Why leaders have to be well to do well – 10 tips to combat leadership burnout.

Why leaders have to be well to do well – 10 tips to combat leadership burnout.

“Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in value, dignity, spirit, and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.” ~ Maslach and Leiterww

Leadership can be a lonely and stressful place. You have information that you cannot share with everyone. You have context and framework for situations and challenges when most are not able to see the full picture. The pressure, isolation, and weight can feel overwhelming, causing things to seem hopeless and you to feel anxious and stressed. Burned out leaders become slow and indecisive when faced with important decisions, and they feel much less confident in their choices. This can lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities, as well as lower employee morale and engagement.

The WHO now recognises burnout as a medical condition. Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Burnout can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a draining role for a long time. You can also experience burnout when your efforts at work have failed to produce the results that you expected, and you feel deeply disillusioned as a result. Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give. This is dangerous for you, and dangerous for your organisation. Burnout potentially costs Australian business billions of dollars annually in lost productivity, stress leave, poor decision-making, low team morale and sub-optimal management practices.

High achieving executives are at perhaps the highest risk and their slow journey to complete burnout can impact entire companies and spill out into home life and relationships, creating a ripple effect of damage. Mental and physical exhaustion can compound denial as a front-line coping mechanism. CEOs and executives can have very driven personalities and feel weak if they are not coping, fearing if they show signs of weakness, the culture at executive level will see them as vulnerable. Toxic workplace cultures that value face time over output, that “watch the clock” and count presence in the office as a sign of commitment and that expect 24/7 availability of leadership are damaging the psychological health of the people being charged with leading engagement, performance and wellbeing at work.

Recognising burnout early is crucial to minimising the disastrous effects on every area of life. Denial is an accelerator. Seeking help is a sign of strength and good leadership practice, not a sign of weaknesses. You can’t lead effectively with an empty cup. The burnout metaphor implies not only that somebody had to be on fire (i.e. have passion and commitment for the job.) before they can burnout, but also that once a fire is burning, it cannot continue to burn unless resources are provided to keep it on burning.

10 tips to combat leadership burnout

  1. Recognise when passion turns to poison and know your early warning signs. Common burnout symptoms include poor sleep, loss of motivation, exhaustion, feeling every day at work is a bad day, increased irritability and engaging in escapist behaviours like excessive drinking. Then take action.
  2. Increase your self-efficacy – the belief in your own ability to accomplish and exercise control over personally meaningful goals and tasks. The most direct and effective way to enhance self-efficacy is through performance mastery experiences. Seek out coaching and professional development experiences to identify mastery experiences. 
  3. Empower your team and delegate more – share your vision and purpose and reduce micro-managing.
  4. Become more deliberate with your time. Use your leisure time wisely and seek out positive social support and sources of relaxation and achievement outside of work.
  5. Take a break, 20 minutes a day. No texting, no internet, just you and an introspective practice (like mindfulness). What you do during this time can vary. What matters most is that you’re away from your tasks. Unplug out of work daily.
  6. Rewind, reflect, remember – Take time to remember why you’re doing what you do. What is your purpose? Why is this work so important to you? What do you hope to achieve?
  7. Get the basics right – diet, sleep and exercise.
  8. Drop denial and honestly assess your situation and work toward solutions. Ask yourself the following questions: How am I travelling?, What am I passionate about? Am I doing those things? Why am I doing what I am doing? What would I feel if I were to change my situation? What is one thing can I change today? What action can I take to alter my situation? Can I allow myself to take a break from my current situation? How long would I need?
  9. Mentally remove yourself from the job – step back and try to look at your job from an external objective point of view. Imagine how others might view your responsibilities and the expectations they would reasonably hold.
  10. Manage you energy not your time. Work out when you are most productive and do important tasks then. Chart your energy and rank activities in terms of whether they energise you or drain you. Then do what you’re best at when you’re at your best

The Human Era calls for a new kind of leader, whose most fundamental role is to serve as Chief Energy Officer, responsible for mobilising, focusing, inspiring and regularly recharging the energy of those they lead. Paying for people’s time is no guarantee you’ll also get their energy, engagement, focus or passion. The human cost of burnout is unacceptable at any level of an organisation. Wellbeing is a person’s core purpose. The human spirit has not found its place in business and to be honest, it has not been particularly welcome. As a result, people have been forced to leave their vulnerability, hearts, and intuition at the door, operating within a potential-limiting shell of their whole selves. This includes our leadership.

“One casualty of leadership for many leaders is their heart. We stop believing the best about people and focus on patterns not people. People promise and don’t deliver and we armour up. We stop looking for flickers of light and focus on shortcomings. A harder heart becomes our new normal.”

Businesses and leaders need not cease focusing on business growth and profitability. Rather they might view valuing and developing people and empowering them to enhance their own wellbeing as a noble gateway to both. This starts with culture and enacting the values that we preach. Self-care and self-compassion are core leadership skills not just to prevent individual burnout, but also to build a culture of genuine caring of people that humanises work again.

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