Stress is a fact of professional life, but extreme and unrelenting pressures can lead to the debilitating state we call burnout. Research has linked burnout to many health problems, including hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and substance abuse. Moreover, it can ruin relationships and jeopardise career prospects. The high levels of uncertainty at present due to the Pandemic and other global scenarios exacerbate already difficult situations.
Resolving burnout can require changes at the job, team, or organisational level. But you can also take steps toward recovery and prevention on your own: Prioritize your health, shift your perspective to determine which aspects of your situation are fixed and which can be changed, reduce exposure to the most stressful activities and relationships, and seek out helpful interpersonal connections.
It’s important to ward off burnout on your team as well: Insist on time for rest and renewal, set realistic work limits, boost your team’s sense of control, provide meaningful recognition, and ask people what help or training they need to succeed.
I had the pleasure of meeting with a favourite client yesterday. The organisation includes a team of dedicated, highly capable professionals who deliver outstanding services to their community. The focus of our discussions initially centred on budget setting, business planning and risks and opportunities. Very quickly however, our discussions moved from the fiscal to the physical, mental and emotional challenges the team face and how they continue to deliver to demanding clients without them personally risking burn out. Given how quickly this topic came up, I assume that this is something they have been worried about for some time and recognised that they needed to do something to avert a problem. We had a productive discussion and I shared some of my experiences and learning in this space.
This is a topic that is close to my heart – in my early thirties I was presented with an opportunity that was too good to resist. It was my first promotion to senior management in a multinational engineering company. The organisation was in distress and a team was needed to lead a turn around. The plant was over an hour away by car, necessitating a daily commute through heavy motorway traffic. The situation was not made any easier by our parent company who, regardless of what we achieved, demanded more and faster. Looking back I now recognise this as a high risk scenario – at that stage of my life I was immortal and felt I could achieve anything. Hindsight always gives 20-20 vision.
The team I worked alongside was very good, we worked long and hard and began to implement a raft of changes to return the company to profit after a botched acquisition and integration project. We began to see some success and I secured another promotion. I was now managing a large team and was proud that my efforts and achievements were being recognised. I began to envisage the next promotion and where I could be in the next five years.
Then one lunchtime it all crashed – I felt physically really strange, couldn’t work out what was going on and got very frightened. I now know that I had been hit by a panic attack brought on by a combination of too little sleep, too much adrenaline, excessive amounts of caffeine and stress all delivered over a sustained period. It took me weeks to become functional, months to be able to get back to being productive and years to work out what had happened and how to make sure I could manage demanding challenges and workloads.
This is not a unique tale - the Harvard Business Review reports that that circa 7% of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout, but in certain sectors rates as high as 50% are reported among medical residents and 85% among financial professionals. A ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue.
Over the years I have found three things invaluable in ensuring I can operate in high stress and challenging situations.
Building in Downtime
High performance athletes know that the Recovery Phase is essential to allow them to train effectively and perform at their highest levels. In Business it is no different – you cannot continue to run in the red zone all the time. I have found over the years that cycling allows me to relax, reflect and recover. This is not the answer for everyone, but find the thing that works for you and give yourself permission to undertake this activity.
Reflecting on my career, points when I felt under most pressure were those in which I didn’t have control. Allowing others to make unrealistic demands is a problem that inevitably leads to some form of breakdown. A healthy organisation should allow you to manage your workload, ensuring that the needs of the organisation and your wellbeing are both served. If you cannot achieve this balance, then the problem is probably with the organisation you work for and not you.
Having a Mentor
I have found it invaluable to have a confidante who I can share experiences with. When you are in the middle of a challenging project it can be difficult to maintain objectivity. Being able to explore situations with someone not engaged in my reality, allows for development and implementation of alternate strategies and solutions. It’s also useful to have someone hold a mirror up to you when some of the good habits (inevitably) slip.
For those of us in leadership roles we have a duty of care to our staff to ensure we create the environment that allows not only us, but our colleagues to flourish and succeed. Taking time to consider where individuals are and how they are coping can ensure that teams can continue to perform and that unplanned disruptions due to illness or key staff leaving are avoided. As ever the return on time invested in managing a situation is handsomely rewarded.