Let’s Talk About Burnout – and 5 Things You Can do About It

By James Burroughes

Jul 22

As leaders, we can start thinking about doing these five things for ourselves and our teams.

I moved back to NZ on Christmas Eve 2019 and hit the ground running. I’ve been house hunting twice, bought an apartment, a car, and re-established links with friends I haven’t seen in a couple of years; whilst working. I was burning the candle at both ends for sure. 

And then COVID happened. I am sure most people are sick and tired of hearing about COVID related stuff, but it struck me that we have gone through, and in many countries, continue to go through, is the greatest disruption of a generation. This disruption has transcended business, home life, family life, and well, just about everything. And it’s taken its toll.

COVID created a lot of issues because people treated it like another business problem and started sprinting towards trying to solve it. This was exacerbated by the psychological windows of lockdown and Levels which bound the temporal concept of our experience. The reality is that people are still running. But they are trying to run a marathon at sprint pace. 

I have been discussing with colleagues and clients how they are feeling and many have said they aren’t sleeping well and are over-tired. They are putting on weight, using alcohol to ‘self-medicate’, eating junk food because of the long hours and not really feeling like they are in control of their lives at present. Many are still trying to work out how to adjust to the new expectations of working from home and feeling like they need to work longer and longer hours. All of this is tiring.

I had breakfast with a group of future thinkers I did a webinar with a few months ago and they said much the same. People are absorbing their commute into the working day. They aren’t moving around as much due to the endless zoom meetings. Self-care was deprioritised whilst home-schooling and remote work became the priority. The result? People are really fatigued. The adrenaline rush of COVID has abated, to be replaced by chronic fatigue and burnout. 

Some symptoms of burnout described by the Mayo Clinic are:

  • Becoming cynical or critical at work
  • Having to drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients
  • Lacking the energy to be consistently productive
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel
  • Sleep habits changed

This pattern of working is not sustainable for companies or employees.
The long term wellbeing consequences are even scarier if leaders don’t act to help themselves and their people:

  • Sadness, anger or irritability
  • Alcohol or substance misuse
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Vulnerability to other illnesses

The pool of people I am connecting with are mostly leaders. And if they are struggling, how do you think their teams are feeling? My guess is pretty similar. After all, life doesn’t discriminate when it comes to these types of things. 

So then the next question is, what can leaders do about this? Korn Ferry wrote a great article using the oxygen mask analogy. Focus on sorting yourself out before you help others. But as leaders, we can provide some clear guidance and permission to our teams as they might not have the presence of mind to cope right now.

5 things you can do:

  1. Consider how you want to ‘show up’ to your team and how you want others to see you. Are you the leader who is still at full sprint? Or are you the leader who is in business continuity mode; planning and executing calmly. Your team will observe, react, and most likely mimic your example.
  2. Encourage and role model time in your calendar for recuperation and relaxation. Whether that is a shift to the four day week, a meditation half-hour, pics of you, and your family at the park. Share your R&R with your team and ask them to create experiences that offer the same.
  3. Examine your annual leave/vacation plots. Many of my clients haven’t taken leave since before COVID and many have been working more than 5 days per week. Encourage people to take a day off here and there. 
  4. Work out! It’s that simple. There is endless research on the benefits of exercise – even if it is a 5-10 minute walk around the building at lunch. Get out of your house, office, warehouse and do something. 
  5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! The biggest lesson we have learned through this experience is the importance of communication. You need to communicate relentlessly with your team. What is going well, what isn’t? Progress, challenges, good jobs well done, improvement opportunities. Expectation and commitments. Whilst people are in a mental fuzz, your team will need explicit and clear communication to feel assured that they are on the right track. Those who have regressed into work-zombie burnout won’t hear subtle or nuanced communications so you need to spot them and help.

Thanks for reading!
Jimmy Burroughes

Leave a Comment:

Leave a Comment: