By Ben Ari (Thrive Global)
Give and receive hugs. Connection with others, especially through touch, releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that increases feelings of calm, joy and safety. If you live alone, consider adopting a pet. To our brains, connection is connection. The positive exchange of energy and cultivation of empathy that occurs through touch with those we deeply appreciate, be they people or pets, help us transition to a mindset of safety and abundance where we can feel our best and off our best.
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”.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Marcellus. Andrea is a certified fitness expert and CEO of AND/life, a cross-platform lifestyle brand focused on delivering customized how-to content that enables busy people to maximize their lives.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
I grew up in Pennington, NJ, a fantastic area near Princeton. I was privileged to be raised by parents who came from modest backgrounds yet achieved high levels of education (my Dad is an environmental scientist who earned a Ph.D., my Mom was an entrepreneur with an MBA). They both valued education and possessed a deep work ethic. We were not given an allowance in my family — we always had to do something around the house to earn money or get a job because “that’s just what you do.” Because of that philosophy, I started creating opportunities for myself to earn money by finding things to do that both interested me and were useful to others. And I guess I’ve never stopped living that way because I’ve essentially had at least two jobs, or as an adult — careers, going on at once since I was 12 years old. I love working because I always love my work, so I owe a big debt of gratitude to my parents for me teaching me that key life lesson early on.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I had an accident at 19 that left me with significant injuries, physically and mentally, and it turned out to be the blessing of my life. I was a sophomore at N
YU at the time, so I started taking fitness classes at some of the best studios in New York to lift my spirts and feel strong. At a certain point, I honed in on two teachers I thought were the best — Petra Kolber and Terri Walsh who both taught classes at Molly Fox’s studio. They don’t know it, but they taught me how to teach.
The best part of the story is that, within a year of getting my first professional certification, I got recommended for an audition for the Crunch gyms (which were the most popular fitness studio at the time in NYC and required 5 years teaching experience minimum.) I walked into the audition and who was the manager in charge — Terri Walsh. I was auditioned by my secret mentor and hired on the spot to start teaching at 3 of the Crunch facilities around Manhattan. I was too star-struck to tell her who she was to me the entire time I worked there. Maybe someday I’ll find her and get to tell her that she gave a young woman the boost of confidence and validation she needed to get going in life.
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? Can you share a story about that?
My goal in life from ages 3–34 was to be an actress. I went to NYU in pursuit of that goal, and fitness was just an honest interest I turned into a side hustle, along with working as an executive assistant in the corporate world. While I was pursuing acting in New York and then Los Angeles, I worked in just about every type of department a corporation can have, and at companies with extremely complex business models. The people who hired me for those jobs were incredibly supportive and generous with my audition and shooting schedule, and in return I’d work hard and learn as much as I could to always try to exceed expectations.
With my focus on an acting career, I never imagined that the employers at my “day jobs” would end up being some of my greatest mentors in life, but the lessons I learned from corporate jobs while pursuing artistic dreams have proved invaluable.
For example, as unlikely as it sounds for a degree from Tisch in acting, I used experience working in high school for my mom’s medical billing company into a job at the Estee Lauder corporation in international marketing. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue film and television instead of a stage career, I parlayed my Estee Lauder experience into an amazing job working for two Senior Vice Presidents at Teledyne, one in aerospace, the other in manufacturing. When Teledyne merged with Allegheny Ludlum, I was bounced to human resources briefly, and then the legal department where I gained experience in vastly different areas of legal including product liability, corporate general matters, intellectual property, and mergers and acquisitions.
One of the attorneys, a brilliant woman named Loretto Longhetto, took me with her when she became the General Counsel of TBG Financial where I learned about deferred compensation and insurance. Not only did she train me to be like a quasi-paralegal while I was her assistant, even more importantly, she taught me about the impact of organizational culture on employee wellbeing, as well as lessons in corporate responsibility and ethics.
