Are you unknowingly in danger of burnout?

Posted on August 5, 2019 · Posted in blog

“Burnout Crisis Forces New Look At Workplace Health” – Business Day, 15 Jul 2019

This headline caught my eye the other day because it absolutely aligned with my experience that many executives are exhausted, over-stressed, over-stretched and overwhelmed. My typical clients (if there is such a thing) tend to hold senior positions and are usually very successful, but they are often oblivious to the encroaching stressors.

Burnout on the rise

Let’s roll back for a second for those who missed the article, originally published in the Financial Times. It starts with a very sad story, about a lawyer who was so immersed in a complicated case that his mental and physical health took a knock. It ultimately became so bad that Gabe MacConaill took his own life.

You could ask yourself: Where were his bosses and colleagues? Why did no one step in and come to his aid? And where are we as a society at large – lawmakers in particular – in the face of this faster and increasingly stressful world of ours? Are we paying enough attention to the mountain of evidence to how life in this century affects us and do we apply measures to remedy the high price tag this faster life requires?

The FT article highlights the rise in chronic illnesses, and from many other sources (including the World Health Organization), we know that mental health issues are on the rise. In South Africa, there is a whole other set of challenges, namely the stressors of unemployment and lack of service delivery. For far too many South Africans there is a constant and widespread pressure of hopelessness as they realise that their chances of improving their lives are not within reach.

But those who are in employment are vulnerable to the pressures of success.

The role of coaching

Our coaching clients – especially for us, as executive coaches – are the ones who made it through the ranks by having the ability to overcome the pressures of constantly having to prove their worth, of providing consistent excellent performance and of coping with many varied demands that require an array of different skills. They have acquired the ability to move between tasks, to make good decisions, and to take people along with them. Most manage to also take time to think about the bigger picture or the next move.

Our clients are the ones who can stand the onslaught of hundreds of demands laid at their feet (or, most probably, on their screens). It happens relentlessly: every day, year after year. But these executives go through the day without feeling sorry for themselves and often without even acknowledging they are tired until they fall asleep in the middle of a TV movie at night or, more likely, while reading a report they left for bedtime to catch up on. Many of them do find time to relax, play golf, engage with social activities. Those are better off – because when you read on you will see how these activities are proven remedies against the dangers of stress.

However, most executives are at risk, often without acknowledging it. They expect their work lives to be stressful: “If you can’t stand the heat,” said one of them proudly, “get out of the kitchen”. One of my very high achieving clients told me recently: “If I allow myself to stop and do nothing, I will probably go mad”. When probed, he said: “I will start thinking about all the stuff I don’t want to think about”. He was referring to the lack of sleep, the fact he barely sees his children and that he just generally feels utterly depleted. “But I cannot afford to stop.”

This client was repeatedly cancelling his coaching appointments. “I am too busy.” “It is just a crazy period.” But the “crazy period” extended to months, and then years. When I challenged him on this (with humour and compassion, but with no flinching), he sheepishly smiled and accepted that it is precisely in those “crazy periods” which he needs coaching the most.

Coaching provides an island of pause, allowing high achievers to let their hair down without fear of prejudice. To have a sounding board. To offload. Or have a thinking partner. Or a shoulder to lean on.

What can we do about stress?

1. Acknowledge it:
We all must talk about the phenomenon of too much stress everywhere – in the media, at schools and in companies. We must formally and informally accept and acknowledge that there are very real dangers hidden in success, in achievement and in climbing to the top. It is not about giving up on lofty goals or ambition. Rather, it is about getting some balance. In a way, it is similar to what has been done (too slowly still!) about postpartum depression – a hushed and shameful event that women for generations felt lonely and weird about – and which is now increasingly known to be fairly common. Awareness is always the first step.

2. Learn to identify burnout or pre burnout signs:
Especially in yourself. This checklist should help you identify the signs in others around you and offer timely support.

3. Have a support system in place:
Do you have a coach, or a therapist, or a very wise mentor, or a trusted friend you can completely confide in? If no one comes to mind immediately, make sure you find someone whose number is in your phone and whom you can contact when signs of burnout start to appear (or even better, before they appear). To help you decide which support option is right for you, here’s a diagram taken from a Harvard Business Review survey done in 2009 among organisational coaches:

4. Activate immediate remedies:
Use one or more of the four scientifically proven immediate stress-relief methods.
They are all readily available. You simply need to train yourself to use them to allow for recovery and prevent the long term damage and burnout.)

  • Mindfulness – Simply pause. Pausing is understated and underrated. Smell the roses (literally, even if you do so for a moment, it has an effect). Be in the moment, notice what’s around you. Do a breathing exercise.
  • Hope – Think about your next vacation, a party you’re looking forward to, a child about to be born or anything that makes you connect with feelings of hope or positivity. It can be a very small thing (my husband is making a roast for dinner).
  • Playfulness – Throw a ball, pause to watch a silly video with cats toppling groceries or cute babies playing, or a short standup comedy gig. Play with your children or cuddle a baby or a pet. Play. With no immediate benefit or outcome except for, well, playing.
  • Compassion – Help someone else. It can be a small act of help or lending an ear to someone’s troubles. Feeling others’ pain releases our busy minds from the negative mode we were operating in when doing more, faster and better (and exhausting ourselves).

Since this is a blog post, which I try to keep digestible and every-day practical, I won’t go into the body of scientific evidence which explains the neuroscience behind these and how they help. However, if you are interested, a fortune of articles can be found here or here, for example.

In short: let us all stay aware of the excessive stress that is lurking about and that this stress can become – over time, and if left unattended to – a threat to your well-being and to your health. Let us also raise awareness so what happened to Gabe MacConaill does not happen to others.