By Ellen Keithline Byrne
As an executive coach who works with women leaders, it’s not unusual for me to see the sad, worried eyes of my coaching clients as the “aha” moment hits, and they realize: “I have burnout.”
This realization often comes as a shock. Once it’s teased out and women further share their feelings of exhaustion and lack of energy for work they once loved, it becomes glaringly obvious to them. But until that point, it’s typically something they beat themselves up for, their inner voice saying, “I just need to work harder! What’s wrong with me?”
My business partners and I estimate that almost 20% of the women in our six-month leadership intensives are expressing some symptoms of burnout. What we know is that it’s insidious and can slowly creep up on you. These clients have moved past periodic times of being “stressed out” into chronic stress. This occupational phenomena clouds the mind, where a person struggles to assess their situation clearly, and they often end up beating themselves up for not being good enough.
One client, a CEO in a mid-sized insurance company, who had been truly passionate about her work, realized she was burned out. After years of tirelessly committing her time to the business, one day, she struggled to listen to the Chairman of the Board when he walked into her office, whereas in the past she looked forward to their conversations. She described it as the Charlie Brown adult voice that’s just “wah, wah, wah.” She felt exhausted when she woke up each morning, and just wanted to stay home, make soup, and watch I Love Lucy reruns.
This description is unfortunately not unusual. Our clients often have the reputation of being driven and passionate. Yet, over time, they feel overwhelmed and struggle to identify what’s wrong. Sometimes, I hear them contemplate leaving their company just to find some sense of inner peace. And sometimes, they don’t make changes until they end up in emergency rooms or with a serious health diagnosis. This can often lead to a leave of absence or termination. Successful leaders need to know what burnout looks like and get help early.
Here is what we know:
Burnout is now considered a serious work issue, as the pace and complexity of our work environments have rapidly changed. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as: “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This new definition is raising the awareness of burnout and strengthening its link to work. It legitimizes the need to pay attention to these occupational symptoms and find solutions that alleviate toxic work environments. As the expert on burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, describes it as “a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”
It’s no surprise that women report higher levels of burnout. One study identified gender inequalities in the workplace as a key element that’s impacting occupational mental health. Women were found to have lower levels of decision-making authority and were often overqualified for their roles, which ultimately leads to less satisfaction at work and a sense that they have fewer career alternatives. We see this frustration all the time, and it often manifests in beating oneself up. Women often think it’s their own fault that they’re not thriving.
Our concern after decades of working with women leaders is that it’s getting worse. Here is what we recommend:
Determine right away whether you have burnout, and if so, how bad it is.
Burnout is progressive. People typically start with one or two of the following identifiers, and it usually builds from there. In Maslach’s research, she highlights three main questions to ask yourself:
- Are you regularly physically and emotionally exhausted? Do you feel a lack of energy and/or have trouble sleeping? Do you worry excessively? Feel more edgy? Feel sad or hopeless?
- Are you more cynical and detached than usual? Do you no longer feel joy from things that used to bring you joy? Are you less interested in socializing and are you feeling less connected to people than you once did? Are you more negative than usual? Do you see the glass as half empty?
- Are you feeling like you’re not contributing anything meaningful, where you once were? Do you feel a sense of ineffectiveness and that all of your hard work isn’t actually accomplishing anything?
If you respond “yes” to all or most of the questions, the alarm bells should be going off. It’s time to schedule an appointment with your internist, mental health professional, or a coach. These questions — especially the last two — take the concept of normal “stress” to the next level, in terms of how it has impacted your overall mindset.
Catch it early. Awareness is the first step.
This is sometimes the hardest part. We can be tough on ourselves and are often not willing to reflect on our own behavior.
Clients will often share that colleagues and friends have expressed concern that they are not themselves or that they are doing too much. But they brush it off as just needing to work harder and smarter. If you’re hearing similar comments from colleagues or friends, take heed. Coming to terms with the idea that you are either in “crisis” or heading there soon is not easy. Examine the list above and be honest with yourself.
Whether it’s a good friend, family member, therapist, or coach, it’s important to have someone who can challenge your thinking and give you another perspective. Once burnout has its hold on your mindset, decision making can get fuzzy. By identifying patterns and regaining clarity on priorities, you can establish better boundaries, for instance by delegating where necessary, by saying “no” to projects that do not serve you long-term, and by taking better care of yourself. These steps can help you feel a sense of progress towards relieving your symptoms.
Make your emotional and physical well-being a priority.
Put healthy eating, exercise and a good sleep routine at the top of the list. Schedule in lunch breaks and stop working at a reasonable time. Take all of your vacation. Too many companies report that employees forgo vacation time; 27.2% of paid time off went unused in 2018. And too many women tell us that they’re the first ones into the office, and the last ones out. Reframe that “work harder” message to work smarter, which includes breaks from work to stimulate the relaxation response and dissipate the stress response. It takes giving yourself permission to shift your mindset around what’s a priority and a commitment to establishing healthy coping mechanisms to combat stress.
Examine your work environment.
Burnout is a result of a mismatch between the demands of the job and the available resources. In a recent HBR article by Robin Ely and Irene Padavic, they identified that “what holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture.” The current workplace mantra of “we have to do more with less” is not sustainable. With your manager or other senior leaders, review the structure of your role, the culture of the firm, and how to support an environment where everyone thrives.
For women leaders to better respond to and adapt to our changing workplaces, it’s critical that a clearer understanding of what burnout is and how it manifests is necessary. As a coach, I hope that through education, my clients will be able to catch it early, apply the coping mechanisms they’ve learned, and not end up with serious health issues. We should all be striving for workplaces where everyone thrives.