At my heart I’m an artist and a storyteller, but my corporate employers, and especially Loretto, were instrumental in helping me cultivate a background of knowledge that serves me well as I unexpectedly now find myself building my own business. And by how they treated me, I well know the advantage of understanding team members’ goals and priorities beyond the job at hand. By honoring and accommodating the things most important to me, I always felt my best and was therefore inspired and energized to do my best for my employers. I try to lead with that same spirit, which I believe is essential to overall wellness and a primary way to avoid burnout.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I have, of course, made many fantastic mistakes over the years. But there is one in particular I share a lot because the level of failure and the life-changing lesson are both spectacular. When I was 19, I taught my first step class in NYC to a packed room of about 75 people… and about 67 of them left. If you know anything about Step classes in the early 90’s, you know that each person has a 3½ foot step board and four individual plastic risers — so even just one person leaving a class is a loud, distracting process. Multiply that by 67 and you’ll understand it felt like I was trying to teach my first class on a construction site, but instead of building they were doing demolition, and PS: almost no one likes you.
Keeping my head up and seeing that class through to the end was one of the hardest things I ever did. After the class, I was absolutely devastated and couldn’t have been more ashamed to face the club manager. But her response wasn’t only unexpected, it was one of the greatest lessons of my life — perspective is everything. The manager said that she needed to elevate the club, but didn’t have the budget for high-level instructors — until my audition. She said I could absolutely hold my own with the best in NYC but, since I had no experience, she could afford me. It was pretty funny. Then she gave me the best piece of advice ever. She said believe in yourself and never “teach down.” If people don’t get it, slow down, but never “dumb down” what I have to offer. Give people the opportunity to catch on and ramp up — and when they do, they’ll love you for it. It was confidence-cementing, life-changing advice and I truly wish I could remember her name to thank her.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Never complain, never explain. This is my favorite Katharine Hepburn quote and it’s gotten me through a lot of tough times in life where I might have chosen to be a victim instead of blazing a new trail. If something is going wrong in your life, don’t waste your energy whining about it, use all of your energy to change it — or at least address it — as quickly as possible. And as for the second part of the quote, absolutely apologize for mistakes or hard choices you needed to make that were hurtful, but don’t explain beyond what is absolutely necessary for clarity. If it was an apology you offered, an explanation will only cheapen it. If it was a hard choice you needed to make to be true to yourself or do what’s right, an explanation only opens the door for people whose feathers are ruffled to chip away at you. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and resist the temptation to overanalyze situations — or yourself.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We pivoted AND/life from a B2C to a B2B business model in April 2020, and as of July 2021 we are launching totally unique wellness offerings for corporations and large groups, as well as benefits platforms. AND/life solutions get at the biggest challenges companies face in terms of mental and physical wellness offerings — engagement — by offering a personalized approach to wellness with suggestions that are immediately useful, totally doable, and inclusive of everyone (even non-exercisers!).
AND/life solutions are offered in a variety of appealing ways, including live and on-demand events such as our mentality-boosting LifeLift and our brain-training MindBodyLift workout, Superfood Snacks class and clever “plain-clothes” Desk Workouts. We also offer our AND/life Connect platform, our wellness video library with immediately useful tips and advice, and AND/life Wellness, our Corporate and group programs featuring both ongoing options and motivating short-term physical and mental wellness challenges. Last, but not least, we are always improving our one-of-its-kind AND/life fitness lifestyle app, which leaves no one behind on the path to fitness and mental wellness and is available both to consumers, as well as through corporations, groups and platforms.
All of our products are exciting to me because they create unique experiences and feel personal even at scale. Just like how I work with one-on-one clients, AND/life meets people exactly where they are at, highlighting strengths, mitigating pitfalls, making them feel in charge, and putting wellness within reach for everyone. We spent the past 18 months creating mentally-uplifting programs that, just like our physical fitness approach, are also easily doable and a no-brainer to integrate into your life without making major adjustments. Additionally, AND/life’s events, wellness programs, and digital products all offer unique stress-management solutions based on neurology and physiology that fit into today’s already overloaded lifestyle. They feature in-the-moment hacks for triggering events to help you reframe and continue being focused and productive, as well as long-term, “brain-training” methods designed to shift the brain from the knee-jerk, anxiety/fear-based default response patterns that so many of us have developed over the past 18 months. With practice, the brain will “heal” and reset to a default mindset of plenty/safety where curiosity, possibility, connection and problem-solving can exist.
