6th July 2020

Be alert to leadership burnout

By Dr Caroline Horner

When lockdown was announced, many expected it to last for three weeks.

When the situation was reviewed, lockdown was then extended. It must be said that on the surface of things, we seemed to adapt quite pragmatically, perhaps in the belief that it could only go on for a month – maybe a couple of months at the very most.

We’ve just passed our 100th day in lockdown. Though restrictions have eased, the temporary measures we put in place to adjust have become rather more permanent, we’re treating them as the ‘new normal’.

We asked people in a recent survey to reflect on their lockdown experiences. Many reported the positives: not commuting, spending more time with kids and a greater sense of community in their local area.

However what the survey also showed and what I’m hearing in conversations with clients, colleagues and friends is that leaders, particularly those with large teams or whose days are dominated by ‘people matters’ are also experiencing symptoms of burnout.

Burnout isn’t just tiredness. It is a state of emotional, mental or physical exhaustion caused by extended or repeated periods of stress. The stress is often linked to work but can also be the result of parenting, caring responsibilities or relationships.

Coronavirus has affected the majority of us in all of these areas and many more besides.

However, if we just look at work, burnout might be caused by any one in a myriad of elements: feeling out of control, uncertainty, ambiguity, increased workload, steep learning curves, the amount of emotional ‘holding’ required and lack of personal support.

Leaders probably face these elements every single day and the dial on those things has been turned up during lockdown. Unfortunately, when you’re the leader there is often an expectation for you to support others and to be self-sufficient when it comes to supporting yourself.

With the line between home life well and truly blurred, the problem is only exacerbated. With no travel time between meetings, the pressure to have back to back calls increases, as you are in one place people believe that you are “on call”.

It can feel relentless and there seems to be no break. Research by Lynda Gratton suggests that this is particularly the case for working women with young children who are being expected to pick up the majority of ‘life admin’ for their households including home-schooling.

Greater demands were put on leaders when lockdown began and they continue to bear strategic uncertainty for their organisation, uncertainty about their own roles and process the feelings of anxiety of those they lead.

It is leaders who have to have the difficult conversations about redundancies and then cope with the emotional fallout. All of this, over a prolonged period leads to burnout without proper support.

I’ve been asked a number of times during this uncertain period about how leaders can take care of themselves in lockdown, so I wanted to suggest a few things to consider.

Though they might seem obvious – it’s usually the very obvious things that are hardest to do – particularly when we’re busy and overstretched.

Take time off

Seriously. Take time off. While an Aperol Spritz on the Amalfi Coast or two weeks relaxation on a beach in Tulum might be where we’d rather spend our annual leave, don’t hold out for it. It’s really not about the physical location, it’s about the mental break. So delegate what needs to be delegated, trust that people and processes are in place so that things will tick along but set your out of office and take time off wherever you are.

Close the door

Set a boundary for what time your day ends. Put your laptop and notepad away in a drawer and don’t open until the start of your next working day. If you are lucky enough to have a separate space or home office, once you’ve done enough, leave and don't open the door for the rest of the evening. Delegate if you need to, but as soon as you have, close the door. You’ll be more effective when you return, whether that’s the following day or two weeks later.

Keep moving, get outside and bring nature to you!

It has been said that sitting is the new smoking in regards to the damage it does to our health. If you are finding yourself sitting all day think about what you are sitting on and if you believe your office chair would help perhaps ask to get it sent to your home for this period or a standing desk position perhaps.

Connecting with nature helps us to manage stress. Taking a walk around the block, commit to a lunchtime ball game with your children, breathe deeply and lie in the sun. These activities will refuel you. It is easy to be drawn into thinking that you don’t have time to get out however when we do we frequently are more effective and get more done when we return. Think about how you can bring nature to you – pick some flowers for your desk or something else that brings the outdoors in and calms you.

Prioritise your wellbeing

Physical activity has a significant impact in managing stress levels as do activities such as meditation and mindfulness. Think little and often and structure it into your day – during your early morning run or YouTube yoga class. Just 5 mins breathing and meditation can have a really positive impact.

You may want to try something I discovered a few years ago and am a huge fan of – MELT. It is a full-body method of self-care which you can do with a tiny ball. It truly reduces stress, grounds your body and gives you renewed energy. You can try this technique on line with Katie Takashima, one of London’s top body worker’s this July and August – see Events.

Work out what’s really important

Lockdown has encouraged us to work out what is important to us: from essential food items to who we let into our ‘bubble’. We do still find ourselves juggling things and if you’re juggling it’s really hard to prioritise. You can use our values tool to help determine what matters most to you.

Ask for help

Leaders often excel at taking responsibility, being resilient and self-sufficient. They take longer to recognise the value of being vulnerable on occasion and asking for help. It doesn’t make you a poor leader to ask for help on occasion, if anything it helps others to know that you are human and builds deeper connections and rapport.

See this period as an opportunity to stretch that muscle if you have yet to use it. Develop your capacity to ask for help, to say no and set boundaries. You may also want to get support through working in a confidential space with a coach and a group of leaders who are juggling similar challenges.

Group sessions can offer a real sense of support, particularly given how isolating this experience has been for many of us. Perhaps consider joining one of our group coaching series or work individually with a coach

Be kind to yourself – show yourself compassion

This is a tough time. Be realistic and don’t beat yourself up. There is only so much one person can do. In this environment some things just won't get done, some people will just have to wait a bit longer, we may have to adopt the scruffy rather than the ironed look once in a while. Remember that by prioritising yourself at times, being kind to yourself is helping others as you will have more energy to be available and present with others.