As it turns out, the popular saying and song might not be true - what doesn’t kill you might not make you stronger.
I received a welcome email from a former client. Unfortunately, it was about an all too familiar subject that we typically don’t acknowledge as leaders and organizations. It wasn’t about him. It was about his brother who desperately needed help. As an over-functioning executive, he had hit the proverbial wall after years of working crazy hours and functioning more like a machine than a human.
After reading the email and before responding, my mind flashed back to 2015. After visiting four doctors, I finally got a diagnosis and treatment that put me back on track. It was a recipe for the making - business was at an all-time high, I was writing a book, training for a half-Ironman, planning a wedding and raising three kids as a single mom. Looking back, it’s no surprise my body had landed in adrenal fatigue and burnout. The lesson learned was loud and clear - it wasn’t physically, mentally or emotionally possible to do it all without a high price.
Both of these examples are more commonplace than ever and finding company in record numbers. According to a Harvard Business Review article published in 2017, stress-related health care costs accounted for $125 billion to $190 billion annually. Even in those age 45 and under, burnout is increasingly resulting in not only burnout, but type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and the ultimate price – death.
The article emphatically states it’s not a talent management or HR problem, it’s an organizational problem. I’ll take it to the next layer and say it may even be a culture problem. It can start with the messages and modeling from the top. In all fairness, the finger can’t always be pointed at the organization or the culture. Individuals with high energy, drive and intensity are more prone to taking on as much as possible. Those who have been programmed their worth is tied to their productivity can also be at risk. And, of course, these three may or may not be mutually exclusive.
Fast forward and the plot thickens. In 2019, employee burnout escalated to the point where the World Health Organization began recognizing it as an occupational phenomenon and included it in their 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Early on in 2020 when we found ourselves working from home, happiness briefly rose. Why not? With the promise of more balance, no commute time and the ability to intersperse some home tasks. It worked pretty well - until it didn’t.
For the more than half of Americans who started working from home, the lines blurred quickly with no separation from work. We lived at work 24/7 physically and mentally with an uptick in ubiquitous access to technology. What was gained in commute time, was reallocated to work demands vs. family, exercise or other healthy outlets.
If this sounds close to home for you, or your team or organization, here are some ways to take back control to avoid or overcome burnout:
1- “Know Thyself” - What takes you to a place of over functioning? If you have the CliftonStrengths™ of Achiever or Responsibility (Execution Strengths), and/or the Influencing Domain Strength of Maximizer, this naturally can lead you to over achieve or a drive toward perfection. Combined with a culture that encourages long hours and too many projects, you’re more likely to be taken beyond your personal edge or capacity. An awareness of what creates the likelihood for you to consistently exhaust yourself by always going above and beyond is a good start in working on numbers 2-5 below.
2- Create boundaries – Physically shut down the computer or work phone. Close the office door. Change clothes. Bring an end to the day tangibly and symbolically. Refuse to check messages throughout the evening. Set a precedent by modeling what you are and aren’t willing to do because of the impact personally as well as on the culture. Send a strong message by what you do, not just what you tell others to do.
3- Enlist an accountability buddy to help you – Ask a co-worker, a coach or a family member to be a partner in helping you realize “when to say when”. Those who know us best can have an objective birds-eye view on how we’re really doing. Ask and then allow them to help you and hold you accountable.
4- Engage in self-care – Notice the personal habits that don’t work well for your own physical or mental well-being. Whether it’s too much caffeine in the morning, an extra glass of alcohol at night or certain foods that spike inflammation or glucose levels, it might be time to get the gummy bear jar off the desk and cut it back to one cup or glass. If you take the time to listen to your body, it will tell you what you need as well as what you don’t.
5- Delineate between how you define success and impact – Is it time to redefine either or both of these personally and professionally? Have a list of three priorities each week and day. Stay focused on these for at least 80% of your defined workday. Remember, impact is the difference you make on a project, a team member or a client. It’s not the number of hours you work or how busy you are. Stop confusing busyness and a 70-hour work week with impact and success.
Burnout is real. It’s kicking butts and taking names. If it’s not affecting you, guaranteed it’s affecting those you may not even realize are struggling. Engage your team members in conversations that give insight into where they really are and what they need to stay healthy. Walk the talk. Listen. Act.
Because compromised health and well-being, low morale and turnover won’t make you stronger.