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/

How to Make Friends with Uncertainty: Valuable Lessons & Strategies for Your Personal & Professional Life

How to Make Friends with Uncertainty: Valuable Lessons & Strategies for Your Personal & Professional Life

Our world today is characterized by uncertainty. Our economies, our relationships, our jobs, our futures … . Uncertainty is ever present in our lives. Learning how to change your relationship with and to “befriend” uncertainty reduces stress and has a number of other benefits.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines uncertainty as: “a situation in which something is not known, or something that is not known for certain” and “the feeling of not being sure what will happen in the future” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org).

Recently, I came to a point in my business where I was extremely tired and feeling little passion around what I was doing. I knew I needed to make a change but I wasn’t sure what that change was. I had launched a new website and had rebranded less that one year ago. What was I thinking wanting to change things up yet again? Perhaps I just needed to take a break; to relax and “recharge my batteries”?

It was an unusual situation for me to be in, as in the past when I’ve no longer felt “juiced” by what I was doing or felt that an organizational environment was toxic, either I would leave a position, or change my direction in business, and I nearly always knew what I wanted to do next. This recent experience was different. I did NOT know what to do next and felt uncertain.

What happens when we feel uncertain?  

We often experience fear and go into fight, flight or freeze – the stress response – as we feel unsafe and our body wants to protect us. When stress hormones are coursing through our bodies we often don’t make rational decisions.

We may “jump” at the first solution that presents itself so we feel more comfortable. This can be a position that we aren’t suited for because we need the money, or a relationship with someone who comes into our life so we won’t be alone.

We may be influenced by a well-meaning friend or person whose opinion we value, and choose a career or position we have the aptitude for; however one that we are not passionate about, instead of taking the time to figure what really “makes our soul sing” and following that path.

I’ve coached a number of clients who were extremely successful accountants, lawyers, engineers … in their late thirties and early forties, who were dragging themselves out of bed every morning, feeling no passion at all for their work. When asked to reflect on when was the last time they felt passion about their work, many admitted that they never really had any passion for their careers; a well-meaning adult had influenced them in their late teens to; for example, “be an accountant because you’re good at Math.”

There was a time in my life when I became a workaholic because I didn’t want to face the uncertainty of what my life might look like if I left my husband. If I kept busy all the time, I didn’t have to think or feel and I numbed out. Possibly you relate.

Uncertainty means different things to different people. I invite you to take a few minutes to think about your responses to the following questions. You may wish to journal about them.

What does uncertainty look and feel like for you?

Do you typically feel fearful when you experience uncertainty? If so, is your typical response fight, flight or freeze?

Do you react differently if the uncertainty is in your personal life than in your professional life?

From experience I know that we often don’t make the best decisions when we feel uncertain. I also know that for those of us who are used to always “doing”, being busy, and having lots of structure in our lives, it can be challenging to NOT DO, but instead to slow down and BE STILL. Many of us believe that to be valued and loved we need to be “doing” and accomplishing important things. Being what I call “in the void” or “in the space between” is quite foreign to us. That said, it can be an interesting journey and valuable experience to learn to feel comfortable with uncertainty.

So how can you change your relationship with “Uncertainty” and perhaps even make it your friend? 

Here are some lessons I’ve learned (often the hard way) to “befriend” uncertainty.

  • Acknowledge and Accept that you don’t know what to do and that is okay
  • Trust that everything will work out for you and the greater good
  • Believe that in time things will become clear
  • Know that you can’t force clarity
  • Remember that creative processes require time and space
  • Learn to listen to and trust in your body’s wisdom; it always knows what is best for you.

Below are some strategies to assist in integrating these lessons into your life.

  • Learn to listen to and trust in your body’s wisdom. A good place to start is to begin to integrate some mindfulness practices into your life. These practices help take you “out of your head” and “into your body”. They also focus on “being” rather than “doing”. One example is body scanning. On awakening scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Notice if there is any tension, discomfort or pain in any part. If you sense any of these breathe into each part and visualize the tension or discomfort releasing or melting away. Another practice is mindfulness walking meditation[1] that I recommend you do three times a week for 15 to 30 minutes each time.

 

  • Spend regular time in nature. This can be going for a walk in a nearby park at lunchtime, hiking, running by the ocean. Finding your special nature place and going there when you feel stressed or would like some guidance.

 

  • Do yoga regularly. Find a style that works for you. I recommend you do it at least three times a week.

 

  • Communicate with others who are close to you. They will then understand how you are feeling and often “cut you some slack”.

 

  • Reach out for support from family, friends, a coach or a health professional.

 

  • Get lots of sleep. If you’re feeling really tired experiment with going to bed earlier.

 

  • Pamper yourself; have a bubble bath, massage, pedicure, make time to read a favourite author

 

  • Move your body. Put on some of your favorite music and dance around your kitchen or living room.

