This is a continuing series. Today’s post is An Introduction to Burnout (Part 2). In this series, we are examining leadership burnout and the steps you need to implement as a leader to avoid (and recover from) burnout.
An Introduction to Burnout (Part 2)
In his book Ministry Burnout: A Special Problem, John Sanders writes about the elements leading to burnout. While he is specifically addressing leadership in the church, the reality holds for every position of leadership. Initially, John’s list contained nine elements. I’ve adapted and combined some as it relates specifically to general leadership health.
As a result, in a follow-up to my last post, we need to examine these six stressors that can lead to leadership burnout. In this article, we will examine the first three causes, and a follow-up article will examine the last three.
While none of these by themselves lead directly to burnout, a combination of these six events can. Be wise and pay attention to what is going on in your soul and get professional help if you need it.
1.) The leader’s job is never finished.
I remember sitting on my bed, gasping for air. I was in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. The weight on my chest would lift and I found myself unable to breathe. My wife, in her best attempt to reassure me, held my head as I half-gasped-for-air-half-cried.
The mounting pressure from weeks of over-commitment was getting to me. I was building my coaching business, often investing thirty hours a week into my then part-time venture. I was still on staff at a church, working sixty hours a week during the Christmas season. I was also in the midst of doctoral school and we had just had our third child. Weeks of poor sleep, nutrition, and exercise left my body debilitated.
As I created a list of all I still had yet to do, it all became too much. As I sat on our bed, wondering whether to call an ambulance, I eventually fell. Honestly, I’m still not sure if it was falling asleep from exhaustion or passing out from lack of oxygen. Either way, I took a four nap, whether I wanted to or not.
I’ve learned a lot from that moment. Though the leader’s job is never finished, I now find that a much more welcoming prospect. I now give myself the freedom to admit that since the job won’t be finished, I might as well take some time off and enjoy what’s going on around me.
If you find yourself mounting with fear and overwhelm at the prospect of all you have to do, this can be one indicator on the road to burnout.
2.) A lack of clear results.
There are few things a leader can find more frustrating than this. Investing countless hours into a project, spilling blood, sweat, and tears, only to be given ambiguous results. How disheartening!
When I first started coaching, I agreed to give someone free coaching. I thought it would be a win-win. They’d get some (hopefully) great coaching and I’d get to practice and implement some of the theories I’d been working on.
Instead, it was a lose-lose. With no monetary investment, he never had need to change. He said he wanted coaching and really wanted to grow but never put in the effort. On the outside, he claimed to want a promotion. Internally, his lack of desire and discipline proved why he’d never get it.
I also lost. I invested 60-90 minutes into an individual for almost two years before I humbled myself to call off our arrangement. I got zero usable feedback, unclear results, and a bad taste in my mouth.
If we’re not clear about the results, and if we don’t measure the right things, our frustration can quickly lead to burnout. Unfortunately, working with people can be a prime breeding ground for unclear results. This is why I’ve implemented a wide array of team-oriented goals in coaching.
Now, not only do we measure tangibles like product production, sales, marketing, and bottom-line numbers; we also measure relational and interpersonal goals. We examine personal satisfaction. I help my teams put measures on metrics that are often left undefined. Through team-building leadership assessments, you need to find a way to create positive experiences and measurables that provide motivation and encouragement for your team.
3.) Workplace repetition
As I stood on my college campus lawn thirty minutes after graduation, I wondered what life held next for me. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be unemployed. Instead of a college student, I was a college graduate. I was recently married and we found ourselves without income. When my brother asked me what was next, I said, “I dunno. I guess now I just work until I die.” Had I followed my own advice, that probably wouldn’t have been that long of a cycle.
In the workplace, leaders often face a similar dilemma. Think of your own workday. I’m guessing there are a number of tasks you can count on occurring on a regular basis. Jane is 15 minutes late, Bill shows up at your desk around 10:30 to unnecessarily distract you for thirty minutes, your boss needs a last-minute report that should’ve been done weeks ago, and you get stuck in traffic by missing the elevator and having to wait another five minutes.
On top of that, you seem to make the same thirty copies every day. It’s boring. It’s dull. It takes little if any brainpower.
