December 16

Navigating the Threat of Burnout


Burnout is a very real threat to leaders across the spectrum of experience. The Mayo Clinic defines it as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” That’s a pretty powerful statement (especially that loss of personal identity part – we’ll get to that), and as much as we hate to admit it sometimes, it’s a very real phenomenon that many passionate leaders face in some form or fashion.

  • Whether it’s fighting against an attitude that has become more cynical or critical over time (and you can’t explain why)
  • A perceptible increase in your fatigue level
  • Slower starts or just a general lag and weight to getting yourself going
  • Increasing impatience with those around you
  • A decrease in productivity (what used to take a few minutes is now dragging on for a lot longer)
  • Difficulty staying focused
  • A general lack of satisfaction (things that used to give you energy don’t anymore and you’re getting home a lot more tired than you used to)
  • More frequent thoughts of “is this worth it”
  • Troubled sleep and unexplained headaches, stomach issues, or other physical issues that didn’t exist before
  • Or, at the upper end, an increase in “stimulants” (like alcohol or meds)

Every one of those items are challenges we face on a regular basis, and we usually tackle them that way – as individual cases. So we tend to “fight” each challenge on it’s own. We try to get more sleep to deal with the fatigue; we may skip our workout and replace it with something else (usually work related); we drink more energy drinks or wear air-pods so we can have some music to boost our work productivity and focus; we chalk things up to getting older or to the temporary “stress” of the environment we’re in. Our headaches get chalked up to allergies, and our stomach aches get chalked up to dietary problems (or allergies).

But the reality is that everything in that list is a symptom, not a problem. The problem is behind them and, in many cases, it’s some level of burnout.

And here’s the challenge: As leaders we are experts at identifying problems and “fixing” them. But when we take that approach to burnout, we generally make things worse instead of better because two things happen:  

  • We create a snowball rolling downhill effect: Each time you add a “fix” to one problem you just roll the thing over and end up having to add fixes to the next problem…and the next…and the next. It just keeps picking up size and steam.
  • You create what we call a self-licking ice cream cone:  All those “fixes” you’re adding to your plate are actually becoming stressors on top of what is already stressing you. The more you try to “fix” one problem, the more other problems crop up. The more those problems crop up, the more stress you have and the more “fixes” you need.

    All of this is being added to an already full plate of stressors, so the more of these “fixes” you add the fewer things on your plate you’re getting done. The fewer things you get done the more stress you feel and the more fixes you need. It just perpetuates and keeps going without you having to do anything.

So how do you deal with potential burnout? Stop “fixing” it and learn, instead, to slowly alleviate the causes of it…at the source!

Let’s talk about four quick actions you can take today to start a journey away from burnout:

Fill the tank. One of the causes of burnout is our inability to step away, turn-off, or transition between tasks. We’re on a high speed train from when we get up until we go to bed, so one of things we’ve got to do (since we can’t slow the train down) is learn to gas it up:

Breaks: Some people can go for long periods of time working a myriad of tasks without taking breaks. Others can’t. It’s not that they’re less effective, they just can’t go as far on a single tank. Learn your style and be willing to adapt to it.

If you’re on the normal to low energy side take breaks every hour or two. Yes, it sounds crazy but try it – just 5 or 10 minutes every 1 to 2 hours and you’ll find your productivity will increase. A great way to do this is during natural transition times – when you finish one task pause for a few minutes before you tackle the next one. Your mind needs time to disengage and then reengage (which is what the bulk of those first few minutes will be anyway so it’s a great time to break out).

High energy folks need to break, too – just not as frequently. What high energy people need is mileage (we’ll talk about that below), so for them a break consists of finishing tasks, seeing progress, and then breaking in some form or fashion 2 or 3 times a day.

Tailor that fill-up: Not only will the frequency of the breaks vary person to person but so will the type of break:

If you’re kind of high on the extroversion scale, you tend to fuel and fill by being around people. Not meetings…people. So you’ll need that to refuel. If you’re taking a 5 minute walk, go with somebody; if you’re going to lunch, take a few people with you. It will fill your tank even more.

If you’re more of the introvert, then being around people drains your tank. It’s not that introverts don’t like people – they do – they just get more tired being around them. You need to break out for a few and do something that fuels you without other people or with no more than one person.

If you’re high energy, get some tasks done or you won’t be able to break properly. Finish something then step away.

Understand the difference between your passion and your profession. One of the causes of burnout is that feeling of running on a hamster wheel that goes nowhere. This is becoming more and more common in today’s fast-paced and high-stress environment.