 

  • Connect with your inner child. Do something you used to do as a child that “filled you up” (e.g. painting, drawing journaling) OR try something you’ve always wanted to do but never took the time for (e.g. dancing, learning to play a musical instrument, singing)

 

  • Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Remember that when you follow your heart and acknowledge how you feel, you give others permission to do the same.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with Uncertainty and what strategies and lessons you have found useful to help you deal with it and perhaps even make friends with it. I welcome your comments below.

[1] A mindfulness walking meditation enables you to get out of your head and into your body. When you walk outside in nature, slowly press one heal and the toes of one foot on the ground followed by the next, being totally present with your movements rather than thinking about all you have to do or reviewing a recent argument with your child or significant other. Focus on all of your senses. Notice the wind on your cheek, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of the salt sea air, see the beautiful vistas that surround you. Notice how you feel while doing the mindfulness walking meditations and after. Over time doing these walking meditations on a regular basis, notice what you notice.

 

How You Can Benefit from Nature & Why It’s Important

How You Can Benefit from Nature & Why It’s Important

How do you feel when you return home from a day or weekend of hiking, kayaking, camping, skiing, and being in nature? I feel relaxed, rejuvenated, an inner warmth; grateful for my body to have supported me to hike that challenging trail or to ski those moguls.

While in nature I am in awe of its beauty and at times the amazing stillness. I feel so relaxed and connected with what is around me.

There is more and more research about the benefits of being in nature and the negative impacts of not.

Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” (2005) coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. He has documented research on the negative impacts of children not spending time in nature including: attention difficulties, diminished use of the senses, obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens children’s appreciation of and stewardship of the natural world.

“More recent research shows that the steady stress of urban living changes the brain in ways that can increase our odds of schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders [1].”

The positive impacts on health and well-being of spending time in nature have been well documented. Examples include the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” or “forest therapy”. Having set up forest bathing centers in a number of areas throughout Japan and conducting longitudinal studies for several decades, the Japanese have discovered that spending time among trees reduces your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our bodies produce (i.e. strengthens our immune systems).

South Korea has implemented a National Forest Plan whose goal is “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being”. They speak about “social forestry” and have initiated a number of programs and studies including: walking in hinoki forests, doing guided meditations, and special programs for everyone from cancer patients to prenatal groups, to children with allergies, to a forest healing program for fire fighters with PTSD.

I’m currently reading The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, a journalist who moved with her family from a quiet home in Colorado surrounded by nature to a noisy downtown Washington, DC home on a major flight path. She was so shaken by the negative impact of the move she decided to learn more about nature and its benefits. The book is a fun and interesting read as Florence flies to different countries, takes part in research, speaks to researchers and experiences first-hand a variety of “therapies”.

Given these powerful findings, how can you in your busy and sometimes stressful life incorporate more time in nature? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go for a walk in nature at least three times a week for 15 to 30 minutes ideally in a park where there are trees. You can do this at lunch time if you are close to a park.
  • Join a hiking group and go hiking several times a month.
  • Go camping with family, friends or a group.
  • Find a special place close to where you live (if possible) where you can go that makes you feel relaxed. For me that is on some rocks by the ocean about 15 minutes walk from where I live.
  • Take your kids to the park at the end of each work day. Spend 20 to 30 minutes “decompressing” and focusing on having fun and connecting with your children.
  • Do mindfulness walking meditations[2] outdoors for 15 to 30 minutes three times a week.
  • Do meditations that incorporate nature sounds once a day. I find Deepak and Oprah’s 21-day meditations (available from https://chopracentermeditation.com/) really helpful and do these every morning on awakening.

I’d love to hear how you feel when in nature and what strategies you’ve found helpful to increase your time in nature. Feel free to share this article with others.

[1] Williams, Florence, The Nature Fix – Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017.

[2] A mindfulness walking meditation enables you to get out of your head and into your body. When you walk outside in nature, slowly press one heal and the toes of one foot on the ground followed by the next, being totally present with your movements rather than thinking about all you have to do or reviewing a recent argument with your child or significant other. Focus on all of your senses. Notice the wind on your cheek, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of the salt sea air, see the beautiful vistas that surround you. Notice how you feel while doing the mindfulness walking meditations and after. Over time doing these walking meditations on a regular basis, notice what you notice.

Why We Fear Change & How To Overcome It

Why We Fear Change & How To Overcome It

Our world is characterized by rapid change and uncertainty. With new technologies, scientific advances, and rapid access to information, increasing expectations are being placed on us to do more things, faster and better. At times we feel stressed, overwhelmed and struggle with the inevitable fear, anxiety and doubt change brings up. I believe that we all have a choice to consciously embrace change rather than to unconsciously react to it.

Why do we fear change?

We are hard-wired to react to change; to protect ourselves and stay safe. Our primitive brains unconsciously “turn on” when we are in a situation that is different; we prefer sameness. Our amygdala (part of the brain) is constantly scanning our environment and when it senses a threat, it sends messages to our bodies to go into fight, flight or freeze. We all have seen friends or colleagues become angry or “edgy” when a change is imposed on them (e.g. new management, downsize, separation or divorce). We’ve also observed others or ourselves going into paralysis, and unable to make a decision. You may find when you are forced into changing something in your life, you typically want to run away from it or “hide your head in the sand”. We all have different ways we react to change.