That, ultimately, is the real danger, but the repetition can be a sign of impending burnout. Showing up every day, repeating the same tasks, feeling the same soul-crushing boredom, leads to discontentment. Discontedness leads to apathy. Apathy gives birth to burnout. You know you were created for more and aren’t living to your full potential, so you slowly start to die inside.
Engaging in the same tasks, especially the unfilling ones, can lead to burnout. Find ways to stimulate your brain, engage your body, challenge your senses, and enhance your prospects by breaking through the routine and trying something new.
4.) Stagnant Relationships
If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. This unattributable proverb gives us great insight into the impending doom of burnout.
The unhealthy pervasive “Alpha” mentality in today’s leadership style has ingrained the idea that exceptional leaders must go it alone. This is never the case. Instead, great leaders have always had others close to them. They use these relationships as feedback, guidance, additional wisdom, course correction, diversity, strategy, and companionship.
David Heenan wrote about great Co-leaders in the late ’90s. He highlighted men duos like Jobs and Cook, Gates and Ballmer, and Hellen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan.
If you ever listen to a talk I give, we’re probably going to talk about the pairing of Lincoln and Grant. As a fan of history in general, these two men in particular have inspired me. Here, it is their unwavering commitment to each other that matters most. Their letters, starting out formal, by the end conveys a sense of warmth and deep friendship. If Lincoln had had his way, Grant would’ve been in the audience with him the night of his assassination.
In all of these, the point is the same: your level of success, and your ability to resist burnout, is directly related to the amount of deep and meaningful relationships you have.
When we have stagnant relationships, we begin to rely solely on our own power. We convince ourselves of the false belief that others don’t matter. We begin to distance ourselves from those that love us most, we simultaneously isolate our hearts from the thing it needs most: human interaction.
If you examine your life and notice that it is either void of significant relationships or that they have become stagnant, be forewarned: burnout is soon to follow.
5.) The Pressure of a Public Image
Leading others is somehow both a tremendous joy and an unbearable burden. It brings us unimaginable happiness and gives manifestation to our deepest insecurities.
That pressure can get to you. When you as a leader constantly feel the need to maintain your public image, burnout can happen.
While there are many causes and reasons for this, in my work with executives I’ve noticed one factor more than others. The number one cause I’ve seen is that the person becomes defined by the position. The belief that you alone can lead, you alone are called, you alone are capable, you alone are good enough presents an unbearable burden on your soul. Unable to maintain that image for long, you further isolate yourself from those around you.
Pair that self-imposed isolation with other items on this list, and burnout will quickly follow.
This final item, much like the preceding one, becomes an issue when it becomes wrapped up in identity. When you start to see the subtle shift in your psyche between, “I experienced failure” and “I am a failure,” trouble is on the horizon.
Failure is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Many times, it should actually be encouraged more than it is. We learn more from failures than we do successes. I recently gave my oldest son his first pocket knife. After walking through safe handling techniques, how to open and close it, how to hold it, store it, and use it to cut effectively, I handed him the knife. I concluded the lesson by saying, “But I also know that the only way to learn sometimes is the hard way. So you’ll probably cut yourself and we’ll put a band-aid on it. You’ll learn not to do it again.”
I handed him the knife. Within fifteen seconds he had cut his thumb open. The next day, cut open a different finger.
Since then, he hasn’t cut himself. He learned. The hard way. Through failure.
It was a painful but effective lesson.
But when we begin to tie up our identity into our failure, we create a vicious cycle, much like we saw above. We experience failure, feel like we alone must fix it, isolate others, fail again, and our leadership trends downward.
Very few, if any, of these six causes to burnout happen in isolation. Most often, they are paired with others on the list. The relentless nature of leadership lends itself to moments of frustration, anger, bitterness, and resentment. Healthy leaders will fight against that. In future editions of this series, we’re going to examine ways to stay healthy and fight these temptations.
The Wrap Up
If you or someone you know is facing burnout, please get help. Email me to set up your first appointment.
Looking for more ways to fight against burnout? Here are 50 self-care tips.
Want the entire series as a Kindle book? Go here.