AND/life has always offered a total lifestyle approach to physical fitness. Now we offer a total lifestyle approach to mental wellness as well, which goes hand in hand with leveling up physically. Our methods are realistic, holistic and, most importantly, lighthearted and fun. We’re deeply proud of all that we have to offer to help corporations and groups lift their teams and improve, not just productivity, but overall quality of life.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I have a really strong work ethic from my parents. I learned early in life that, if you want something, it’s on you to make it happen, and there is no substitute for the putting in the time. Be the first one in, last one out — and then also be sure to play and rest. Play is not indulgent, and rest is not lazy, they are part of work ethic. They help you bring your A-game every day.
I have the ability to change directions. Hard knocks throughout my teens, 20’s and early 30’s have left me with the ability to let go of situations that aren’t working because I trust that better opportunities are on the horizon. This is enormously helpful in business where hard choices have to be made daily, especially as a start-up.
I am highly purpose-driven in everything I do, and I’m always very clear on the “deep why” of every endeavor, both personally and professionally. Getting clear on who I am, and accepting who I am not, has been key to me continuing to grow while conserving energy and avoiding burnout. Applied to AND/life, being clear on our mission and staying purpose-driven is critical to keeping the team moving forward with enthusiasm, especially when progress feels slow or stalled. Coaching each team member individually about how their contribution impacts the mission of the company and expressing appreciation for their unique skills and abilities toward those ends is always time well spent.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
Like many start-up CEO’s, I spent the first couple of years building AND/life doing little else but work. There was enormous pressure to produce results quickly, which I have come to understand is near impossible with totally new digital products, but we were trying anyway. I’m a fit pro, so even though I was only sleeping 4–5 hours per night and working much of the rest of the time, I was somehow still managing physically. But my relationships were suffering, and looking back, I think I was slow making certain big decisions for the business simply because I was too exhausted to think expansively and innovatively. I never realized how tired I was and how it was affecting me, but the difference in my clarity of thought now versus then is proof. I also now realize that even though I spent time a lot of time doing fun things with my kids, I think my memories are fuzzy because I was distracted much of the time.
At a certain point, I realized I couldn’t relax at all. I couldn’t focus on a book or watch an entire TV show, let alone a movie, or even just let my mind go quiet on a hike. I realized my path was unsustainable and needed to change. My mother was a workaholic, and I was following in her footsteps — steps that took her not only to burnout, but to pass away far too young. While she was a loving person, a true believer in me, and I try to focus on the positive lessons she taught me, the truth is she wasn’t there for me a whole lot in my life. In fact, her personal demons made her more of an emotionally draining hindrance. I am determined for my children to have a different experience.
All I can say is that thank goodness I was able to catch myself — being purpose-driven is OK, but being obsessed is not. I am also deeply grateful that the people who matter most in my life believe in me, and understood that I felt like I was at the bottom of an Everest-sized learning curve when it came to getting my start-up going. It’s a lot to be around someone with the kind of relentless intensity I had for a time as I found my way, and I’m grateful to my family and closest friends for their patience. Now I’m at a sustainable place where I can still operate at the highest of intensity levels and under extreme pressure, but also shut it down and be present when I’m not working. I have spent the past two years working on burnout prevention and “circumstance” management that fit within my already overloaded life — exactly what we’re now bringing to others at scale through AND/life. I’ve personally experienced how you can’t just will yourself to “be more present” or “stop stressing.” It takes consistent application of techniques that help reframe your brain over time so you can more fully experience joy in life — otherwise, what’s the point? So, to me, burnout prevention isn’t just about managing stress, it’s about cultivating joy.
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”? Can you explain?
Burnout is an inability to be your best self. It manifests in a lot of ways, but that’s the bottom line.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
The opposite of burnout is living in a mindset of wonder and infinite possibility.
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 please 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?
During periods of chronic stress, the amygdala in our brain (the fear and anxiety center) becomes overactive and, given enough time, literally “grows,” while the centers responsible for memory, higher cognitive function, problem-solving, positive possibility, and connection to others atrophy. When activated by a perceived threat, the amygdala releases adrenaline and cortisol to help us get to safety — be it physically or emotionally. But too much of these protective hormones can have negative effects on our health and mental wellness.