Understand that part of what causes our stress is feeling that what we are doing day after day isn’t contributing to where we want to go. We’re just running on that wheel. Angela Duckworth in her book Grit gives a parable:

Three bricklayers are asked: What are you doing?

The first says, “I am laying bricks.”

The second says, “I am building a church.”

The third says, “I am building the house of God.”

The first one has a profession – the last one has a passion. Find your purpose – at work and outside.

Sometimes our profession lines up with our passion – that’s great. But if it doesn’t, then learn to treat it as your profession. Stay focused, find the purpose behind what you do, and make a difference while you’re there. But make sure you find a way to pursue your passion.

Find the outlets – your passion fuels you, so find a way to get that fuel. If your passion is making a difference in people’s lives, find a way to do that: at work, at home, and elsewhere. The hamster wheel is part of the issue but it’s not all the issue – the real issue is that the hamster wheel is all you’ve got to look forward to. Change that equation.

Get the small wins: As a business leader today, every single one of us is faced with an overwhelming volume of “things to be done.” There aren’t enough hours in the day, there isn’t enough bandwidth in our minds, and there just isn’t the manpower at our disposal to finish the sheer volume of things that hit our plate. Eating that giant pie at once can be an extremely daunting task. It’s hard to keep drinking when it’s coming at you like a firehose. After a while you’ll get worn out just trying to keep your head up.

Learn to chunk your days. Leaders need time – if you’re engaged every minute of every day your productivity goes down, your work quality goes down, and your health goes down. Chunk your days and weeks out.

If you’re typically more productive in the morning then focus on getting your creative work done then. Try to push meetings out of your productive zone.

Fight the gap – give yourself breathing space between meetings – you need that transition time we mentioned above. Force it into your schedule so you can digest/capture what came out of the last meeting before you walk into the next one. (Question: Fight the gap or embrace the gap?)

Establish a “battle rhythm” of meetings, administrative work, email response periods, and creative work periods. Then stick to it! Give yourself permission to work on one task at a time. Schedule when you’re actually going to get to the other tasks. Get those time periods chunked out and stick to them. When your mind releases everything else (because everything else has a place to go) and focuses in on a single task, your productivity (and energy) will spike.

Plan flex time. No matter what you do or how well you plan, you know things are going to pop into your schedule and mess up your “chunks.” So leave flex time. Make room for “stuff” to flow into so you can still finish what you planned to finish. Guard that flex time ruthlessly.

Don’t eat the whole pie at once – build goals and targets then shoot for one at a time. Small wins don’t seem like much but remember, high energy people can’t disengage unless they finish something. So create small wins – identifiable and achievable goals that help you walk away knowing you finished something. Two things will happen – it will give you a rope to climb every day (and anybody who is driven needs that) and it will give you markers along the rope so you can see how far you climbed on any given day (and every one of us needs that).

Turn it off: this one is huge. Part of what causes burnout is information and stress overload – there’s just too much coming at us for too long a period of time. As hard as it is to do in our wired world learn to turn things off:

Get off social media for periods of time: as much as we think we’re “checking in” or “staying engaged” social media is a breeding ground for stress:

It fuels our fears when we see the news

It fuels our discontent when we see how good everybody else is doing compared to us (because everybody is a hero on social media).

Step away from the “office” and let your folks know to only contact you with emergencies. Build this habit if you can. Being on-call 24 hours a day feels great (because we’re important) but it leaves no time to decompress and engage with our passion (family, hobbies, quiet time, etc.).

Network: Every leader needs a tribe and a network outside of the workspace. Build this – cultivate it – encourage it – and make sure you follow it. Whether it’s a bible study group, a lunch group, a professional mentorship/growth group, a workout group – whatever it is – build this and stick to it. When you focus in on this for set periods of time it will turn off everything else, remind you of who you are and why you do what you do, and fill your tank as you get ready to tackle the next mile.

In short: avoiding burnout is not a single product. Like anything to do with leadership navigating the very real threat of burnout as a leader today is a process over time. It is the responsibility of the leader to build the habits that alleviate the underlying causes of burnout so they can serve their organizations, their families, and their communities effectively for more than a blip of time.  Otherwise the very real risk for passionate leaders is not just the risk of burning out – but that in trying to “fix” the problems associated with it they actually exacerbate the very things that are causing it – and this world loses the gifts of the very talented person you were created to be.

Don’t let your pursuit of eliminating the symptoms of burnout end up actually fueling the causes of burnout.

Stay focused, stay disciplined, and stay in the game – this world, your family, and your organization needs you: you owe them the best of you.

Welcome to leadership - now go lead!


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