At some point in our careers, we'll likely experience burnout to some degree. It's often hard to admit to ourselves when we are burned out. For leaders, doing so can prove to be even more difficult.
How can executives handle burnout when others rely on them daily for direction and inspiration?
Here's some advice from leaders who know how to successfully overcome burnout in their careers.
Chris Rankin, Marketing Leader
Burnout might best be described as falling out of love with the work you live for. When you start experiencing burnout as an executive, your usual go-to tool kit of competence, skill, dedication, and drive just seems to act as an accelerant for the "burn." It manifests as finally getting a free moment to focus on your own list of "to-do" items, then having to employ some sort of Zen-inducing mindful intervention just to keep from hyperventilating. The backlog of work tends to feel more like an episode of Hoarders rather than a path to success. Burnout is having a negative internal reaction to a colleague popping in unexpectedly that doesn't quite go away, even after the explanation that they are making a coffee run and thought to include you. Health organizations like the Mayo Clinic define it as stress derived from ambiguity, lack of control, and high expectations. But for executives, that's just part of the job description.
So how do you prevent burnout when stress is part of the job? Don't just treat the symptoms. Solve the root of the problem.
1. Identify the root cause.
Are you dealing with "unprecedented" disruption from the market, causing you to feel a lack of control? First off, you do have control, but taking command of these external forces will require resources that already feel short in supply. It may seem easier to put your head down and power through, but short-term solutions can lead to bigger problems down the line. What you really need is means-assessment and contingency planning and finding a way to rework your budgeted resources to allow for this to happen.
2. Prioritize towards balance.
When the five o'clock whistle blows, does it signal the end to a productive day of deliverables? Or does it mean the end of meetings and drive-bys, allowing the real work to begin? Opportunity is a great problem to have, but never forget that a lack of focus is the number one reason why new businesses fail. This isn't just a work-life balance issue. We're all being asked to do more with less. Make sure you and your team are focused on the highest value initiatives.
3. Budget for change.
Have you ever promised to write a blog article within the hour, then tapped your computer awake to find the internet is down, or the battery is dead, or the operating system is updating, or there's a mistake in the quote that needs to be verified? As we get good at something, it frees up time for us to do more. More responsibility, more volume, more skills...this kind of initiative is what propelled us from rock star employees to up-and-comer executives. With the efficiencies of experience also comes overconfidence. Be sure to budget for changing variables outside of your control. Just because you are capable of knocking out a blog article complete with review and edit cycles faster than your "pre-COVID-19" commute doesn't mean the pressure is good for you.
Chris Rankin is a marketing executive who specializes in brand and digital strategy. Her specialty is in reimagining e-commerce to deliver digital branding experiences that augment a customer's real world. She believes social influencers are the content creators brands should partner with and enable to achieve better targeting and authenticity. She holds 20 years in marketing experience for health, technology, and fashion with an MFA from the Academy of Art University and a BA from Principia College. She believes learning from each other is the fastest path to growth and she welcomes anyone interested in swapping stories.
Steve Barriault, Global Technology Sales Leader
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."
Burnout is what happens when a human being is ground past his point of exhaustion at work.
The Mayo Clinic article goes on to list factors that can cause burnout.
Lack of control: when people feel that they do not have their destiny into their own hands. Another one is unclear job expectations. I would expect this to be quite frequent in the COVID-19 era, as individuals feel that once clear objectives are now murky as leadership waits to see where the chips will fall.
Executives can address both by empowering individuals. Discuss new and exciting goals for individuals to achieve. Ensure they have the tools to succeed. And make sure to convey how important these new objectives are, both for the individual and the company. An individual with a sense of purpose can move mountains.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics, such as bullying or micromanagement, and extremes of activity (i.e. monotonous or chaotic work environments) can also trigger burnout. Again, executives can and should address these. No one can perform at peak efficiency in a toxic work environment.