There is strong evidence to show that we can choose how we respond to change. By consciously changing our beliefs and perceptions we have about change, we can physiologically change the structure of our brain (e.g. create new neural pathways). Dr. Norman Doidge’s amazing work on neuroplasticity described in The Brain that Changes Itself provides strong supportive evidence. Dr. Bruce Lipton in The Biology of Belief, shares powerful scientific evidence to show that all the cells in our body are affected by our thoughts.

How can we reduce our fear of change?

We can:

  • Understand how and why we respond to change
  • Become aware of our beliefs about change
  • Try on some new beliefs around change
  • Learn a proven model and tools to help us reduce resistance, and embrace and successfully navigate any change
  • Commit to integrating new change strategies into our lives.

The more you understand change and the more self aware you are about how and why you respond to it, the more easily you can embrace and move through it.

So where can you start?

The 5-step Art of Change Framework I’ve developed based on more than 25 years of living, consulting and coaching on 5 continents, is a practical and accessible process. This framework is a proven model for embracing change whether it involves getting unstuck and moving forward when change is imposed on you, or whether you choose to initiate a change in your beliefs, attitudes and/or behaviors.

The Art of Change Framework is based on the belief that embracing change is a creative process that opens us up to new possibilities. Think of the times in your life when change was thrust upon you; e.g. you were laid off; or when a boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with you. At that time, you may have felt caught off guard, angry, fearful and uncertain about the future. On reflection, these changes opened you up to a new and better relationship or a position more aligned with your values and passions.

Embracing change enables you to let go of patterns that are no longer serving you and to move forward with confidence, clarity, improved health, happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace. For examples of this see: https://pamela-thompson.com/let-go-fly-free/.

The Art of Change Framework is a 5-step process for embracing change that uses the metaphor of life as a dance. The steps are:

  1. Shine the Light – Explore how you respond to change and why
  2. Choose Your Dance Identify the transition you want to work on and where you are on your transition journey
  3. Feel the Rhythm and Learn the Steps – Commit to embracing change in your body rather than resisting it, and begin doing the work associated with the phase of the transition journey you are in
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice! – Do the work that includes letting go, identifying lessons learned, envisioning the work, relationship or life of your dreams, taking action, and viewing change as a creative process that opens you up to new possibilities
  5. Consciously Share Your Dance with the World – Observe the positive changes in yourself, how others respond to you, and the positive impact you have on your family, friends, communities and workplaces.

If you’re interested in “diving deeper” into the Art of Change Framework, I encourage you to join me and a group of like-minded women for a fun and interactive one-day workshop “Embrace the Art of Change: From Fear to Freedom” on April 27th in beautiful Victoria, BC. To learn more and to register:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/embrace-the-art-of-change-from-fear-to-freedom-tickets-44230204733

The Power of Place

The Power of Place

I just returned from three relaxing and fun weeks vacation in Mexico. We spent two of those weeks in a magical fishing village, which made me reflect on and appreciate the power of place.

Have you ever visited a place and felt like you were “home”? Whenever I enter this pueblo, any stress I have instantly drops away. I feel relaxed, playful, open to possibility, “in the flow”. There is also a special sense of community in this town where locals and foreigners live peacefully together.

Some years ago, a woman from California started a children’s art and music festival that is still held every year in March. Over time, though her hard work and dedication, she gathered human and material resources and now the festival has grown to include a bricks and mortar community center with a library, computer room, recycling depot, coffee shop and a small retail space. It is a place that offers courses for girls and boys, women and men on everything from entrepreneurship, to environmental education, to sustainable development, The center has a truly welcoming atmosphere and is aptly called Entre Amigos (among friends). People who visit from largely Canada and the US often volunteer time to contribute to projects and help with fundraising.

A sponsorship program has been developed whereby Canadians and Americans (many of whom live there 6 months a year) sponsor promising local Mexican high school students to attend college and university.

Last year we attended a fundraiser for the local hospital where many talented local children performed music, dancing, gymnastics … . It was an animated community event. Every year there is a well-organized music festival in the local plaza (square) with amazing performers from around Mexico and a few from other countries.

What keeps my partner and I coming back to this magical place? It’s a combination of the welcoming and supportive atmosphere, the natural beauty, the strong sense of community and the positive bonds and caring evident among the locals and those who visit for periods of time. It’s also a community where I feel I can contribute and make some sort of positive difference. Plus I get to speak Spanish, and for some reason I have a natural affinity for Latin culture.

I have also experienced the power of place closer to home. When I’m feeling stressed and want to ground and unwind, there is a place by the ocean about 10 minutes from our home that I walk to. When I lay on the rocks and feel the sun on my body, any tension drops away and is absorbed by the rocks. I feel so grateful to live so close to this place of natural beauty.

Have you experienced the power of place? I’d love to hear your experiences and see descriptions of your magical places. Feel free to share those below and to forward this post to others. I also encourage you if you haven’t already, to find a place close to where you live that you can go to relax, reconnect and let your stress melt away.