Discussing Burnout with Nancy Liu Chin

Dear Flower Friends, I have a very interesting and deep post to share with you today. Our friend, Nancy Liu Chin, is sharing with us her story of how she has coped with bouts of burnout and how she pushed on, and continues to wow us with her fabulous events. Thank you, Nancy, for sharing such a personal glimpse into your life.

For many of you, you probably don’t know that I’ve been doing flowers since 2001. It’s been a while and though in the grand scheme of life, it’s not that long, I feel like I’ve been doing this for 30 years, not just 12 seasons. And some years, things just work really well and it’s pretty darn great being a florist, floral designer, event producer. Other years, the challenges are immense.

On top of managing a business, developing creative designs, working under deadlines, there are the challenges of physical health. I’m no spring chicken though I’m hardly retiring (btw: I will not mention my age), yet I have had several near burnouts exemplified by extreme exhaustion both bodily and emotional.

During the 90’s I was working as a senior merchandise planner yet despite working for a very trendy and up-and-coming women’s fashion retailer, I was really burning out and running out of steam. The daily grind, intense retail environment, and the pressure of working during the dot.com era depleted my energy. I become soulless as I had no balance in my life and any accomplishment were received with less joy.

To combat my fatigue and inner “burnout”, I thought that working for a more stable retailer would resolve my issues. Unfortunately, it didn’t. While I was vacationing in Italy, I knew that if the opportunity were to come up and I could magically find a new source of joy, I would take it. Then came 9/11. It further affirmed what I knew, life was short, it could be unfair and that there wasn’t a moment to waste. When I was offered a choice between staying at my managerial job at Gap or leaving to start something. I choose the path that few dared. I choose to leave.

I needed a radical change.

Luckily I found floral and event design. It was a dream for me. However, 12 seasons later even at my dream job, I have honesty had periods of near burnout.

You ask…. what are the signs of burnout?

They include
1) extreme fatigue
2) inability to deal with intense stress
3) creative soullessness
4) diminished interests
5) reduced sense of accomplishment

This is an excerpt from Wikipedia that I thought I would share with you.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have divided the burnout process into 12 phases which may not occur in each individual sequentially. They include:

The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. This is one’s desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.
Working Harder
Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organization that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus only on work while they take on more work than they usually would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. This will show that they are irreplaceable since they are able to do so much work without enlisting in the help of others.

Neglecting Their Needs
Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.

Displacement of Conflicts
Now, the person has become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed.

Revision of Values
In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their
value systems. The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.

Denial of Emerging Problems
The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. It is not uncommon for them to blame their increasing problems on time pressure and all the work that they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed, themselves.

Their social contact is now at a minimum, soon turning into isolation, a wall. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for a release since they are obsessively working “by the book”. They often have feelings of being without hope or direction.

Obvious Behavioral Changes
Coworkers, family, friends, and other people that are in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes of this person.

Losing contact with themselves, it’s possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. As well, the person loses track of their personal needs. Their view of life narrows to only seeing in the present time, while their life turns to a series of mechanical functions.

Inner Emptiness
They feel empty inside and to overcome this, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. These activities are often exaggerated.
[clarification needed][1]

Burnout may include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believes that there is nothing for them in the future. To them, there is no meaning of life. Typical depression symptoms arise.

Burnout Syndrome
They collapse physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.

I am no expert on how to survive burnout. I don’t even know if I can tell you how to prevent it.
However, this is how I have crawled out of my burnout.

1) Community – Having a community of people who are supporters, cheerleaders and actually work assistants have helped me survive. My secret from burning out is having a great team. My team has fundamentally helped me save me from me!!! Without a team of great great great assistants, I know I would not have survived. As a leader, as a creative director, and a manager, I have to have capable people to hand off work to. Beyond my team who are so amazing, there are good friends and my family who are great supporters. They include my cute parents who bring me food from across the Bay when they know I need it. My mom recognized the importance of not skipping meals which I often do since I’m always designing in the studio but as a nutritionist, she knows that the body is important to nourish.

I have a friend name Augie Chang(you might know him — he is a fabulous photographer). I remember that he came over one night when I wanted to throw in the towel just to give me some words of wisdom. Having someone who really cares and who is willing to come over after their own work to give you a pep talk means the world to me. It means that you are never alone(thanks AC).

You need cheerleaders and I’m honored to have many including Kelly of A Savvy Event, Bev of Especially Yours, Josh of Joshua Charles and on and on.

And of course, my husband!!! Kevin Chin is the Zen master when it comes to being cool under fire. He continues to counsel me. He has made it possible for me to work out my struggles without the financial burden of knowing that I had to do it on my own. He also helped me stay in touch with others when I wanted to be alone. He refused to let me wallow in self pity or remove myself from social media when I was tempted. He was instrumental in getting me involved when I didn’t want to.