For example, when we physically need to run from a burning building, cortisol slows down our metabolism and non-essential mechanisms so our body can focus on running, and adrenaline gives us extra strength, speed, and courage to do so. Given that the stress-inducing “burning building” is more likely to be emotional, i.e., an email cancelling the project you’ve been working on for months, a triggering text from a family member, or upsetting test results from a doctor, all that adrenaline and cortisol might work against you. If you’re a food-soother, the extra cortisol chronically slowing your metabolism may result in you packing on unwanted pounds. Extra adrenaline chronically floating around can make you snappy and thoughtless in how you respond to people, increasing disconnection between you and others at a time when what you most need is support.
Thus begins a vicious cycle of physical and mental disempowerment — the body and mind both get broken down and weakened not only the initial stressor, but the impacts of our less-than-beneficial responses to it.
Chronic stress essentially causes us to dig the small holes in our lives created by circumstances into one big deep one. When we get to the point that the hole feels too deep for us to climb out, often characterized by a default negative mentality that jumps to why things won’t work out instead of avenues for positive outcomes, physical exhaustion coupled with an inability to sleep restfully, and a lack of enjoyment and relaxation during life’s lighter, playful moments, that’s burnout.
At scale, this can be disastrous. On a societal level, if a majority of us are operating from a knee-jerk negative mindset, poor sleep, weakened bodies and reduced self-esteem, how can we have the confidence, energy and imagination required to solve our greatest challenges and continue advancing forward and upward?
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
The main cause of burnout is a lack of tools to handle life’s challenges and keep your ego in check, in addition to a lack of advocacy for rest and self-care on
a societal level. To be clear, proper self-care isn’t about going on a retreat, getting a manicure, or binge-watching Netflix. Self-care is about long-term, lasting solutions that keep you in a plenty/safety frame of mind. It’s the process of weaving a physical and mental “safety net” for ourselves by ingraining easily maintainable, beneficial habits into our daily lives that lift us both physically and mentally.
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.)
Learn. Learn more about a subject, place, people, or historical event that interests you. Daily activation of the prefrontal cortex through investigation is one of the best strategies to sideline stress in the moment, and also prime your brain to operate from a place of possibility-inducing curiosity instead of option limiting judgment. The only requirement with this strategy is to avoid current events for your deep dive because they can be triggering.
Read fiction. Reading the first few pages of an fictional novel is a fast way to relieve your mind when its spinning in a whirlpool of doubt. Reading activates the “positive” brain centers, including your prefrontal cortex, cerebellum and hippocampus, as you process information into mental images and wonder what’s going to happen next. The even better news is that the brain can’t multi-task. In other words, you can’t be imagining the scenario in the book and stewing in your own problems at the same time. So the act of reading with intention and focus will slow down the amygdala for a precious while, providing rest for your weary mind, and “exercise” for the part of your brain that allows you to experience joy.
Sleep better. I still check my phone right before bed too, so I’m not even going to offer the great advice to unplug an hour before bed. We all know it, agree with it, and yet many of us still ignore it even though we shouldn’t. But what you can do is be sure to either read a few pages or write a few pages right before sleep. Activating your imagination and memory centers by reading or journaling can help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system — your body’s rest and digest system, and also release dopamine and serotonin, two of your happy hormones, helping you rest easier.
Give and receive hugs. Connection with others, especially through touch, releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that increases feelings of calm, joy and safety. If you live alone, consider adopting a pet. To our brains, connection is connection. The positive exchange of energy and cultivation of empathy that occurs through touch with those we deeply appreciate, be they people or pets, help us transition to a mindset of safety and abundance where we can feel our best and offer our best.
