By Susan Merli.
While this post specifically mentions leaders, I believe that everyone has a responsibility for self-leadership. The tips I offer are applicable for all.
Oliver Wendell Holmes was quoted as saying, “Too many people die with their music still in them.” When you’re dealing with burnout it may feel as if you’re walking through life with no zest, pep, or music inside you. That music is represented by your optimism, your sense of being in a place of choice, your ability to live your values, and awaken your connection to purpose.
To keep the music alive within you, it is important to be mindful of the signs and symptoms of burnout.
Burnout has been a recurring theme for employees and leaders alike. What already was a concern pre-pandemic, has pushed many over the edge in terms of their ability to continuously rally and garner the mental fortitude to deal with increasing levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).
Suggested Reading: Living in a VUCA World: How to Make Better Decisions
Recently and increasingly, I’ve been asked to present on the topic of leaders dealing with burnout. In my opinion, the build-up toward burnout boils down to too much pressure for too long without the development of core coping skills along with unresolved issues relating to psychological safety. These factors may create a sea of hesitation or reluctance about communicating personal boundaries.
Before we dive further into this topic, let’s pause to level-set and define burnout. As my friend, Jennifer Moss, wrote in her most recent book, The Burnout Epidemic, there are systemic issues that are baked into an organization’s culture that impact the prevalence of burnout and the degree of its spread throughout the workplace. Where there is a burnout epidemic, there is often a poor workplace culture with low employee morale and low job satisfaction. Remote work and a lack of connection with colleagues are contributing factors to not feeling a sense of camaraderie or friendship with co-workers. Additionally, it doesn't allow a clear line of sight toward a shared vision or common goal.
While burnout can feel different for every person, it generally amounts to feeling that you are not in a place of control and have little, if any, ability to affect change. It is as if you believe you don’t have power to alter your schedule, your time, or how to get a hold of an ever-expanding workload.
You may feel a high degree of commitment to the type of work you do but can’t seem to find balance in your quest for work/life integration and are always “on” when it comes to answering texts, calls, or emails.
Consistent levels of job stress, a lack of connection with others, as well as an overly high commitment to work can lead to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion. These are some of the core criteria for burnout.
Similar to not addressing the signs that you are developing a chronic disease like diabetes or cancer, workplace burnout can have serious negative consequences in every area of a person’s life if it remains untreated. Burnout shows up as excess or chronic stress that may manifest as fatigue, increased likelihood for heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and respiratory issues. Related mental health issues include depression, anger, irritability, and anxiety.
With this toxic concoction of physical and mental health issues, it is no wonder that those experiencing workplace burnout may also suffer from alcohol or substance abuse, financial concerns, an inability to fulfil personal and professional responsibilities, and poor interpersonal relationships.
Not Reaching Out
One of the major dilemmas with burnout is the person’s inability to reach out to friends, family, or colleagues for support. When someone is in the throes of burnout, there is a greater propensity to withdraw and isolate.
As the poet, writer, and professor, Tiana Clark, wrote, “Burnout is just a metaphor for how we all feel under this intense pressure to produce when the world is falling apart.”
People ask me how to manage burnout without the placating phrase of “just practice better self-care”. I say that it involves stepping back and seeking support which may be just the exact opposite of what you feel like doing.
As a student of counselling psychology and neuroscience, so much of what “works” involves identifying and reaching out to a support network. This makes us feel vulnerable especially when we are sharing what we may feel is a weakness – not being able to wear the badge of honour that says we are busy yet can handle it all!
Get Support. Plain and maybe not so simple. It may even feel like something else is added to your ‘to do list’ but having at least one other person you can talk to is so helpful when it comes to preventing or managing your way through burnout. A giant redwood tree can live for a thousand years and only has a few deep roots in comparison to other short-lived trees with many shallow roots. The same applies to people in your life.
Suggested reading: Categorizing People in Your Life
Suggested video: Madea: Let Them Go
Let people you trust and who you respect know that you’re having a tough time and share that you could use a chat, or an opportunity to gather some advice, ideas, or even just a verbal bolstering of encouragement.
Leaders Dealing with Burnout
Leaders have added responsibilities and a degree of consistent and mounting pressure due to changing workplace demands such as hybrid/remote work arrangements and challenges with employee recruitment and retention.
As Simon Sinek stated, the leadership mindset is not about being in charge, but about taking care of those in your charge. This mindset may feel more taxing when the operational and team dynamics appear to change from day to day.
Suggested video: Simon Sinek – Leader versus Manager
Knowing what your mindset is like at regular intervals helps to get a real pulse on how you’re managing your stress. As a leader, you might not spontaneously get as much feedback as you need. So, make a point to actively seek it out.
As Harvard Business School professors, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone explained,” it is the (feedback) receiver who controls whether feedback is let in or kept out, who has to make sense of what he or she is hearing, and who decides whether or not to change.” So, it is important to seek feedback and receive it well with curiosity and intellectual humility (more on that topic in an upcoming post).
Suggested Reading: Finding the Coaching in Criticism
If you are not coping, are feeling more irritable or easily vexed, feedback can help you get a sense of this potential burnout blind spot. Take five minutes to ask a colleague, a mentor, or a direct report what is one thing they believe you could benefit from starting, stopping, or continuing in your observable behaviours.
Suggested resource: Stop. Start. Continue Feedback Model
Consider your feelings and why you experience them. Self-reflect on the belief you’re carrying and explore how it is serving you.
Do you think you’re weak if you say you need a break or can’t take on another project or that the deadline you’ve been given is unreasonable?
If so, why? What makes you hold onto this belief or assumption?
What’s going on in your workplace that may be fueling this belief or mindset?
Are you a people-pleaser?
Do you experience impostor syndrome?
Are you worried about disappointing others?
When you connect to your emotions and behaviours as a result of your beliefs, it will help you to self-diagnose your burnout activators.
I’ve asked this question of hundreds of people in workshops I’ve delivered over the last few years. While people do not struggle with identifying their top five core values, they do feel challenged by the idea of enlivening them through the choices they make in their daily lives.
To test out this theory, I invite you to complete the Time and Values Worksheet for a week (okay, try it for two days).
Suggested worksheet: Authentika Time and Values Worksheet
When you feel you do not have the freedom of choice or lack as sense of control of your schedule, consider applying the C.I.A. model.
C is for Control
I is for Influence
A is for Accept
What can you control specific to your time and schedule? What can you influence? What will you choose to accept if you cannot change it and how will you manage that acceptance?
Don’t let yourself get stuck in the same path of negative thinking. Consider what is real and what you know to be true.
Building Resilience One Mental Muscle at a Time and The Power of Cognitive Reframing
I’ve offered just a few suggestions to help you navigate away from burnout. These are just a sampling of what is possible to consider.
If untreated, burnout may cause serious mental and physical health implications. The articles, suggested readings, and additional resources on this website provide general information only and do not constitute advice in any way. My goal is to provide information that is well-researched, thoughtful, and relevant, but it is a guide only.
If you require additional support, information, or guidance in relation to a particular issue, please speak with a medical practitioner or therapist who will be able to take the time to understand your individual circumstances, history, worldview, and goals to support you with the most effective course of action. Everyone deserves to feel well.
Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist (44) 1175-1184.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy. New York.