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Your better leaders may be at risk of burning out



Amongst all the uncertainty and challenge, our better leaders are paying a lot of attention to their teams, keeping them engaged and motivated. Just like we want them to, right? Well, it could be a recipe for exhaustion and burnout.


Newly published research from the University of Alberta in Canada suggests that more engaged leaders can experience much higher levels of stress as they help their teams navigate tough times. 


The research team lead by organisational psychologist and professor Ian Gellatly PhD surveyed 184 North American managers and categorised them into four different patterns of leadership behaviour. Over a specific time period the demand they were placed under and their levels of stress were measured. 


They found that leaders who employed a wider range of behavioural styles to lead and motivate direct reports during challenging times experienced higher levels of stress.


“To be a good manager and motivate people, the leader really should try to have an awareness of what each person needs,” said Gellatly. “As you might imagine, being a fully engaged leader—inspiring in tough times, solving problems, listening, dealing with all the interpersonal kinds of things—can be taxing and stressful.”


If you want to avoid burnout, and perform sustainably in demanding and challenging roles, it is critical to understand that stress is experienced when the demands being placed on you begin to exceed your available resources; cognitive, emotional, physiological and spiritual. 


Whilst most leaders can deal with a demand-resource imbalance for a short period of time, longer exposures can impair cognitive function, emotional regulation and motivation. In other words, poor decision making, emotional volatility, and reduced effort result.  None of these are good for your business or the people who work with you.


What’s more, a sustained experience where demand is exceeding your resources can leave you with that awful feeling that you’re just keeping your chin above the water.  We sometimes hear executives in our coaching sessions say “I’ve got what it takes….but it’s taking everything I’ve got”.


If you are a leader like those in the study who are at risk of burning out, remember that you are of no help to others if you fail to look after yourself. Like a passenger on an aircraft that experiences sudden cabin depressurisation, you have to put your own mask on before you try and help others.


Strategies for restoring the balance


There are broadly two strategies for restoring balance and the more positive experience of life that goes along with it – reducing demand and increasing resources. 


Reduce and manage demand: Leaders who can decrease the various demands that are placed on them in life to more manageable levels are more sustainable. Three principal techniques are helpful:

  1. Prioritise what is important. You can’t do everything. Filter every planned activity and incidental request through an urgency-importance assessment.  If something is urgent and important do it today. If it’s important and but not urgent, do it later.  If it’s not important, do it never. Too many people spend time on things that are not important. Remember the Pareto Principle.  20% of your activity produces 80% of your results.
  2. Reset other’s expectations: You can’t do everything that everyone at work and at home expect you too. It’s impossible, and you’ll burn out trying. You have to practice telling people no, telling them why, and getting used to their discomfort. Ask other to do the heavy lifting instead of you all the time.  Don’t carry people’s water for them. Do not do for others what they, with a struggle, could do for themselves.
  3. Reset your own expectations: You can’t control everything, you can’t know everything, and you can’t make everyone happy. It’s our own unrealistic expectation of ourselves that create a lot of the stress we experience.  Instead give yourself permission to let go, not know and disappoint others. Accept the perfectly imperfect person that is you. 

Increase and maintain resources: There are three key techniques that can be used to maximise the resources you have available to you to meet the demands of leadership and life.

  1. Managerial Resources: You have people around you. They can do some of the things you currently do. Use these people to get things done. Delegate and empower others so that you spread the work around. Not just at work, but at home too if that's a source of your workload. 
  2. Physiological Resources: Your brain and body are the key assets you use in leadership work. They are inextricably connected and need to be looked after to work at their best. Getting enough sleep, exercise and the right sorts of food is important to maintain energy, attention and emotional evenness.
  3. Psychological: Finding a purpose behind all your hard work can help sustain you. So too can an authentic relationship where you can open up, download, and just be you. Keeping and protecting a small part of your time for a hobby or passion can also be restorative, as can quiet moments of reflection and meditation. 

The best solutions are often found by playing with a mix of demand management and resource optimisation techniques. If something works, keep at it. If it doesn't, try something else. There is nothing to be lost, and plenty to be gained by experimenting with a few different approaches. 


We also recommend generating good quality information on your current wellbeing practices, so that you can quickly target some high pay-off changes. We are big fans of the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey and recommend and use it extensively with our clients. 


We hope that you find this this advice helpful. If you are concerned that you or your leaders are at risk of burnout in these challenging times, please contact us for a conversation on what we can do to help.