Economic uncertainty, changing work environments and competitive pressures create a perfect storm for project leaders and staff. Burnout is increasingly becoming the norm. How then, can you continue to lead (and elevate your leadership) with less effort and none of the stress? In this article we will explore the importance of leadership and how you can operate as a leader in these challenging times where burnout is on the rise.
Are You a Leader?
If you are reading this article, it’s likely you are a leader, even if you don’t consider yourself one. Turns out that you don’t need to run a large organization, have a “CXO” title, or own the firm to be a leader! It really takes only two things:
(1) First, you need to have a vision. This vision can pertain to your project (or portion of a project), your team, or your company. Your vision can be short or long-term in nature as well. A vision is a sense of direction about what is possible and worth moving towards.
(2) Second, you are in the business of aligning others to move in the direction of your vision. The people you are trying to align may work directly for you, or reside elsewhere, inside or outside your organization. Knowledge workers commonly understate their role as a leader since they aren’t directly in charge of managing a team. As a result, they feel less agency and responsibility for creating the very solutions that are needed to make things better.
Leadership becomes increasingly valuable in times of uncertainty. It is when circumstances are changing in unpredictable ways that the value of someone with clarity of direction and the capacity to align with others rises dramatically. The first step to elevating your own value as a Knowledge Worker is to begin to see yourself as the leader you are, with a vision and need to align others in pursuit of a common goal.
Once you adopt the mindset of seeing yourself as a leader, you open up a reservoir of deeper capability, and drive to create change. However, it’s also true that once you begin to operate as a leader, you might run into a challenge that is increasingly common amongst those who are trying to move their teams and projects forward.
The Rising Challenge of Burnout
What is burnout exactly? It’s worth taking a moment to define it. Burnout is, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” The term arose in the 1970s as a way to describe the plight of healthcare professionals who were experiencing inner-turmoil and exhaustion arising from excess work, while caring deeply about those they were trying to help. It was particularly rampant amongst healthcare workers, though also prevalent amongst anyone working in emotionally demanding professional roles.
Beyond caring professionals, burnout was also documented in the 1970s as affecting air traffic controllers, working in a high-stakes and fast-paced job, who commonly reported a form of exhaustion that precipitated a decline in work output and quality.
Nowadays, burnout is commonly used to describe anyone suffering from mental anguish due to overwork. It’s something that I commonly run into in my Executive Career Coaching practice, and is particularly severe amongst leaders. Fatigue and exhaustion due to increasing quantity of work, unpredictability of circumstances, and a requirement to lead others in increasingly remote ways, all take their toll. In many cases, leaders end up wanting to leave the very jobs they worked so hard to obtain.
The Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast showed that in 2021, nearly 60% of a globally diverse sample of leaders surveyed reported they feel “used up at the end of the workday,” which is a strong indicator of burnout. The same survey showed that 44% of leaders who feel this way expected to change companies in order to advance, and 26% expected to leave within the next year! These numbers were significantly higher than in previous years.
Coping Mechanisms Only Do So Much
I’ve laid out a bit of a predicament here, since leadership is now more important than ever, and yet leaders are increasingly burning out. What can we do about this problem?
The good news is that by understanding the nature of burnout, and where it ultimately comes from, you can chart a path forward in your work that doesn’t require you to grit your teeth and suffer more in the face of changing circumstances. Instead, you can step into your role as a leader, and find a way to operate in a more calm and effective way, regardless of what is happening in your circumstances.
Let’s start by looking at where burnout actually comes from. You might think that burnout is impossibly linked to your circumstances, which can include things like difficult people, heavy workload, increasing uncertainty, severe consequences if goals are not met, etc. In this model of the world, where burnout is deeply connected to your circumstances, the best you can do is cope by changing your circumstances and doing lots of self-care.
In fact, most research and treatments for burnout focus on dealing with circumstances through prioritization of self-care, connecting deeper with co-workers you get along with, and sometimes finding new work. These and many other coping mechanisms are helpful, but they are not guaranteed to work. As a professional Executive Career Coach, I’ve worked with many clients who have job-hopped only to discover that burnout has followed them into their new jobs! It’s clear that micro-managing your circumstances only helps so much. The only way to address burnout for good is to get to the root of the problem.
Finding Resourcefulness From Within
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” The beauty of this quote is that it explains why so many of the coping mechanisms for treating burnout have not solved the root of the problem.
It turns out that the biggest leverage point for dealing with burnout is not in coping with – or even changing – circumstances, it is in seeing how the characteristic mental and emotional exhaustion is generated from within the human mind. This does not mean that there is never a time to change your job or address improper circumstances. It just means that it can be even more useful to first look within before changing external factors. Just like pushing on a door that opens inward, it’s not going to budge!
It turns out that in order to lead and remain free from burnout, you must first understand the beauty and power of your mind, and how it both creates the feelings of peace and burnout from within. With a better awareness of the role of your mind, and how it creatively generates your experience of work, you can find a fresh way of looking at your work with more calm and ease, and less of the pressure that can lead to burnout. It’s also from this clarity and peace of mind that you can open up useful insights regarding how you may be able to improve your work situation for the better, regardless of the circumstances you are in.
If this sounds like something you would like to explore further, please join me in an upcoming MPUG Webinar: “Leading through change without burning out!” where we will dive deep into this topic to support your growth as leader with even higher levels of well-being.