You can prevent burning out — BUILD. A. COMMUNITY.

2) Finding What is Important – I know what it takes for me to function and it means that I have to have a sound body. So taking small vacations during the day is important. That means eating lunch, not at my desk but sitting down and not thinking about work is important. It means taking long walks usually I take my dogs for a walk before work. It means that I don’t schedule consultations twice a week when it’s family day and not being apologetic about it. For each of us, we have to have set days in which we have off. I know it’s easier said then done but once I put my body, my values as a priority, I could feel the difference.

That is why a mental break is important not only in terms of taking an annual vacation but also daily breaks. Your soul needs it.


3) Set Boundaries, Adopt a Roadmap, Be Fair – By setting consistent standards and fair values at work with my staff, I can see how it has resulted in less confusion, less stress for them and for me. An indifferent work environment can lead to a mess. I think, less mess, less stress.

When we design, I have created recipes, this helps the staff. It ensures that we have enough flowers, we have a roadmap. It creates this sense of consistency at work. It’s making our organization run more efficiently which means it’s easier for me to manage. Setting standards took so long for me to create but it has helped immensely to give my staff consistency that they can follow.

I also implemented directives, we have a production schedule prior to a set up, now everyone knows what is to be expected so it leads to fewer issues. It’s one of many things that we implement that has created a sense of fairness at work which results in a really tight team of individuals.

Same goes for the way we work with our clients. We create templates, we adopt the same fair policy so that each client is treated the same way. I’ve also set boundaries on my time so that our clients can get the best from me because I’m feeling the most optimal. We have legal contracts. We have business insurances. All these things ensure one thing. A roadmap to fair practice.

And it’s the same for our suppliers and vendors. I want to have the best flowers possible. And we seek to work with people who share that value of fresh and great flowers. I had a situation where a sales rep for a floral vendor gave me an ultimatum. It was rather blunt and frustrating and it made me go into a tailspin. A supplier wanted me to give them all my flower orders and ignore the fairness of the open market at the SF Flower Market. Instead of buying the best that each supplier has to offer, they insisted that I shop only with them or not at all.

After understanding what I value, I knew that this salesperson ‘s values were not align with my own. We have choices. I choose boundaries that I could accept so I choose to work with the open market system at the market then putting all my eggs in one basket.
No matter what it is, one has to decide for themselves, what they can tolerate so that their work is more fair because when it’s not, and when things are not in balance, that is when burnout can arise.

Understanding what you need to do your best means that you need to know what is fair, what are the limits. We have to have some boundaries so that we can act with consistency and fairness.

Work within Fair Boundaries.

Thank you, Nancy, for sharing such an insightful post with us. I’m sure it has a lot of floral designers thinking and taking a deep look at how they are feeling and reflecting back on the past wedding season.
And because no post is complete without some flowers here are some of Nancy’s lovely floral designs

beautiful white and blush reception room

White floral entry way design

bridal bouquet with blushing bride protea

reception table with tall greenery centerpieces

rectangular table with white flowers for wedding reception

Contact Information:
Nancy Liu Chin
San Francisco, California

PS – Nancy will be a speaker at The Chapel Designers – Florabundance Inspirational Design Days in Santa Barbara taking place January 20, 21 & 22, 2014. Click here for more info

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  1. Tracy Park says:

    ugh my life..

  2. Great article! I feel this way too, but i know that it’s not just floral designers that feel this way. Thanks for shedding the light on it – don’t feel so bad knowing that there are more people out there that feel this way and there are things that we can do to keep us grounded.

  3. Love her! Nancy glad you didn’t throw in the towel on social media. I certainly felt you were gone for a few months and I’m glad you are here with all of us!

  4. Thank you Nancy for your honesty in dealing with an issue that people often feel they need to hide from the world. I can speak from experience of suffering from burnout that led to depression and seriously threatened my marriage and my family. Thank goodness God intervened and I am able to do what I love, but in a more realistic and balanced way – I love your pointers at the end and appreciate this reminder!
    thank you! Coral

  5. Alex
    —I can’t believe you noticed that I was burning out! Wow, I will try to be more aware. Yes, I have taken mini breaks from twitter, IG, and facebook at times. Sometimes you have to find the priority of that moment so that you can go on.

    I feel really great right now. Better than I have felt in a long time. One thing I didn’t address in this burnout article is that sometimes we are dragged down by negativity. Unfortunately, in order to build a community, I have had to make very tough decisions which means to let go of people who are weighing me down as well. All those things can make it a daily struggle to do what we do.

    For everyone out there — just know, no one is immune to burnout.