Finally, lack of social support (i.e. isolation at work) and work-life imbalance can also cause burnout. And again, it is well within the power of executives to solve this. Now more than ever, executives must put their cheerleading uniforms on and create an atmosphere conducive to performance. Happy team members are a prerequisite to organizational excellence.
But above all, you need to realize that you won't be able to handle burnout in others without avoiding burnout yourself. All of these factors will apply to you as an individual. In our day of age, it can certainly seem that the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders.
But as an executive, you also have a lot of tools to prevent personal burnout. You have a certain degree of autonomy to set goals and expectations—even for yourself. Culture is decided at the top, so you do have the power to set the proper workplace dynamics—to your personal benefit, too.
And don't hesitate to reach out to friends and family for comfort. Even colleagues. Colleagues? Yes. Here is the dirty secret: your subordinates know you are not Superman. They will respect someone that acknowledges his or her human condition more than someone who tries to give the impression that he or she is invincible.
One last thing. In life, it is possible to do everything right and still lose. All you can do is play the cards that have been dealt to you the best you can. Once you realize this, some weight will be lifted off your shoulders. So, go ahead and confront these challenges, head high, knowing you gave it your utmost best. That is all one can ask for.
Steve Barriault is a global technology sales executive with 18+ years of experience in business development on three continents. He is currently serving in a 3,000 employee-strong company providing embedded software testing solutions in multiple industries such as automotive, avionics, industrial systems, telecom, and others. Multilingual, he holds advanced degrees in business, science, and computer science.
Susan Leys, Healthcare Coach, Consultant, And Career Navigator
My favorite definition of burnout is the one from the team at the Mayo Clinic. They define burnout as "a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."
This combination of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity can take a toll on any executive during their career. Add to this the present political divisiveness, global pandemic, and many other challenges we are having across our country, and it wouldn't be difficult to imagine how rampant burnout is nationwide.
In healthcare, the additional challenges including lack of staffing, lack of PPE, ethical and moral decision making challenges, as well as concerns for your own (and your family's) potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus can also lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. Merriam Webster defines compassion fatigue as "the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time."
The biggest challenge in coping with burnout or compassion fatigue (which is more severe than burnout) is recognizing and accepting its presence. When caring for others, especially during a pandemic, healthcare professionals are focused on making sure they have the information, equipment, and resources necessary to care for their patients. Because of their intense focus on caring for others, it's often very easy to lose sight of their own personal and professional needs.
It's also difficult to ask for help when you're the one who helps. Because in asking for help, you have to admit (even if subconsciously) that you are vulnerable and susceptible to stress.
In not asking for help, you will model to your team that you believe you are strong enough to withstand the pressure and stress of navigating a pandemic that has (according to today's Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center) documented 10,018,278 Coronavirus cases and 237,742 deaths.
You may be strong enough to navigate the stress. But what if you aren't, and what if your team isn't? How will you model the leadership and strength necessary to get the help and support you need and encourage your team to seek the help and support they need?
Here are the three steps you should consider taking:
- Recognize your vulnerability to stress and burnout and seek the help you need to be okay.
- List the resources your hospital has available for your team and encourage them to use them (which is easier to accomplish if you have accessed them yourself). Consider posting your Employee Assistance Provider contact information and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline information in your department where everyone can see it.
- Check in with your team daily to see how they are doing. Encourage and implement a peer support process so that you can all leave work at work at the end of your shift. Need more information about how to do this? Search for the hashtag #debriefyourteam on LinkedIn.
S.A. Leys is a coach, consultant and career navigator at http://www.coachingfornurses.io. We provide coaching, consulting, and debriefing for the healthcare professionals and teams who care for all of us. Follow our hashtag #debriefyourteam on LinkedIn to receive information and strategies to assist your team with coping and retention strategies.
Melodie Turk, Organizational Development Executive
Preventing burnout is all about consistently replenishing the energy we expend. It's like fueling a car—as you use up gas going to each new place, you need to put gas back in to replenish what was used. And if you drive it more frequently, you'll need to replenish the gas more frequently.