Get help. There are myriad ways of lifting your life. The trick is finding what works for you within the live you actually live so that you can keep it up. As with physical fitness solutions, consistency is the most important piece of the brain-reframing puzzle. That’s why the above tactics are just a few of the powerful knowledge and “small ways, every day” methods offered in all of AND/life’s wellness programs, products and events. Every mind operates differently, and not all strategies speak to everyone. Rather than a one-sized fits all approach, AND/life systems are designed to help people understand their own brains and bodies so they can feel in charge again. The goal is to guide people to build personalized “self-care scaffoldings” upon which to build each day so they can achieve and experience greater physical and mental strength and joy.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
Support their self-care efforts by giving them space, patience and understanding. Rather than asking how you can help (which can actually add stress), offer a specific way you can take something of her/his plate. And, as antithetical as this sounds, rather than hashing through problems with a lot of talk, validate their feelings, but then help them activate positive brain centers with fun or interesting activities — especially new things that really stimulate the imagination or the senses.
Some ideas might include going on hikes, taking a cooking class, going to an outdoor concert, bringing wine and your kids’ watercolors and making bad art together… anything that’s new is always especially stimulating for the brain. Or, if the person is exhausted, just your quiet presence may be enough to help them feel safe and shut off the anxious side of their mind for a precious short while.
Whatever you come up with to help, for people who are really burnt, consider perhaps leaving the deep-probing talks for a professional. A top way people stay stuck is by giving more conversational air time to problems and perceived injustices, rather than new possibilities and fulfilling experiences. The brains of burnt-out people tend to be on negative autopilot. By all means, catch up on new developments in their situation and honor their experience with listening, but then try to help them shift gears to other subjects or enriching activities rather than fuel the fire.
A great thing about leaving deep talk for therapy sessions is that it is a scheduled time for a specific type of release with the help of an objective professional — and then it allows space for processing until the next session. The mental exercise of learning to deal with intense emotion is built in. Suggesting this kind of care to friends in need rather than participating in endless circling talk isn’t ignoring issues or sweeping things under the rug. Rather, it’s shining the light of positive possibility through a crack in the window of their tired minds. It means that, instead of stewing in misery, time with you can be used for experiential self-care by actively “exercising” the positive parts of the brain that need strengthening in order to pull themselves out of emotional holes and get moving forward again. It’s a great gift to give.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
Employers will do well to create a culture where rest is seen as an essential component of productivity, and where people are praised for their unique contributions. Feeling rested and appreciated are the cornerstones of wellness.
As best as possible, at AND/life we allow for flexible schedules that respect the demands of family. I know for myself, if things aren’t right at home, particularly if one of my kids has an issue, I have a hard time concentrating until things get resolved on some level. The added stress of feeling like I’m letting the team down when I have to handle something unexpected will only make my brain less imaginative, focused, and capable. Our policy is to allow space for unexpected life crises as best we can by covering for one another with empathy rather than judgment. By fostering a culture that embraces the idea that “life” is absolutely going to happen requiring other team members to step up, people become generous about covering for one another knowing that the favor will be gladly returned. So far this has gone a long way toward elevating overall productivity, and it definitely increases loyalty.
In terms of wellness programs, its paramount to offer solutions that foster continued engagement, as burnout reversal and prevention are an ongoing process. Also, while challenges are great to create milestone moments for beneficial change, be sure to reward consistent participation rather than quantifiable physical results.
When it comes to wellness, people are not math, and two plus two does not always equal four. For example, each and every year that I was living a completely stressed-out, imbalanced existence while getting AND/life off the ground, results from labs at my annual physical showed me to be super fit even though I wasn’t sleeping well and was operating from a place of high anxiety every day. On the flip side, I have had clients with BMI’s that are technically obese who nonetheless had excellent labs, were advanced exercisers, respected their need for rest, and had generally optimistic outlooks on life. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
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.
I’d ask everyone to learn something new about someone in your world every single day. Asking questions and honestly listening for a person’s answer is one of the most bonding activities people can do together. It instantly creates empathy and releases serotonin, and dopamine. Throw in a hug and you get oxytocin too. If people would just ask more questions of one another and listen more intently to the answers, as a society we would understand one another better on an intellectual level, and feel more connected on an emotional level. How great would that be?
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Arianna Huffington. She has always fascinated me as a thought leader, even before she became a revolutionary voice in the wellness space. As a woman on a similar mission to make mental and physical wellness easier and more accessible to people, any time spent with a trail-blazing woman of impact like Arianna would be an incredible honor and invaluable learning experience for me.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!