Lockdown restrictions are finally being lifted, and many sectors that have been worst affected are now, finally, getting ready to ‘build back better’.
Just when we need executives to lead their organisations into this new phase with the energy, focus and enthusiasm that it requires, there’s a major fly in the ointment. Leaders, like everyone else, are exhausted.
“I’m struggling to get myself into action” John*, an executive leader, told me recently.
“I’ve been trying to muster the energy and enthusiasm that I had before all this started. I splutter into temporary action and then it peters out. We’ve been through this cycle so many times now. Just when I need to be on my game, I’m weary. How do I build back better when I’m so burnt-out?”
John isn’t alone. Another front-line client – who operates a gold-silver-bronze command structure, designed for use during a high-intensity crisis period has been operating Gold Command for 18 months! That’s a long time to be running on adrenalin.
Leaders have spent the last two years in various phases of crisis management; on a nail-biting emotional rollercoaster that’s involved redundancy, furlough, the obliteration of the business they knew and dizzying new ways of working that have forever altered what people expect from work.
John works in an industry that has been crushed by covid and lockdowns. The sheer adrenaline and energy needed to keep the business from failing during those years took almost everything from him and his colleagues. And now we want more.
Be warned, build-back burnout is real.
Signs of burnout
Ironically, before covid, the World Health Organisation re-categorised burnout as a clinical condition, resulting from extreme, unchecked workplace stress.
It includes feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance or feeling negatively about your job and your ability to do it well.
The huge responsibilities borne by executives, coupled with the expectation that they will hide their real feelings behind a facade of ‘executive poise’ exacerbates the problem. I coach numerous leaders who compare their insides (how they’re feeling) to their colleagues outsides (how well others look like they’re holding it together). But I’m also coaching those who look like they’re holding it together – and they’re feeling the same thing.
The Harvard Business Review has noted that in response to these stressors, executive leaders are left feeling exploited, guilty and inadequate. It is such a waste of emotional energy to keep this front going with executive colleagues, especially then we know everyone is feeling similar things and could be a great support for each other.
This combination of burnout and isolation is a heady mix, and needs to be addressed inside every organisation where it exists.
Self care or coping strategy?
We’ve all heard the advice that to deal well with any kind of stress the answer is to take good care of ourselves.
Self-care still has a bit of a bad rap in the UK. Mainly, I believe, because we still associate the term with frivolous things like spa days.
A revelation for me was how Hannah Braime differentiates self-care from coping strategies. In her book From Coping to Thriving, Braime notes that a coping strategy feels good in the short-term but is detrimental in the long term. In contrast, self-care often feels challenging in the short-term but is good in the long term.
When my alarm goes off on a Sunday morning, and I pull myself out of my warm bed to go and lift weights with my personal trainer, it feels like hard work. Even when I’m there, I’d sometimes rather be back in bed. But as the weeks have turned into months, this twice-a-week routine has done more for my physical and mental health than anything else I can remember.
This is self-care – hard in the moment: benefits for the long term.
Contrast this with a coping strategy. After a long day, the need to switch off leads many of us to turn on Netflix and sit there, binge watching another series well past when we should have called it a night. Perhaps there’s a glass of wine or two involved.
This is a coping strategy – easy in the moment: negative impacts for the long term.
When I asked John what he was doing to take care of himself, he told me “I’m drinking a bit too much and I sleep most weekends.” Coping strategies rather than self-care. I’m not judgemental. I was a world champion Netflix and red-wine coper for many a long year.
For John, just realising the difference between these two ways to deal with stress and burnout was helpful. And in looking after his individual needs, he now has a plan for better taking care of himself.
But what about collectively? If this is a phenomenon in many a C-suite, what collective ways are executives dealing with this burnout? Their organisations need more from them than at any point during the last two years – how do they find the energy and resilience to build back better?
As I got curious about this, I set about trying to find out what executive teams were doing to deal with the collective burnout being felt in the C-suite. In particular, I wanted to see if their actions were characterised more as collective self-care or coping strategies.
Ironically, the executive teams I have been working with have put in place tremendous support for the people in their organisations to attend to their physical, emotional and practical needs during lockdown. Yet, even as executive teams discuss the support they’ve put in place for others, my (admittedly anecdotal) evidence is that executive team members are reluctant to make use of the support that’s available for everyone else.
It turns out the internalised idea that ‘real leaders don’t show weakness’ that’s so pernicious in the C-suite has been thriving under lockdown.
Collectively there’s also been an attitude of ‘let’s just try and get through this’. So the team knuckle down and work harder and faster, in the hope that by doing so, it’ll all go away. And lockdown will go away. But as we’re seeing, it’s being replaced with the enormous task of repairing, restoring and rebuilding their company. And this brings its own challenges.
I’ve seen team members blame, shame, isolate, or otherwise put themselves in opposition to each other. These kinds of coping strategies oftentimes provide an immediate chemical change in our state – a shot of dopamine, or a rush of adrenaline. It might meet some need in the short term, you got something off of your chest, or told someone what you really thought. But it actually adds to the stress and burnout in the long term.
Collective self-care equates to opening up and being vulnerable so that you’re seen by your colleagues. Sharing your hopes and concerns and asking for help. When I see teams do this, I watch a profound shift take place where the team moves from being in opposition to each other to being in it together.
In these meetings, I hear laughter, I see team members supporting each other. And I see the needs of people being balanced with the needs of work. I’m now more convinced than ever: in a world where self-care is seen as self-indulgent, I see it as a matter of corporate survival.
Dealing with burnout
If you think you/and your colleagues might be suffering from burnout, the first step is to try and identify it.
The early warning signs, according to the Mayo Clinic are:
- Feeling cynical and/or critical at work
- Becoming irritable or impatient with customers, co-workers, or clients
- Letting hair-trigger emotions take control
- Not having the energy for productively
- Having trouble concentrating
- Losing a sense of satisfaction with you work
- Losing sleep
- Physical symptoms such as headaches
Once you’ve identified if this is you, then the earlier you work to find solutions that suits you and your team, the better.
In the face of collective burnout, someone, anyone, on the team has to make the first move by being brave and speaking up about what they’re experiencing. Only then is there the possibility of a genuine conversation on the impact that the last two years has had on the team (and the individuals in it).
From there, the team can reach agreements for ways to engage in collective self-care rather than coping strategies. It’s easy to see a state of burnout is not conducive to building back better. Now is the time to deal with it.
Braime, H. (2013) From coping the thriving: How to turn self-care into a way of life. Individuate Press: London
Levison, H. (1996) When Executives Burn Out. Harvard Business Review. July-August.
Mayo Clinic. Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. Found at:
* John isn’t my client’s real name and I’ve changed some details of the industry he works in to protect his identity – all with his permission.
** If you or your executive team are experiencing burnout and would like some support in developing collective self-care, please reach out to us by completing the contact form here.