Understanding what activities expend our energy and what activities replenish our energy is essential to maintaining a healthy level that keeps us from feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet current demands.
Most of us can tell very quickly what activities expend our energy, but knowing what activities replenish our energy isn't always clear. Some people may automatically say spending time with family is how they refuel, but anyone cleaning up after a Thanksgiving meal can tell you that it didn't replenish their energy. Others may say reading a book, taking a vacation, or even visiting friends is how they refuel. While any of these activities may replenish you, they may also use up your energy.
I have discovered that activities that truly replenish your energy have several characteristics in common.
- The activity ALWAYS makes you feel good after participating in it.
- The activity gives you sustaining energy for a length of time.
- The activity is highly anticipated.
- And the longer you don't participate in the activity, the more noticeable the loss is.
If you don't know what truly replenishes your energy, it's time to find out! Avoid burnout and start replenishing what you're expending!
Melodie Turk has a passion for transforming people and organizations. With her 15+ years of experience in change management, making a difference in tomorrow is always the goal. Recently, she led talent development strategy and implementation for 1600+ employees—adding learning hours, training sessions, and diversity and inclusion conversations—all which increased employee engagement, enhanced culture, and promoted workplace satisfaction.
Dr. Jan Urbahn, Automotive & Shared Mobility Executive
My experience is that burnout is based on a psychological component, but there's also a real physiological reason for burnout.
For anything we want to do, even thinking a thought, our body needs energy. When you receive a text message about an unexpected situation, and you need to write an email, plan a meeting, call someone, or book a business trip, your body sets off a chain of biochemical processes, and the adrenal glands are playing a key part in that. These adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands located on top of both kidneys, which produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions. They get worn out over the years due to overstimulation and this leads to the adrenal fatigue phenomenon.
Ways to overcome adrenal fatigue may include:
1. Try to slow down. Instead of hitting the gym and doing power exercises, just take a long walk. Rethink your schedule and try to reprioritize some projects or delegate them.
2. Adjust your eating and drinking. You may try to replace your coffee with tea, think about eating more vegetables, and cut drinking alcohol. When you eat or drink you may ask yourself: "Does this provide nutrients for my body or is this food for fun?"
3. Introduce some "me time" into your life. For example, consider not checking your phone for the first half hour of the day.
In addition to the exhaustion of the body, there's the exhaustion of the mind that contributes to burnout. Again, this is an effect that builds up over years and decades, but it is accumulative. My favorite tool to prevent burnout is regular meditation. Transcendental Meditation (TM) works best for me. It is a very easy technique; it is a "should-free-zone" for me. In TM, you sit comfortably in a chair, close your eyes and repeat silently a mantra. This sets up the conditions in the body to get some deep rest for body and mind, so both can heal. I do it twice daily for 20 minutes and I can do it anywhere, even at an airport, in a taxicab, or a busy place in the city. The benefits of TM are also accumulative: it's not one meditation that will completely refresh you, but the regular daily practice builds up to longtime benefits.
A great reminder for myself is the personal story of Jerry Seinfeld. He says that he ended his famous show because the daily stress to always come up with a new idea for a new episode wore him out. Then he started TM twice daily, and he said, though it feels like nothing special happens during meditation, he certainly would still run his show today, if he would have done it back then.
In my experience the morning meditation primes me for the day while the afternoon/evening meditation gives me fresh energy and reduces the stress that built up from the day's events.
Dr. Jan Urbahn is an automotive executive with 20+ years of experience in product development, safety engineering, and operations in automotive and shared mobility business. He helped launch 3 new businesses with up to 1,500 shared cars in fleet size. His most recent leadership position is within the shared mobility space, where he helped develop a new EV battery and guided the coronavirus response.
As you can see, the executives above agree on what "burnout" is and some of the best ways to handle it when it happens to you. Leaders, don't be ashamed to admit you're burned out. It happens to everyone. We hope these tips help you overcome burnout no matter when it strikes.
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