Avoiding Leadership Burnout: How We Can Pass the Torch to the Next Generation

iStock_000015479593XSmallNneka Orji

Are you no longer motivated by the work you were once very passionate about? Are you experiencing shortness of breath? Has managing your work-life balance become an impossible task? According to psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, if you answered yes to the above questions, you are likely to be on the road to burnout or already burned out.

Dr. Bourg Carter groups the signs of burnout into three main categories: physical, psychological and behavioral. Heart palpitations, increased anxiety and reduced appetite as a result of high stress environments are all signs that we might have pushed passed our physical limit.

Why is this important in the women’s leadership discussion?

Harvard researchers found that women in highly stressful jobs are at a 40 percent increased risk of heart disease. Arianna Huffington recently cited a study which found that women in stressful jobs were at 60 percent greater risk of Type 2 diabetes compared to their peers in less stressful professions. This correlation was not found in men, only women – not positive news for our female talent pipeline.

While burnout is not a female-only experience, high achieving women tend to have more expectations placed on them at work, home and in their communities. Already in high pressure jobs, the additional pressure women experience means that they struggle to balance demands and tend to burnout. Captivate Network also showed that women are less likely to address the factors leading to burnout compared to their male counterparts: “[m]en are 25% more likely to take breaks throughout the day for personal activities, 7% more likely to take a walk, 5% more likely to go out to lunch, and 35% more likely to take breaks ‘just to relax.’”

Why should leaders of our organisations take burnout seriously?

On an individual level, the impact of burnout can be devastating. Even more concerning, however, is the significant impact leadership burnout can have on organisations and economies. One of the key consequences of burnout is reduced engagement and in extreme cases, constant dread of going to work. Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace found that only 13 percent of the global workforce was either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Actively disengaged employees cost economies $450-$550 billion in the US and £52-£70 billion in the UK annually. Of course burnout is not the only contributor to this drain on economies, but if individuals and organisations can mitigate the risk of disengagement by avoiding burnout, it is worth addressing.

Passing the torch to the next generation

By exhibiting the behaviours that lead to burnout, female leaders are setting the wrong example for the next generation. Working to the point where health is sacrificed sends the message that to succeed young women need to “work harder” rather than “work smarter.” The danger in female leaders burning out is twofold; firstly, fewer women remain in leadership positions and therefore fewer role models are available, and the second issue is that young women reflect the behaviours they see in their female role models, including those who exhibit signs of burnout.

2010 research by the Center for Work Life Policy showed that 47 percent of women aged 30 or younger described themselves as “very ambitious” compared to 62 percent of their male counterparts. If ambition levels are already lower among the female group, and burnout leads them to redefine and sometimes downgrade their ambitions, we need to work on mitigating the risk of burnout.
The question here is what should women –particularly female leaders –do now to ensure the flame keeps burning so they can pass the torch to the next generation of aspiring female leaders?

Keep the flame burning
There are several strategies to avoid leadership burnout, but here are four practical steps you can take to ensure you don’t burnout. These recommendations must be seen as prerequisites to success, not just options if we want to sustain current levels of female leadership.

1. Acknowledge you’re burned out
Dr. Bourg Carter found that the high octane women she engaged with only acknowledged they were burned out when “they hit the proverbial embankment and start spinning out of control.” Always be conscious of the warning signs described above; the sooner you can recognize that you’re in burnout mode, and the more easily you can address the causal factors. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

2. Be selective, learn to say no and prioritise
Do you find yourself questioning why you accepted an assignment even when you are already working to full capacity? All too often ambitious women take on additional work in an effort to prove themselves. However, being selective about how you invest your time is more effective and ultimately ensures that you minimise the risk of falling into the trap of multitasking. A study on multitasking –a skill generally associated with women –found that multitasking could lead to reduced productivity despite the “feel good” state it creates. Reduced productivity means longer hours and an increased likelihood of burnout. Stop, select (say no if required) and prioritise.

3. Set your boundaries but be adaptable
Redefining your goals might be necessary to prevent burnout. Millennials, most of who aim to “have it all,” are burning out earlier and to avoid this, many are resetting their goals and timelines. While you have your goals in mind, be clear about your limits and the boundaries you will not cross to achieve your goals. Without these boundaries, we tend to keep pushing ourselves until we are burned at both ends. This is not to say that the boundaries are fixed – they must be flexible to allow you to adapt in line with your organisations. Joanna Barsh’s book with Susie Cranston – How remarkable women lead – advises us to develop adaptability as a skill set. If the planned route is not working, do not keep pushing and exhausting yourself. Instead, try another way.

4. Develop your support network
Your network is not only a group to which you can delegate some of your key activities. Those trusted people in your network can also be the ones who point out when you have pushed yourself too far. In the midst of the ambition race, it can sometimes be hard to have that perspective and self-assessment. Surround yourself with people who can watch your flame so it remains healthy; not extinguished so you retain your passion without leading to burnout.

The key message here is that female ambition and success do not have to lead down a one way path to self-destruction. We should still aim to achieve our long-term goals (with emphasis on the “long-term”), but be mindful of our personal limits. We might get to leadership positions faster, but surely the more important point is for us to avoid burnout so we can stay in leadership positions for longer.

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