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Addressing Common Leadership Issues - Pt9: Burnout

This is the ninth in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will consider a topic that is becoming increasingly important: burnout.


If you are a senior leader, are you busy? It is incredibly rare for anyone to say 'no' to that question (including non-leaders).

There are many reasons for this, not least of which is a genuine upsurge in activity - just look at the average number of communications executives and other leaders have to deal with today when compared to a few decades ago (10's of thousands a year compared to hundreds or thousands a year in the past).

Add to that the rapid transfers of information by other means, increased rate of change in most sectors and in global socio-political factors, and it is easy to see that the pressures on leaders today are increasingly magnified.


That in itself is not the problem: many thrive in just such an environment. However, each of us has limits (even those who do not want to admit it to themselves!).

At some point, it becomes impossible to simply 'work harder and do more'. Attempting to do so leads to burnout, and no one is immune! Leadership burnout does not just affect the individuals concerned, it impacts their organisations and those around them, including family and friends.


What is burnout and how does it manifest?


Burnout refers to a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged periods of stress, excessive workload and an inability to cope. In 2019, the World Health Organisation included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Note the implication here that it is not just an individual problem but an organisational one that thus requires an organisational approach.


In a 2021 HBR study [1] it was found that 62% of people struggling to manage their workloads experienced burnout, 55% felt they were unable to balance their home and work life, 85% said their well-being had declined, and only 21% rated their well-being as 'good' (a mere 2% said it was 'excellent!). It postulated that today's high levels of burnout are the result of an existing problem made exponentially worse by the Covid pandemic.

A 2021 survey by Mental Health UK [2] revealed that 46% of UK workers felt 'more prone to extreme levels of stress' than the year before, and a staggering 20% felt 'unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace'.


The cost to the UK of work-related stress or burnout is £28Bn/year.[3]


Add to that the fact that those who experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 13% less confident in their job performance and almost 300% more likely to leave their jobs and it is evident that failure to address this issue has serious business and social implications.[4]


Burnout manifests itself in 3 main ways: exhaustion, cynicism (allied to a dislike and then hatred of your job) and reduced professional performance.[5]


Common shorter-term symptoms include:[4]

  • Feeling exhausted

  • Unable to recover from a common cold

  • Frequent headaches

  • Frequent gastrointestinal problems

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Shortness of breath

Behaviours include:[4]

  • Irritability

  • Heightened emotional responses (quick to cry, lose temper, etc.)

  • Suspicious and paranoid about colleagues

  • Substance abuse

  • Stubbornness, rigid thinking, and unwillingness to listen to other people

  • Negative attitude

  • Appears and acts depressed

Main causes of burnout:

There are 6 main causes of burnout. Any one can be the trigger, but when they are combined with others it can be especially detrimental.


The causes are:

  1. Unsustainable workload

  2. Perceived lack of control (incl. lack of role clarity and micromanagement)

  3. Insufficient rewards for effort

  4. Lack of a supportive community (incl. isolation)

  5. Lack of fairness

  6. Mismatched values and skills

Constant demands for short-term success, long working hours and limited personal time create a breeding ground for burnout. However, there are steps that can be taken to significantly reduce the risk:


How to Prevent Burnout


1. Maintain a healthy work-life balance


It is impossible for modern leaders to expect a '9-to-5' job: there are simply too many demands upon their time and the increasingly global nature of many businesses necessitates their availability to accommodate people in other time zones.


Nonetheless, it is important to establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. This often requires discipline until it becomes a learned behaviour and hence a good habit. For example, many years ago I made a decision that I would never work on a Sunday unless it was a dire emergency. In the early months, this was very hard to stick to: I kept thinking about what would need to be done the following week and, as someone who always likes to be ahead of the curve, the temptation was always to 'just do this one thing'. I persevered though, and slowly learnt to genuinely wind down on Sunday and leave work at the office.

Other ideas that can help include implementing flexible working hours and having a dedicated home office/space for work (and a work-free zone?).


Another crucial factor here is the importance of vacation time. In fact, as Chair of the Board of Trustees for a charity, I insist that the managing director (equivalent) takes his full annual allowance.


Doubtless some will be reading this and thinking 'I just don't have time to do that'. But here is the key point: getting this balance right will save you time and increase your productivity and performance! I write from hard-learned experience so let me save you time and stress by urging you to give this matter the consideration it deserves: personal and business benefits will result.


2. Get support and use resources


The vast majority of successful companies invest in coaching, mentoring and training to help leaders manage stress and build resilience. I must declare a vested interest here - these are amongst Aspire MCL's service lines. I often find during executive coaching that most clients particularly value a safe space with an external party to discuss challenges openly and seek ideas/guidance.


Internal mentoring and board away days are also incredibly helpful if done properly.

