Preventing Burnout as a Leader and Changemaker

Preventing Burnout as a Leader and Changemaker

Do you feel like there are never enough hours in the day? Do you crave guilt-free time with family and friends without that “to-do” list nagging you in the back of your brain? Do you long for some time for you, to just “be”?

I understand. I’ve been where you are. In December 2012, I almost burnt out. I had been working on a one-year contract with a non-profit that promotes women’s and children’s rights around the world. When the opportunity came my way, I was excited as I felt so aligned with their mission and values.

As I flew to several African countries for project start-up, I felt energized and passionate; excited to meet the teams on the ground and learn about their needs and how I might be of support. 6 months in, I started to feel SOoo tired and that there was so much to do and so little time. Do you relate?

I was initially hired to be a Senior Health Advisor on 5 projects in Asia and Africa to reduce infant and maternal mortality. That morphed to 7 projects in 7 countries. I was initially to be a member of a multi-stakeholder working group of four non-profits that had received a large amount of donor funding to hire a research institute to evaluate the combined impact of all of our projects in Asia and Africa. Within a month of starting the position, I was informed that I was the Chair of that working group. The Chairperson position became almost a full-time job on its own.

I was working night and day feeling so committed to what I was doing and wanting to do the best job I could. Near the end of the contract the non-profit invited me to stay on for another 6 months in a reduced role, 2 days a week chairing the multi-stakeholder working group. I was close to signing the new contract and asked to sleep on the decision. I awoke the next morning feeling like a lemon that had been squeezed dry. In that moment I knew that I finally had to listen to my body and take a break. So I turned down the opportunity. The VP and Director I’d been working with were shocked and asked me why. I said “because I want to create more balance in my life”. At the time I had no idea what that meant or what my life would look like but, but I started 2013 with no work on my plate, committed to reconnecting with family and friends and spending a lot of time in nature. I studied mindfulness, started to meditate daily and continued with regular yoga practice. I slept 10, 12, 13 hours a night and after 4 months was still tired. So I went to a naturopath who put me on some homeopathic meds and within a month or so I started to get my energy back and feel more like myself.

About 5 months in, the 7 keys to what I call Creative Living; 7 keys to consciously cultivating improved health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life, came to me. I then began writing my first book Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Womenwhich made #1 on Amazon on launch day. It is a guide for women, as well as men, who constantly “give” and “do” out of balance with “receiving” and “being”.

Burnout and adrenal fatigue are reaching epidemic proportions. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its classification of burnout from a medical condition to an occupational phenomenon. Their definition:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy. ” [1]

The importance of this change in the WHO classification is that it acknowledges that organizations and their leaders have a role to play in reducing workplace stress; rather than burnout being perceived as a personal medical issue, a sign of weakness and something to be hidden and ashamed of.

To learn more about burnout, its symptoms and causes see: https://pamela-thompson.com/how-to-know-if-youre-burning-out-what-to-do-about-it/

Proven Strategies and Powerful Practices

How can we as leaders and changemakers turn this epidemic around?  It starts with us, and our own lives. Here are a few strategies I’ve personally found effective and have shared with coaching and consulting clients around the world.

  • Integrate mindfulness practices into your life daily.  Mindfulness practices help us get out of our heads and into our bodies. They originate from Buddhism. Body scanning is a good place to start. Each morning on awakening scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort. Breathe into those areas and release them. Imagine them flowing out of your body. Mindfulness walking meditations are another practice. I recommend initially doing these 3 times a week for 15 to 20 minutes a day; for example, at a lunch break or immediately after work. Ideally do this outdoors in a park or in nature if possible. Focus on all of your senses. Hear the crunch of leaves underfoot, smell the salty sea air, view the beautiful vistas surrounding you, feel the wind on her cheeks. When thoughts come in to your head, imagine they are clouds. Let them drift by and resume focusing on all of your senses. Notice what you notice during the walking meditations and after.
  • Listen to and Trust in Your Body’s Wisdom. This is one of the 7 keys in my book. What I know to be true is that our bodies always know the truth. Many of us were raised in cultures that value and focus on our rational, logical left brain and staying in our heads. Mindfulness practices help us get back into our bodies, and learn to listen to and trust them. Try something as simple as when you feel tired, go to sleep rather than pushing through that last task before heading to bed. When a decision doesn’t feel right, try going with your gut rather than rationalizing a decision. For more tools that assist you to learn to make decisions using your body’s wisdom check out chapter 4 in Learning to Dance with Life.
  • Tap into and Express Your Creative Side. Is there something you enjoy doing that when you do it you become immersed in it and lose track of time? Could be film editing, painting, writing, gardening, cooking … . Chances are when you have this experience, it is one of your passions, and when you tune into it you are tapping into your creative right brain. Usually you feel energized and positive while engaging in a passion. When you are filled with childlike wonder you also get out of your head and into your body. Regularly taking time to do something you enjoy that is creative helps reduce the stress in your body and takes your mind off work.
  • When you feel stressed Deep breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth consciously making a noise on the out breath. Do this about three times and notice what you notice. This practice stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin that relaxes us and makes us feel good.
  • Set firm boundaries; i.e. learn to say “no”. In order to do this it is helpful to clarify your core values  (For more info on values see https://pamela-thompson.com/do-you-live-in-alignment-with-your-core-values/) – and ask yourself: Is this activity or this organization in alignment with my top 5 core values?  Another question to ask is: Will this activity bring me joy? Do I have time to add this activity to my plate?
  • Celebrate successes – big and small. Rather than checking a completed project or key activity off your list and quickly moving onto the next, take time to celebrate it with yourself and with other special people in your life. This can be as simple as taking a moment to go inside yourself and acknowledging the work you’ve done and feeling good about what you’ve accomplished. It could be treating yourself to a massage, bubble bath or pedicure or going out for a special dinner with a friend or partner.

I invite you to commit to integrating two or three of the above strategies into your life starting tomorrow. If you would like to learn more about how to stay happy, healthy and grounded while being successful in life and business check out my book Learning to Dance with Life – www.amazon.com/dp/B0145ZGDO2 which is backed up by evidence from neuroscience, eastern psychology and the health-promoting and healing benefits of the arts.

I welcome your experiences and comments below. What strategies have you found successful in reducing work-related stress?


[1] https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/

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