Reversing Burnout by Watering Our Own Lawn

By Greg Nathan posted February 11, 2022
I was recently invited to speak on a panel with a fellow psychologist about how leaders can move beyond burnout, promote optimism and keep their leadership real. While I loved the topic, in a planning meeting with the organisers I admitted to feeling a bit of a hypocrite.

The reason was, although I have researched and written about burnout, a few months ago, after a grueling two years, I was personally feeling ICED. This stands for the following four behaviours that comprise what I call the ICED model of burnout.

Isolated means not wanting to communicate with others. It’s not because you don’t like engaging with people. In fact I am normally a raging extrovert. It’s more because relationships take energy, and you tend to think “I just can't be bothered getting into this discussion”.

Cynical means you start focusing on real or imagined negative intentions of others. This can lead to sarcastic comments, a loss of interest in the well-being of others, and damaged relationships. A cynical leader is a dangerous thing because of their potential negative impact on the culture.

Exhausted means feeling physically and mentally wrung out. For me this manifested in finding it hard to focus, vacillating over decisions, and sleeping badly, which of course can become a vicious cycle.

Despondent, which is a syndrome I have previously referred to as languishing. It involves a loss of joy or enthusiasm and a pessimistic outlook where, instead of seeing opportunities, all we see are problems.

A little help from our friends

I have generally been fortunate throughout my life because, whenever I have faced serious challenges, someone or something has always come along to help. As it happened, one afternoon late last year when I was at my ICED worst, my phone rang. It was a mentor I hadn't spoken with for some time, and he was calling to just check in on me. We had a really good conversation, and he was incredibly encouraging, reminding me of all the great things the business had achieved. He also conveyed a deep confidence that things would work out well. The following day a client was talking with me on the phone about a project. He suddenly paused and, out of the blue, asked how I was going. I tend to be a straight talker so I told him I had actually been feeling quite frustrated and stuck. Again I had this experience where he reminded me of all the great work that FRI does, how much we had helped him and his business over the years, and that he would like to help me if he could. This led to a two-hour conversation and the exploration of a number of fresh ideas, including an introduction to an executive coach he had used, and who I have subsequently found to be very useful.

Watering the grass

Around this time I noticed a large patch of grass on our front nature strip had become seriously burnt. It made me laugh as I felt the same way. So while I started tending more closely to my own needs, I also started watering this little patch of grass. As you can see below it worked, and I’m pleased to say I’m also personally feeling like I am green and growing once again.

Some things I’ve found helpful to get my energy back have included taking my own advice. For instance:

Talking with a trusted supporter (such as a partner, friend, colleague, coach or adviser) about your personal and leadership challenges, and being grateful for people who have helped you.

Focusing on what is going well, rather than what has gone wrong, and spending time at the end of the day reflecting on what went well and why.

Reframing difficult situations in terms of the lessons and new insights they are providing.

Investing time doing activities we enjoy, and that stretch us a little. A colleague I just spoke with about this article said that last year he made a point of playing golf every Wednesday morning, and how this helped him to maintain a fresh and positive approach.

I’m sharing my personal experience because no one is immune from the dangers of burnout, especially professionals whose job it is to help others. The reality is, we can tend to take on the problems and anxieties of our clients, as well as having to deal with our own work and life pressures. As a society, we are seeing it with our health professionals, and I am seeing it with many senior franchisor executives and field consultants who have been doing a remarkable job supporting their franchisees.

If there’s one thing I have learned from this experience, it is the power of supportive mentors, the value of straight-talking, and the importance of being open to seeking help, no matter how experienced you are or how much you think you know.

To finish I would like to put in a plug for the field consultants out there and the great work they do. Our Field Manager Bootcamps are a great opportunity for field consultants to benefit from fresh ideas, peer support, and strategies to look after their franchisees and themselves. Until next time, let's water our own lawns a little.

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