We’re heading straight for burnout

It was my turn to raise a topic at an in-person roundtable event before the pandemic hit. This was the question I stood up and asked a room full of 40-some-odd agency owners. 

I didn’t know how many hands would go up. I’d never even discussed the subject with other business owners, let alone a room full of them. 

In the back of my mind, I feared a scenario where mine was the only hand in the air. I imagined everyone else (clearly more competent than me and able to manage double the average workload with no signs of cracking) had no idea what I was talking about. 

After all, burnout happens to overworked employees at soulless cog-in-the-machine corporations. But not to CEOs in charge of their own schedules, right? I was about to find out. Because almost every single one of those 40 people in the room raised their hands.

That’s when I realized that burnout is just a socially acceptable euphemism for something else. 

The B-word is a safe term because we associate burnout from working too hard – not from weakness or, dare we admit it, mental illness. 

What if I asked how many people in the room had experienced periods of depression or even a nervous breakdown? The stigma associated with either of these terms at boardroom level would have kept palms firmly glued to tables.

I’ve personally experienced burnout more than once. It’s like an emotional boom-bust cycle that’s happened ever since we started Parisleaf. For me, it comes from the weight of responsibility and the lizard brain’s inability to switch off from work and stop scanning the horizon. 

I even wrote about how burnout caused me to consider selling our agency. In fact, it’s the only thing that’s ever driven us to contemplate this drastic move. 

I’ve been in this heavy place enough times that I now have a healthy relationship with it (most of the time). I’ve come to believe that burnout can be just a socially acceptable term that successful people use as a euphemism for situational depression. 

This situational depression leads us to clam up and avoid asking for help. It starts at a micro-level. You might lose mindfulness in moments throughout the day. Put a fresh cup of coffee in the fridge or walk out the front door wearing your slippers. 

It’s easy to laugh these moments off. But left untreated,  burnout snowballs into exhaustion which leads to complete emotional and physical collapse. I’m not exaggerating when I say it can even cause premature death. The Japanese have a word for this: Karōshi. It literally means “overwork death”. 

That’s why we need “workplace safety valves” that stop us before we reach the red zone. 

One of the most positive changes to my routine was to start having breaks between meetings. I would previously power through back-to-back sessions, often running five minutes late because I needed a glass of water or a trip to the restroom. 

Thanks to my executive coach and therapist, I figured out how to give myself permission to relax and to opt out. I realized that I’m my own worst manager. It’s okay to cut myself some slack and say inside my head, “I’m doing the best I can do, just like everyone else, and that’s good enough”. And it’s super important that I extend this same understanding to the rest of our team. 

I’ve recently been reflecting on this 2016 study by Kronos where 95% of HR leaders said that burnout was the main cause of people quitting their jobs. Even industry giants don’t have a remedy. Just packets of bandaids and an attitude that it’s normal and even inevitable. 

I don’t think we should accept that. Developing these safety valves and tailoring them to the individual should be part of the onboarding process for new hires. It’s totally avoidable, yet thousands of skilled workers go over the edge like lemmings because we business leaders still haven’t figured out how to solve one of the most widespread (and costly) issues in the workplace. 

Fast forward to the dregs of 2020 and we’re facing a tsunami of burnout that hardly anybody is talking about. 

If those 40 agency owners at my roundtable group are a sampling of businesses as a whole, then burnout is a pandemic all in itself. 

As a society, we’ve been burning energy at 1.5-2 times our normal speed for most of 2020. As business owners and leaders, it’s our jobs to empower people and give them autonomy – not to come up with all of the answers by ourselves and create a culture of dependence where we’re the bottleneck.

Right now, we need to be protecting our energetic resources as much as our financial resources. 

Ali and I speak about this almost the same way as we do our savings account. Energy reserves are not spent evenly. When we both focus on what we’re good at, we get a lot more bang for our buck.  

At times in the past, I’ve focused my energy on things I’m bad at. For example, logistics and details. I’ve sat through so many spreadsheet meetings. I didn’t feel like I had permission to excuse myself, even when we have several logistics-minded people in the room. I was there because I felt like I needed to suffer alongside them – but in reality, they love love love these challenges. But for me, it feels like death by a million papercuts. 

I had to accept that my brain isn’t wired that way. Ali’s brain flourishes with spreadsheets. Whilst I’ve gained an appreciation for their ability to serve up raw data, seeing rows of numbers basically puts me in a coma. Just give me the summary, please.

The lesson was learning to say to our team, “I trust you so much that I know you can figure this out without me. When you do, pull me back in.” If you’re running a business or managing people, stop doing the things you hate and instead surround yourself with people that thrive doing these things. That alone will decrease your chances of burning out. 

The not so bad news? I believe this mass burnout will lead to more authentic, vulnerable, and Purpose-driven leaders. 

I believe 2020 will be a pivotal moment where the business community, supported by employees, will update our template of leadership. We’re seeing a sweeping evolution of the 21st-century leader. We are rejecting incompetent and arrogant liars and juggernauts and trusting those who speak honestly, and with kindness, about what they know. 

In the ashes of the pandemic, leaders are learning that we have to be more human or we risk contributing to more burnout. We’re entering a new period where qualities like empathy and compassion will be seen as crucial leadership traits. Where most “hustle” advice from leaders like Gary V and Elon Musk is seen as unhealthy and unsustainable, and where the business practices of Facebook, Netflix, Google, Amazon, and Apple are called out when they veer towards being exploitative and unethical. 

These false prophets have been replaced by leaders like Brenè Brown, Simon Sinek and Dan Price, the CEO who cut his own $1.1m pay package and put everyone at his company including himself on $70k per year. This isn’t the end of capitalism, as some predict. It’s the start of ethical capitalism. 

I realize how unrealistic this advice sounds to some people right now – the business owners struggling to keep the lights on and the retailers unable to open their doors. Parisleaf has a wide spectrum of clients and – trust me when I say – we’ve seen all kinds of situations as a result of the economic, political, and social disruption of 2020. There is no generic advice that applies to everyone. 

We’ve also mentored many of these businesses through the choppy crossings of March and April, and beyond, until they found their sea legs. We never advise leaders to abandon their responsibilities or their teams. However, we also promote wellbeing because, for many smaller businesses, leaders are the business and its health is linked to your health. 

We don’t buy into the “I can’t get off the treadmill” excuse that many of us – including myself at times – use as a smokescreen for poor leadership practice. 

The truth is, you either step off the treadmill or it forces you off. If it forces you off, it will hurt a lot more and will take longer to get back on.