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Understanding Burnout: Navigating the Fire Within Our Work and Lives – ARTICLE OF THE WEEK – Issue 234 – April 2024

In today’s fast-paced world, the term ‘burnout’ resonates deeply as it reflects a fire consuming our energy, leaving us physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. Whether it’s meeting deadlines or balancing responsibilities, our work demands constant fuel. Yet, in the pursuit of professional success, we often overlook our own well-being, pushing ourselves until our reserves run dry. Recognising the critical stage of burnout is essential, prompting us to contemplate change and take action. As we navigate through stages of reflection, preparation, and action, it’s imperative to prioritise self-care. From delegating tasks to seeking support and embracing personal interests, replenishing our energy becomes paramount. Failure to address burnout not only jeopardises our performance but also our overall health and relationships. So, let’s embark on a journey of self-discovery, empowering ourselves to reclaim balance and reignite our inner fire.

The term ‘burnout’ refers to a fire that has consumed all available fuel and oxygen, leading to a decrease in intensity or complete extinguishment. Relating that to ourselves, we experience burnout as physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion. Any work we do requires an expenditure of energy over time. The harder the challenge, the more energy and time is needed. Regardless of role, chances are you need to do more with less, finish work each night knowing how much more work is required.

The truth is that for most of us, our work requires extraordinary levels of energy and over a long time. Yet if we are not careful, we end up prioritising our work over our own wellbeing and we can only do that for so long. We are like a rechargeable battery that gives more energy than it takes and we lose the capacity to give the same amount of energy over time and end up dipping into reserves. We tell ourselves that it is only for a short period of time, we work longer hours – miss lunch, forego exercise, ignore hobbies – and miss out on time with loved ones. But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ve been doing this for months or years and our battery is starting to run low. We are now in a critical stage of burnout. If you don’t do something now, it could take you months or even years to recover. Your willingness to make crucial changes to your routine to protect yourself from burnout will depend on where you are on your own change curve. The following stages apply to any kind of change in our lives, personal or organisational.

1. Precontemplation
At this stage, you’re in denial. As far as you are concerned, there is no problem, and if there is, it is someone else’s. At a push, you may accept that you are on the edge of burnout, but believe it’s a temporary issue – despite the fact you’ve been suffering with various issues for a few years. Others can see it and might even have mentioned it, but you are having none of it. You say, ‘I’m fine,’ and fully believe it.

2. Contemplation
You have some level of recognition that there is a problem, and that you are a part of it. Typically, a move to this stage in the change curve is sparked by an intervention of some kind to raise our awareness such as feedback, coaching, a diagnostic, book, self-reflection or a trip to the doctor. We are left thinking about the impact of our behaviour, running ‘what-if’ scenarios in our minds and imagining what change might look like. In summary, we become more aware and begin to reflect deeply.

If, as a burnout candidate, you are reading this and thinking, ‘Yes, this is me,’ it can feel like a light being turned on. For some, it is liberating. ‘Things can change.’ For others, it can feel scary. ‘What does this mean?’

3. Preparation
As we become convinced of the need for change, we start to think about what that change should look like and formulate a plan. ‘What will I do and how? What support might I need? When is the right time to implement change?’

4. Action
At this stage, we are actively engaged in trying to change behaviours and we need the right type of support to maximise our chances of success. Positive behavioural change takes at least six months.

5. Maintenance
This phase is about cementing those hard-won changes, while planning for the inevitable relapses (especially likely when we’re stressed or under pressure). 

Making a behavioural change typically involves moving sequentially from one stage of the change curve to the next. But there’s little likelihood we will commit to an action if we don’t think we have a problem to start with. But what does preventing or remedying burnout look like on a practical level? It will depend upon how far down the path to burnout you are – and the sooner you stop potential burnout in its tracks, the easier it will be to deal with. Here are steps all leaders can take to replenish their oxygen and fuel: Delegate or empower more, cut down your working hours, seek some help, don’t sweat the small stuff, take regular time off and look to regain balance, rest more, sleep more, find and invest in interests outside of work, exercise, enjoy walking in nature, take lunch breaks, eat healthier, see a doctor/ coach/ therapist, meditate, spend time with loved ones, drink less alcohol/ caffeine, invest in yourself, develop self awareness and find opportunities to give back. If things have gone too far, you may need to take more drastic steps. This might be taking a sabbatical and stepping aside to let someone else lead for a season. Give yourself space and time to reconnect to you, recover your spirit, find your difference and re-energise your soul. If you don’t, things will only deteriorate. The more energy and time you have, the more effective your fire will be and if you do f ind yourself struggling, work with a good executive coach, as they live and work outside of your system and can bring a great amount of external energy to bear. T hey also give you time to think and reflect deeply. That is a key reason why so many studies show that you can expect a minimum return on investment in coaching of 7:1. The phrase work/life balance has become a bit of a cliché, but like so many of these oft-repeated sayings, it has significant merit. Too many leaders consider their non-work time as there to support their work life. They view evenings, weekends and holidays as a resource, essential for putting some much needed energy back into their tanks, or as ‘breathing space’ to ruminate over a problem that is driving them mad. If they’re lucky, they will return to work with just enough energy to stave off complete burnout for another week. If you let it, work will take every hour you have.

If things need to change, it is you that needs to change them. Take control of your diary and be completely clear about what needs to be in it this week and everything else can be stripped out. As a final point, to succeed in senior roles, a strong support network is needed. Perhaps tellingly, it is extremely rare to f ind a CEO married to another CEO, or a senior executive married to another senior executive. It can be an incredibly challenging scenario, because the demands of a senior – and often international – role so often require the support of the other. Ginni Rometty, the ex-IBM CEO, said that her husband had deliberately pursued a more flexible career to support her in taking the top job. The pressure of a demanding role can be a challenge when both partners have careers. If one is called up for a big opportunity, what happens to the other one? How do you balance this with your personal wellbeing, with your relationship with your partner, with your children and friends? Then there is making time for fitness, nutrition and mental health, which are all big, important parts of your life that should go hand-in-hand with – or at least complement – your career. So, what are you doing on a regular basis to fuel your own fire and charge your own battery? If you find yourself in a position of leadership, it is even more important to prioritise your own wellbeing.

JO Prochaska and CC DiClemente, ‘The transtheoretical approach’, in JC Norcross and MR Goldfried, Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2005), 147–171

Author of Disruptive Leadership Published by ReThink Press


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