It can be easy when you’re at the top to focus on supporting everyone else yet fail to acknowledge your own exhaustion. And with the most recent lockdown showing no sign of ending anytime soon, you’re probably already having a tough time trying to prevent your teams from burning out. But what happens when you start to feel the strain too?
Of course there are the day-to-day stressors and responsibilities that come as standard in a leadership role. But there are also clear signs that indicate when the regular pressures of the job are morphing into something more serious.
Burnout can leave you feeling exhausted and cause headaches, muscle tension and affect your appetite and sleep. It can lead to feelings of self-doubt, a lack of motivation, a negative outlook when it comes to your work and even the overwhelming feeling that nothing you do is appreciated or makes any difference.
It can overpower the way you behave too. If you find yourself procrastinating, withdrawing from responsibilities, isolating yourself from others, skipping work or using food, alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for stress, you could be heading for a crash.
Burnout can be a gradual process, and you might not experience all of these symptoms at once. But if you recognise some of them in yourself, now is the time to act. Exhausted leaders don’t make good leaders – no matter how hard you try - because you send the message that the way to succeed is to run yourself into the ground. And this can end up having a negative effect on the whole culture of an organisation, which is why it’s important to take action.
The good news is that there’s plenty you can take.
Lean on your peers
As a leader it may feel daunting to admit to your peers that you’re struggling, but it’s important to seek support. Sit down with your board or key stakeholders, be honest about things and go through your priorities and the expectations of your role. Having an open conversation about what really needs to be done and what can be de-prioritised or delayed builds a more realistic and less stressful outlook. It also helps you to understand exactly what others expect of you, which may be a lot less than you’ve imagined.
Delegate – then switch off
Take time off to recover from the symptoms of burnout if you need to. You’d do the same if you had the flu – time out to protect your mental wellbeing is just as important. You may think it’s impossible when you’re juggling multiple balls in an endeavour to meet your company’s objectives, but this is where delegation is key. If you can delegate some of your responsibilities to your leadership team, you’ll feel more comfortable taking time out and you’re more likely to switch off properly and rest. If you find yourself thinking about work while you’re off then that’s ok; but see this as an opportunity to reset and take in a different perspective so that you return feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
Identify your resilience builders
Think about what makes you more resilient in your day-to-day life – it could be exercise, mindfulness, connecting with friends or reading – and then plan those activities into your weekly schedule as non-negotiables. Your ‘resilience builders’ are the fundamental building blocks for your wellbeing, and they can help to keep you on track both mentally and physically in times of stress.
Use positive psychology
It could be worth considering exploring Cognitive Behavioural Techniques (CBT) or positive psychological approaches to help you reframe any negative thought patterns and lower your anxiety. Your brain needs exercise just like your muscles do, and regularly challenging unhelpful thought patterns is proven to have a significant impact on your overall wellbeing and stress levels.
Make time to ‘check in’ with yourself regularly to monitor how you feel physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings and review yourself against the burnout symptoms described above. Take positive action if you see any of the signs creeping back in.
Set your boundaries
Establish the boundaries you know will keep you healthy. Even when you’re the CEO, taking regular breaks and having time out where you can fully switch off is one of the keys to warding off burnout. As a senior leader, it may be unrealistic for you to stop checking emails outside of ‘typical’ work hours, but you can commit to not responding after a certain time in the evening or at the weekend. This is also likely to have a positive effect on the rest of your team, who won’t feel pressured to respond in their spare time.
Finally, don’t be afraid to draw on your own experiences for the benefit of the company. By talking openly about burnout, you create a safe, supportive culture that encourages staff to feel empowered and unembarrassed to reach out for support. Helping your employees to avoid reaching burnout themselves can only be good for business.