Burnout isn’t good for anyone, least of all a leader

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Nobody has ever said running a company is easy.  

A few years ago, in my role as a CEO, I had reached the point where I was only sleeping 4 hours a night (and it was still broken sleep); I was angry all the time (and I had never been an angry person); and I felt like I had ants crawling all over me.

It’s a nasty sensation. To literally feel like you are being attacked by ants (and clearly knowing that you’re not). 

That was when the doctor said my stress levels were way too high. 

“Insect repellant doesn’t kill non-existent ants. You need to stop and completely recharge.” 

Even acupuncture wasn’t working. 

When I first discovered acupuncture, it was an absolute game changer. A few needles in strange places could keep me relaxed and grounded for weeks at a time. Unfortunately, the needles weren’t working. 

The acupuncturist was blunt: “Your body is exhausted, and the Qi isn’t able to flow”. 

Both my Eastern and Western gurus had spoken. I was completely burnt out and it wasn’t pleasant. 

It had been a full-on year for both me and the business. I had been on 56 work flights (never sitting up at the pointy end!). A total of 289 hours up in the sky. That’s like 12 whole days flying and I can still remember a 5-week period when I literally felt jetlagged every day. 

I had walked just over 140km … through airports alone! Yes … once again I did keep track.

My personal fitness regime has always included trying to walk 8-10km every day – either on a treadmill or preferably in the fresh air. But I never thought I’d have spent the equivalent of two whole weeks of my walking goal schlepping through airport terminals. 

I hated angry Paul and I was determined to find nice Paul and bring him back. 

I had spent so much time and energy looking after my team and all our stakeholders that I hadn’t looked after myself for a very long time. I needed to take some time out. 

So, I logged off, put my laptop away, disconnected email from my phone, and went completely off the grid. 

In the past I’d come off far too many 15-hour flights to find 100+ emails in my inbox so I was absolutely dreading the idea of coming back from my 10-day recharge in Ubud to find my in-box exploding. 

It was time for ‘operation in-box zero’. 

My out of office auto reply simply said: I am currently out of the office recharging. Thank you for your email, however it has just been automatically deleted. Feel free to make a note to re-send your message to me any time after [my return date] and I’ll then be able to respond – relaxed, recharged and rejuvenated. 

I was extremely nervous but very excited at the same time. 

On my first day back online, I received emails from three people who had clearly read my auto-response. That was it. 

Of course, I can appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to (a) take the time out, and (b) escape to Bali. I had a team I could trust to not only keep the lights on but to actually run the show in my absence. But my point is life (and the business) went on, and I came back a completely different person. 

Even for the most driven and committed leaders, energy and enthusiasm levels have a shelf-life and nobody wants their energy to expire. 

Burnout is dangerous and from personal experience, I would highly recommend to any leader that you don’t wait until you feel like you have ants crawling all over you before you start being kind to yourself. 

There are many strategies for leaders to consider that don’t necessarily have to be quite as drastic as disconnecting emails from your phone and fleeing into the mountains of Indonesia while having all messages received during said escape automatically deleted. 

Different levels of downtime. Various self-care techniques to practise. Even something as simple as taking a few deep mindful breaths can do wonders. 

In fact, why not try it now? Go on … inhale deeply and hold for a count of six. Then exhale slowly for a count of eight. Now repeat it three times before reading any further. 

Whether you strive for work-life balance, work-life integration, or work-life separation (and there is a difference between each of these strategies or goals as you’ll see below), the primary focus for any leader is to find time away from the business and to focus on yourself, your mental health and well-being. After all, if your body is depleted or if you are continually sleep deprived, it’s just as bad as being drunk on the job. And many business leaders have been forced to step down for being drunk at work. 

Prior to the pandemic, it was very common for leaders to try to establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Although I may have taken this to the extreme by completely switching off from the world to regain my Zen, it was a conscious decision not to let work interfere in any way with my chance to totally re-set. 

By definition, the term work-life balance implies an equal allocation of time between work and personal / family life.

For many leaders (in fact, for most people in general) this isn’t always possible. These days, you can’t not let your personal life creep into work; and it’s even more difficult not to let work spill into family time. Sure, there was once a time when leaving the office actually meant leaving work, but this is no longer the case. 

I have also known many leaders refer to work-life separation. Where this is different to work-life balance is that it doesn’t necessarily imply an equal split between work and ‘not work’. Even simply taking time to get out of the office, go to the gym, attend your child’s prize giving assembly or ballet recital during what might traditionally be considered ‘work hours’ without feeling guilty is practising work-life separation.

What is key here, though, is to be consciously present at the gym, at the assembly, or recital – and not secretly scrolling through emails on your phone in the school auditorium. 

Some leaders who focus on work-life separation might choose to have two phones or two laptops giving themselves the ability to switch one off when making the conscious separation. Or choosing to block time in their calendar when meetings can’t be booked to practise mindfulness, meditation, or yoga. 

Having said that, what most of us (leaders, employees, students, … everyone) found during the pandemic, and with the onset of remote work, was the disappearance of any boundaries between work and home. After all, it wasn’t simply a case of working from home (like when you are unwell or waiting for a trades person to arrive).

Work was home and home was work … practically impossible to find any balance or separation. 

For many of us, without even realising it, the pandemic and life in lockdown introduced the idea of work-life integration. It was no longer about trying to balance or separate professional and home life, but creating a blend of the two. For many leaders, this might have meant facilitating a meeting while out walking the dog, having to shift a client presentation due to a clash with home schooling commitments, or running a business from the kitchen or living room. 

Even out of lockdown and without the pressure thrust upon many leaders of having to juggle managing a team while home schooling, work-life integration has provided leaders with a higher sense of satisfaction and increased productivity in both their work and home lives. 

However, it’s important that you don’t fall into the trap of being on 24 x 7 just because you’ve managed to integrate professional and personal commitments. Boundaries are still important.

Remember, there was once a time when you couldn’t actually be on a conference call while sitting in traffic on a commute, and when your clients didn’t have your home phone number, or when emails were on your computer at work, not incessantly buzzing during family dinner time simply because dinner time for you might still be the middle of the afternoon for some of your team. 

Whether you are balancing, separating, or integrating your leadership life and your personal life, the goal is to prevent burnout, and to ensure you focus on your own well-being.

Having the ability to leave the office and go home is one obvious ‘separation’ strategy. But if you are working remotely and if the dining table has become the boardroom table or your kitchen is your office, it’s also important to have your ‘third place’. This could be a local café, a park bench, the gym, pilates or yoga studio, beach or walking track – somewhere you can go to focus on just you, where you can switch your leadership responsibilities off and not think about work, even for just 45 minutes. 

Make the commitment. 

Avoid the burnout (and the ants). 

Your team (and family and friends) will thank you and respect you for it. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally preventing burnout.   

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