As a result of the global pandemic it’s not surprising that you might find yourself struggling to ‘hold it together’ these days.

For leaders in particular, managing this pandemic and trying to ensure your organisation survives through has resulted in ongoing perhaps even chronic stress levels that haven’t lifted for over 6 months! For employees, the constant fear of a loss of income or trying to manage your family on a reduced salary, adjusting to the shift of working from home (and perhaps now readjusting to being back in an office), not taking any leave, working longer hours with no work-home life separation AND trying to home school your children may have also left you feeling like you just have nothing left to give. You are not alone in this, so be sure to ask yourself the 3 personal questions posed at the end of this article.

It is a dangerous combination. One that sneaks up on even the most robust and resilient of leaders. Exhaustion. Frustration. Lack of Motivation. Irritation. Physical illness. Burnout. Berkley University psychologist, Christina Maslach, dedicated her career to understanding burnout in the organisational sector and is recognised as a leading expert in this field. She refers to burnout, in its simplest sense as a metaphor of a flame that cannot keep burning.

The fire’s life source of oxygen has been drained and it requires resources to replenish it, if it is to continue its purpose or be effective. When translated to the human condition Maslash highlights how individuals become increasingly drained by lack of basic resources and therefore can no longer function effectively in their roles and responsibilities, becoming ineffective at best and potentially disruptive at worst.

She categorises burnout with the following characteristics that impact Head, Heart, Body and Self. Have a look at the list below, to engage in some self diagnosis:

HEAD: People with burnout experience negative perceptions and feelings towards their work and work colleagues. They become increasingly cynical, may struggle to focus, and lose hope in tasks or projects they engage in.

HEART: People with burnout experience an increase in emotional reactions. These can range from anger, to tearfulness, irritation, overconfidence, suspicion and omnipotence. This can also include a mental ‘numbing’, where individuals feel disconnected and removed from others and struggle to be active in group tasks and conversations.

BODY: Burnout often represents itself through physical symptoms. People with burnout experience a higher frequency of headaches, stomach aches and sleeplessness/exhaustion despite sleep. These are signs that the body is under stress and often the mind isn’t acknowledging the high stress levels so the body indicates this instead. Bodily symptoms are often what bring people to treatment as they become the most tangible signs that something is wrong.

SELF: People with burnout experience a decrease in their sense of professional competence. They become increasingly doubting of their ability, their capability and decision making, resulting in increased stress levels and lower self confidence levels.

Alright, so you’ve spotted yourself or a colleague in the list above, showing some/all signs of burnout. Now what to do about it?

There are 6 ways you can prevent burnout at an individual level:

Stay Realistic: Very often our frustration and disappointment can be mitigated by setting realistic objectives for ourselves and others. This refers to the amount of work/ projects you take on-board, the hours you will work daily, the level of commitment you can expect from others (even friendships or family members) – be realistic. This is especially important as our current context of managing a pandemic necessitates the urgency of re-evaluating our previously held expectations.

Ensure personal value alignment: Burnout can arise due to an internal psychological conflict of feeling as though you are working with or for people/an organisation that doesn’t align with your personal values and ethics. Try to the greatest extent possible to engage in work and organisations that align with your sense of purpose.

Resolving your guilt: Leaders often feel guilty for resting and taking leave. Leaders also often feel guilty for or saying NO to other’s demands. However, every time you say YES to something it consequently requires a NO to something else. Ask yourself, what have I said YES to this week that inadvertently meant I had to say No to something else? For example, saying Yes to staying late to assist a colleague means that you said NO to being home with your family, or your rest time.

This doesn’t mean it is a bad thing to say YES, but you do need to be aware of the consequences and to be constantly critically reflecting on where your time and energy is being pulled and why. Remember that your personality may be one which struggles to say NO. Refer to the Enneagram for further insights on how your personality may be a contributing factor to Burnout vulnerability. As Porter suggests “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.

Setting & keeping boundaries: As a leader an open door policy is often useful, but setting boundaries about when and how others can seek your assistance is vital in preventing continuous interruptions which lead to work being completed after-hours. This is even more difficult when working from home which may require so much flexibility. But, try where you can to consider how you can manage your work-life integration with clear boundaries on a daily basis.

Adopting a mindset of playfulness: How do you switch off? What restores your sense of purpose and hope? This could be time away from others, or a break from work, it might be reading or engaging in an intellectual debate – these are all forms of ‘rest’ and as a leader who faces daily demands, you will need to reflect on what rest and ‘fun’ might (realistically) look like for you.

Conducting short term regular breaks & actively carving out time for restoration: Take time out in the weekend to rest properly. Schedule in leave if you can, even if it’s just for a day or two every 4 months. Knowing you have a break coming up provides a level of mental reprieve.

In closing, ask yourself these 3 personal questions to get a sense of your burnout history, how to help yourself avoid burnout and how effective you have been with establishing boundaries recently…

Q: When have you come close to or experienced Burnout? What was the context? What were the triggers? How did you manage this?
Q: Where are you your most playful/ relaxed? What does playfulness or rejuvenation look like for you?
Q: If the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do – what have you said NO to either personally or professionally in the last 2 weeks?

It’s the 1st of September today – so set a commitment to yourself to start this month afresh using some of the suggestions we’ve given you. Keep that fire burning!

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Resources and further Reading:

  • How people learn to become resilient. (2016). Konnikova, M. The New Yorker. 11.02.16. Available on: https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience 
  • Burnout Research: Emergence and scientific investigation of a contested diagnosis. Heinemann, L & Heinemann, T. (2017).
  • Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Schaufeli, W; Letter, M & Maslash, C. 2008.
  • Give and Take. Grant, A.
  • Too many Projects. Harvard Business Review: September and October 2018
  • Burnout: The cost of caring. Maslash, C.

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About the author of today’s Tuesday Tip – Tamryn Batcheller-Adams

With her Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology, and a Masters Degree in Research by Dissertation, being an Accredited Enneagram Practitioner and a Psychology lecturer, Tamryn Batcheller-Adams helps clients by developing insight into their teams and those they work with.
Tamryn does offer her counselling and coaching services virtually. Email info@tomorrowtodayglobal.com for more information or to connect with Tamryn.