Whilst it is unwise and unnecessary to share everything with everyone, developing high levels of trust and openness with select individuals and in a confidential team environment is a very helpful stress reducer. It comes as a relief to many to learn that they are not alone in their struggles: Aspire MCL's earlier blog on 'Impostor Syndrome' is a good example of a widespread phenomenon that can be partially addressed in this way.


Other ways organisations can foster a supportive culture include showing empathy, creating a peer-to-peer connection programme, developing a mental health resource page and building slack into the system.


And it makes good business sense! Hewlett-Packard Enterprise was addressing burnout before the pandemic and their efforts enabled them to show resilience during the crisis. As a result, 92% of their employees agreed that their leaders had shown genuine concern for their well-being. The implications for business performance are obvious.


3. Continue self-development

Too many people are promoted to senior leadership roles on the basis of technical skills, sales figures or current performance alone. They are then left to 'sink or swim' as they face a new way of working that requires different skills. Many of course sink, and those that survive often fail to realise their full potential because they gravitate back to the behaviours and tools that helped them survive in their first year/s. With a relatively limited set of tools, they then have to work harder and harder to meet increasing demands.

Organisations that provide leadership development programmes are much better placed for success: leader-managers are the bedrock of sustained performance and, as well as being better equipped to realise rapidly changing opportunities and address threats, leaders who have been given the necessary skills and tools are far better prepared to handle the pressures of their roles (and to enjoy them more - with the attendant business and personal benefits that brings!).


Whilst they are not a substitute for in-depth training and facilitation, there are many short courses that offer busy leaders the ability to begin to quickly learn some key tools and techniques to address many issues. The LinkedIn Learning Zone is a good place to start.


Investing time and resources here will both save time and boost performance.


4. Create a supportive work culture


Remember the 1980s mantra that 'lunch is for wimps'? It was never a smart approach and it makes even less sense in today's increasingly pressured world. The mentality behind it, though, is still common, despite the mountain of evidence which shows that it actually harms productivity in the long run.


I have seen many instances whereby an organisation either does not understand the reality and depth of the condition (thinking that people just need a break) or has feigned concern about the risk of burnout among its staff. In either case, they may implement some of the steps above but they do so in a disjointed, unplanned way in a clumsy attempt at a quick-fix solution. The problem is that if a company's culture is not genuinely supportive, any such approach is mere window-dressing, and it will be seen as such.


For example, imagine a scenario in which a CEO says that if people are working too hard they should finish work at 5 pm. He/she and other senior executives, though, pointedly stay at work until late and look with barely disguised suspicion at those who do leave on time. The messages are clear: 'I don't really mean it and if you want to get on here, you'll stay late'!

In addition to the immediate needs addressed by an intelligent and sincere welfare policy to prevent burnout, there is another key business benefit: people will want to work in such an organisation! In many of the UK business networks I have attended, one of the most pressing problems raised is that of recruitment and retention. Whilst the financial package has to be fair, it is not usually, in and of itself, a prime motivator.


People will stay in companies that value them, treat them well and have a genuine concern for their well-being. One of the key findings of the Covid-necessitated work-from-home revolution is that people increasingly demand a better work-life balance (and that in getting it they perform better!).


It is also important to remember that others may not want to be managed or helped in the way we would: we are all different and how burnout manifests itself and should be treated will vary. Psychometric and behavioural analysis tools such as SDI 2.0 and Belbin Team Roles can help inform an intelligent approach here.


5. Develop/maintain a strong sense of purpose


One of the key findings in the HBR survey referenced above is that those with a keen sense of purpose found it a helpful defence against burnout: as purpose scores

increased, burnout scores declined: some 25% of people who expressed a strong sense of purpose at work had not experienced any burnout in the survey period (though of course if other causes are prevalent, e.g., massive overwork, the benefits of purpose can be nullified).


Another reason for developing organisational health around mission, vision, values and strategy, is that the generation now in junior-senior management ranks attach greater importance to it than was previously the case. It is thus an aid to solving the recruitment and retention issue noted above as well.


Conclusion


Burnout is a pressing issue that affects leaders in all sectors and has a direct impact on the success of organisations. By recognizing the signs of burnout, implementing preventive measures, and fostering supportive work environments, companies can mitigate the risks and support their executives in maintaining a healthy work-life balance and thus realise the attendant benefits for all.


Giving this issue the serious consideration it deserves contributes to the long-term success and sustainability of businesses in today's demanding corporate landscape. Whilst there are no quick fixes for the underlying causes, the modest, practical steps outlined above will help leaders address the challenge and work towards change both for themselves and for others.


Question: what would you add to the above? Please add any suggestions or observations that could help others in the comments box. Thank you. As noted, this is the ninth blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, or if you would like a no-obligation consultation to discuss any of Aspire MCL's services, please comment or email enquiries@aspiremcl.co.uk. Aspire MCL will not spam you! Aspire MCL - unleash YOUR leadership potential!

[5] Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996; World Health Organization, 2019


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