Leaders not only shape company standards but company culture. They’re expected to consider their organization’s goals when establishing office policies, but also should consider employees’ needs when building office environments. Balancing this organizational awareness and otherawareness makes it hard not to develop a hero’s mentality when addressing everyone’s interests in a company ecosystem.
If this much responsibility is placed on a leader’s shoulders, what happens when they burn out? It’s simple: Everyone burns out with them.
Burnout is far more serious than a company challenge. It’s a health risk. Employee burnout creates many risks for a company. 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout at their current job, with half noting they have left a job specifically because they felt burned out. The World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases in 2019, noting its overlooked severity.
Bosses can’t take the place of mental health professionals, but identifying where they need support and recognizing boundaries in the workplace encourages the same standards from everyone. Managers set an example by establishing their boundaries, so the first step is recognizing when their own workplace needs are not being met.
It might be helpful to bosses to understand the three dimensions of workplace stress that the WHO outlined when they named the problem a disease:
1) Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
Leaders should look for signs of burnout by asking themselves: How do you feel when you start your workday? While preparing for a big day, are you feeling rested, or do you wake up exhausted? Regardless of sleep schedule, extreme fatigue is a tell-tale sign of workplace stress.
2) Increased mental distance from one’s job
CEOs shouldn’t just worry about employee turnover. Feelings of negativism or cynicism about one’s job exist even in the C-suite. When work becomes overwhelming, people often check out to protect their emotional well-being. Typically optimistic employees may start having a defeatist attitude in the workplace, becoming despondent and disinterested in future projects.
3) Reduced professional efficacy
Fatigue affects all aspects of work, and when an employee loses professional efficacy, they may start to forget meetings and projects and subsequently feel the onsets of self-doubt.
Setting boundaries reduces the risk of burnout, decreases absenteeism, and increases commitment and retention, but more importantly, reduces serious health risks. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that workplace stress contributes to 120,000 deaths a year. A leader is responsible for spreading a sustainable, positive energy through the work environment and leading by example.
Leaders need their own boundaries to create the time and mental space to nurture the strategic and reflective focus required to deal with the constantly changing demands of their work environment. They can start this process by first becoming aware of their own mindset and habits and discerning which facilitate or hinder their ability to fulfill their creative leadership potential.
Leaders need to explore and evolve their reactions to their challenges and pressures. Coaching and self-reflection can help them to become aware of their reactions to potential stressors and redirect their coping style if needed. To get started on assessing their habits, leaders should consider these focal points:
1) Define urgency for yourself
Identifying what’s important as an initial step will help employees avoid stressing over non-urgent tasks. Discern between critical and non-critical assignments when developing an agenda. You don’t have to drop everything to help a team member with a less pressing issue. Your inability to prioritize can confuse the staff prioritization as well.
2) Pull back
Reduce meetings, turn off notifications, and purposely build in reflection and buffer time on the calendar. Don’t be afraid to set up a not-to-do list. No one is at the beck and call of another person 24/7 (or at least no one happy!), so block off sections of your calendar for focus time.
3) Optimize recovery
Recovery is often misidentified, equating it to dopamine spikes or the aftermath of flight-or-fight scenarios. Finding out what helps activate soothing, rather than escaping, is an important step. This process is different for everyone, so achieving optimal recovery will require self-reflection and maybe even experimenting. It’s a worthwhile goal.
Managers can often undermine positive behavior, intentionally or not, by sending emails in the middle of the night or expecting someone working part-time to work beyond their hours. By using attention management, they can identify pressing matters and avoid creating unneeded stress for themselves and their team.
Leaders must reflect on self-care and the distance they keep from work when they aren’t working. Carve out time for fun, rest, exercise, and whatever brings joy. Remember that it’s okay not always to be available to others. A good leader wants to support their team’s happiness and success, but a great leader can only be truly present for others if they come from a healthy place themself. There is no set process for fighting burnout, but there are guidelines for preventing it, and there is no time to ignore a dire problem.
Suzanne Kietselaer is an acknowledged global specialist in adult development and executive coaching and an experienced executive coach and senior leadership facilitator. She currently serves as Leadership Circle’s managing director of global coaching.