By Jo Burston, Founder and CEO Inspiring Rare Birds
During one of the most intense periods of their career, leaders – from middle-management to C-Suite – are so busy looking after everyone else; managing new business challenges and focusing on employee performance and wellbeing, that they are at risk of burning themselves out.
● Most resources are geared towards leaders managing employee burnout. Very few, if any, are directed to guiding leaders who are themselves teetering on the edge of burnout.
● In order to avoid burnout, executives and managers should take advantage of the support and experience of mentors – often, they’ve been there, and they can see you more clearly than you can see yourself.
It’s easy to be a great leader and a great manager when things are good. But right now in many workplaces around the world, leaders in businesses of all sizes are experiencing unusual business circumstances and intense levels of stress – and they have little support in place.
We’re past talking about the flexible working environment, and past talking about the introverts and extroverts and how they manage, and past talking about new reporting and accountability structures and communication strategies.
Going by the conversations I’ve been having lately, it’s time to talk about how leaders are coping with all of the above and more.
The World Health Organization recognises workplace burnout as a legitimate occupational phenomenon. According to a 2019 survey, burnout is blamed for up to half of employee turnover. Stress-related burnout may impose a healthcare cost of $190 billion a year, and result in up to 120,000 deaths, and that’s just in the United States.
A recent WHO study suggests the global workplace cost of burnout may be upwards of $1 trillion. Frequently, articles and advice regarding burnout place the burden of managing employee burnout on business leaders, recommending that leaders set better expectations, provide more resources, and give employees rewards for work well done. Just look at this article from the Harvard Business Review: “When it comes to employee burnout, remember — it’s on you, leaders, not them.”
This is one of the most intense periods of many leaders’ careers as they navigate unfamiliar territory and adjust to each ‘next normal’. Leaders are spending more energy thinking about employee wellbeing, but motivating team members is often time-consuming without so many water cooler moments, and even sometimes a complete lack of face-to-face communication.
Check-ins are brief and digital and the need to loop others into meetings and decisions takes a lot of juggling information quickly to move things along. The rhythm of meetings and the level of each employee’s agency in their business has changed dramatically.
In my recent conversations with senior organisational leaders, they find that the more pressure they put on their team, the more performance increases. But as projects race ahead, the leaders’ time and focus are needed again, placing constant strain on them. That’s a balancing act, too – of course there comes a point when pressure starts affecting employees and projects negatively.
Other leaders report that the need to innovate during adverse times is compounding stress because companies have less resources, but are being asked to achieve more. Add to that the fact that leaders are directing and executing under pressure all day at work, and then fulfilling leadership duties at home, like helping kids with new homeschooling routines, supporting spouses or partners or extended family members.
This has its negatives and its positives, too – yet another balancing act. For example, fathers who are now working from home say their kids are gaining a better understanding of what daddy does, and as fathers they are enjoying the opportunity to role model leadership for their children.
But when suddenly it gets to 11pm and you realise you haven’t even had a shower that day, and you have to get up at 5am for a conference call with another country… for how long can or indeed should you sustain that pace and lifestyle?
Having suffered and survived burnout myself – when my first company, Job Capital, was experiencing hockey-stick growth amid the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis – I know there are certain things that helped me either keep standing, or get back up again.
Support people are critical to recognising warning signs of burnout, as well as providing emotional and practical help. But CXOs and managers don’t have the same oversight structures employees have. Often, a leader’s EA is the only person who might ask if they’re okay.
As a leader, it’s usually up to you to find your own support mechanisms.
I leaned on a mentor originally to develop critical skills, like how to tightly measure and manage financials, invest and hire the right employee. That same mentor was a vital support later, in guiding me through what felt like consistent and often insurmountable stress (what I later recognised was burnout).
Largely due to my mentors’ own experiences, priceless advice and them pointedly asking me the right questions, I started to see myself and my business more clearly. And thankfully I picked myself up, stronger, a better leader than before.
Executives and managers often have very driven personalities; perceptions of weakness and vulnerability are unacceptable. There’s a very real perception that leaders will just be okay.
You are a member of your team, too
If you think you don’t have time to treat your burnout, consider how it’s currently affecting your productivity, and how much more energy and motivation you may have if you do treat it. Diet, sleep, exercise, therapy, breaks, holidays – they might seem like they take time away from important work, but they will help improve your mindset and output long term.
Some of the advice from my mentors sticks with me even today, and I frequently share it with other leaders: you have to be well to do well.
This analogy, from Andrew Banks, stuck with me: I look at culture as the quality of the water in the fish tank, where the leader is in control of the filter. If you as a leader in your business are looking after that filter and making sure that water is nice and clean, everyone should be able to thrive in the tank – including you – becoming a better version of themselves professionally and personally.
When leaders burn out, it creates a ripple effect of loss of confidence and productivity in others. Treating burnout may improve your whole team or company morale.
A common refrain among good leaders is: “Everybody else comes before me”. But denial only accelerates a downward spiral. It’s time to be honest: great leaders invest in their own personal reflection and development.
Right now, while opportunities and risks in business are heightened, carving out time to nurture your mindset, mood, business acumen and management skills is imperative.
So reach out to your mentors, external coaches and peers in leadership; and take advantage of their experience and advice.
Have the courage to ask for help with managing new challenges and treating burnout.
You’ll become a better leader, for yourself, as well as everyone else.
If you would like Rare Birds to match you with a mentor who can support your growth and success, please email the team at email@example.com to arrange a chat.