How to spot and prevent burnout
Too often the answer to the question “How are you?” is “Good, busy!” or “Exhausted, but keeping going!” or “Climbing the walls, but no point complaining!” is greeted by a slightly uncomfortable pause before moving onto the agenda at hand. What should really be a red flag is treated as a pleasantry as we become anaesthetised to the impact of prolonged periods of high-stakes workload and the stress that goes with it, and we sleepwalk our way into varying degrees of burnout.
Are you willing to go that extra mile again…?
A busy executive, when I was frequently asked that same question, I would reply “Don’t ask! If I think about how I am, I will fall over!” which is ironic because recently, after years of operating at break-neck speed, that is exactly what happened. As the Global Head of Leadership development in a €28bn PLC, I was at the height of my career, leading a global team, when one morning as I was preparing to present the culmination of a year’s work on a major project I collapsed on the floor. This led to being treated for stroke and exhaustion, until burnout was finally diagnosed. Initially, I couldn’t understand how this could happen! I was furious! I loved my job, the work was exciting, the pace was fast and furious, and I willingly went the extra mile again and again and again.
Even brilliant people suffer burnout
It was only after six months off work and recovery still felt a long way off, that I was told that passionate people, brilliant people suffer burnout that reality truly set in. In fact, the good doctor put it very bluntly. “Lazy people don’t get burnout! It is the trusted lieutenant we rely upon on the battlefield because they are up early, sweeping for landmines before the troops head out, they have a plan, and a plan for a plan. They dig deep and borrow energy they do not have and live in a heightened state of alert for way too long. It is what makes them great! It is what ultimately causes them to fall. It is why you are here.”
Increasing risk of burnout
I will never forget that conversation. Long before McKinsey’s research came out connecting increased risk of burnout amongst those of us who have high passion combined with high work-rate and drive, reality was hitting me like a tonne of bricks. Then thinking back on the twelve months before my collapse and the many warning signs which were ignored. The niggling pain in my jaw which became chronic. Disrupted sleep gave justification for additional work hours. The fun of figuring out complex dilemmas gradually got replaced with anxious “what if’s”. Weekends were for sleeping. Boundaries were blurred. Life happened when I had the energy. A busy executive, surely my personal drive could over-ride my body and I could treat my fatigue like any other project and keep going?
The importance of self-awareness
For months I would do “a deal a day” with my body … just one more flight, one more Board pack, one more project deadline, one more presentation… just one more … three dangerous words which meant showing up even when there was nothing in the tank, until one day the tank ran dry and my “deal a day” self-talk was replaced with almost a year of Doctor’s discussions on recuperation and slowly build-up from doing 13 minutes of activity per day to return to fully functioning.
Preventative steps require discipline
Pre-burnout, I never really talked about what was going on, other than give the signal “don’t ask!” and conversations about slowing down took place but the workload never seemed to diminish, so I prided myself in how I was coping. But as the title of the book says, “The Body Keeps the Score”. I had walked myself off a cliff and into a long recovery and now that I’m out the other side, I can say it has been a truly transformative experience. But still, I would not recommend it!
Burnout is painful. Many preventative steps sound so simple but actually require the type of discipline we might normally give to something else. So, how are you? Really?
4 steps you can take
If this resonates on any level, here’s some things you can do:
- Spot patterns in yourself and others: we give a lot away without realising! When patterns change, like when your best people escalate problems which they would normally manage, explore the real why and have wellbeing rather than well-meaning conversations.
- Create safe havens: whether it’s a partner, internal mentor, external coach, we all need a release valve. Invest in speaking the unspeakable, there is power in being listened to without judgement. It also helps leaders talk openly and compassionately about how to support others.
- Address root causes: Look within at what is possible to make workloads more manageable, provide incentives for more collaboration and teamwork, and create an organisation-wide culture where employees feel safe.
- Take breaks: Many of us have not taken holidays in over a year, many do not even take regular breaks during the day. Gaurava Agarwal, a psychiatrist and well-being coach with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine says “we need to make sure we are resting and calming our brain down because brains aren’t designed to work this hard, this long, chronically. Taking that five minutes in an hour or one day a week to recuperate is a big part of dealing with exhaustion.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Hughes is an Aziz executive coach who has held senior executive positions in global organisations and financial services. She brings her insights from her experience of corporate life, global leadership, burnout and recovery to support organisations and leaders emerge from this pandemic more resilient.