).
When I'm on the verge of burnout, I prioritise exercise over everything else. I'll dump a non-essential task at work and get outside instead.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Not easy I know. I often struggle to eat well in busy times at work. When I'm too tired and home late, there's no way I can cook myself something healthy. I'm pretty sure James and I keep the pizza place round the corner in business in the summer! Having a little back-up stash of nice meals in the freezer can definitely help avoid too many orders on Just Eat.
Drink alcohol in moderation. I used to joke that being a borderline alcoholic was a pre-requisite to becoming a dive pro. There's such a culture of drinking and partying in the diving industry - especially in holiday destinations. A heavy night of drinking impairs our abilities the morning after. The dehydrating effects of a hangover can also leave us more susceptible to DCS. Long-term, late nights, early mornings and the depressant effects of alcohol will steepen the slope to dive pro burnout.
Sleep well. Problems with sleep can affect how you feel physically and mentally - on the flip side, how we feel can also affect our sleep. Having a good routine can help you get better sleep and I've found that one of the best things for me is to keep off my phone before bed and stay off the booze.
Reach out. If things get too much, there is professional help available. Fit-To-Dive specialises in therapy for divers who are struggling with lots of different aspects of their careers. From helping you deal with a huge trauma you've experienced to implementing strategies for dive pro burnout, Laura can help you take care of your mental health.
MAKE CHANGES AT WORK
Take your breaks. Make sure you're planning in enough time to get your food, have a cuppa, chat to friends - whatever you need to do for a little rest, make sure it's in your schedule.
Also make sure that you take days off. Our industry isn't like most others - we don't have weekends, bank holidays, or regular evening downtimes. If your contract is anything like mine was in Malaysia, you probably don't have many days off to take. I had 4 a month, but even then I worked most of them. Look at what's available to you and try to pre-empt your fatigue so you can plan in rest days accordingly.
Prioritise tasks. When I'm feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work, I use the 4 D's - Do, Delay, Delegate, Dump.
I'm an over-achiever, I like to do more than what's required which means there's often a hell of a lot of stuff I can dump! If a task isn't important... does it need doing at all? Get rid of it and feel the weight lift off your shoulders!
In diving, we're a team. If you're able to, open up about the way you're feeling (more on this in a minute). Reach out to your teammates and see if any of your tasks can be delegated to someone who can take the burden off you for a while. There'll always be time to repay the favour later. This could be asking someone to take over your class so you can recharge, or it could be asking if someone can take your night dive so you can get to bed early.
My to-do list is huge. In fact, I have multiple to-do lists - some handwritten, some stuck to post-its around my office, and some electronic... Most of my tasks aren't urgent so I can easily delay them. Take this blog post for instance - it's been on my list for months but because I've been on the verge of burnout, I've delayed writing it until I felt better. Sticking a pin in it took the guilt away from not completing it right away and gave me extra time to do other tasks or to relax.
As dive pros, there are a lot of tasks that we can't dump, delay or delegate. Sometimes we just have to do them. This puts us back in that sticky situation where we know deep down we shouldn't dive, but the pressures on us are forcing our hand.
Introduce an awareness of Human Factors into your dive centre, or at least have an understanding of them yourself.
Human factors is about making it easier to do the right thing, and harder to do the wrong thing. If the dive centre and your team understand human factors, you'll be able to speak up about how you're feeling. You'll be able to ask for help. You'll even be able to say "I can't do this dive". When it's really ingrained in the centre, there'll be procedures set and decisions made that stop the whole team from even reaching dive pro burnout. You won't be forced to take big groups on short timescales. You'll have days off and downtime planned into your working schedule. There'll be a culture of psychological safety that lets you speak up and challenge decisions.
I'm not saying that this will be easy. There's a whole host of barriers that could prevent a change like this in your dive centre, but even baby steps are worth it. If you're a dive centre owner or manager, you should seriously take a look at this stuff and see what you can implement. If you're a team member, learning about human factors will benefit your own diving massively even if others aren't on board yet.
It sucks to be a dive pro experiencing burnout. It's miserable and overwhelming. It spills over into your personal life and affects your family and relationships. The thing you love doing the most has zero appeal, in fact you'd do anything to avoid getting in the water. Your fatigue and external pressures that are placed on you lead to making mistakes. There might be an accident where your customers get hurt, or even worse you get hurt.
You can't man up and push through dive pro burnout. It's like when you can't equalise your ears - continuing down that slope is only going to make things worse. If you're in the clutches of burnout right now, the only thing you can do is stop and rest. It might take a few days, it might take months depending on how deep you've gone. You need to put yourself first for a while and to hell with everything and everyone else. Then, to prevent it from becoming so bad next time, you'll need to make some changes to your lifestyle and your job (if possible).
I think burnout will always be a part of my life, my personality makes me very susceptible! But now that I know more about what it is, my warning signs, and how to cope, I can deal with it much better. With the help of the things I've learned from The Human Diver I can also implement things at the dive centre that help our team prevent burnout too.