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/

The Value of a Professional Facilitator: Why Would You Hire One?

The Value of a Professional Facilitator: Why Would You Hire One?

Creating a new project? Building a new partnership? Embarking on a strategic planning process? Building collaboration between multiple stakeholders or between one or more teams in an organization? All of these scenarios benefit from the skills of an experienced and skilled facilitator.

What is a professional facilitator?

A professional facilitator is someone who has been trained by a recognized organization and/or academic institution. In Canada, several recognized organizations that train facilitators are: the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution at St. Paul’s University – https://www.cicr-icrc.ca/en/ [1] ,

the Justice Institute – https://www.jibc.ca/ , and the Institute of Cultural Affairs – which also has an international/parent organization – http://www.ica-international.org/. A facilitator may also be certified by the International Association of Facilitators – https://www.iaf-world.org/site/. [2]

Role of a Facilitator

A facilitator’s role is to guide a group; to make it easier for a group to do its work. A facilitator takes the words and thoughts of participants and records them on a flipchart or laptop with projection. Facilitators are trained in processes to build consensus, prevent conflict and encourage creativity.

A facilitator has a strong process function versus being a content expert. Thus the role of a facilitator is not to contribute content, but rather to encourage the active participation of all group members and to ensure that their ideas are recorded as they stated them. In fact, people tend to get annoyed if you change the words they give you to your own.

It is helpful when facilitating groups to understand their “language” and the sector to which they belong. This enables you to know when groups are “getting off track” and to more easily summarize the ideas raised. It is also useful to encourage people to speak in “bullets” or “headlines” and there are various processes to assist participants to do this.

An effective facilitator is able to:

  • Create a safe environment
  • Listen
  • Observe
  • Paraphrase
  • Summarize main points
  • Use eye contact
  • Identify and interpret non-verbal messages; e.g. frowns and body language
  • Speak clearly
  • Write legibly
  • Ascertain if and when a group is “getting off track” and “bring them back on track”

Additional characteristics that are helpful to have as a facilitator are:

  • A good sense of humor
  • Flexibility
  • Openness
  • An interest in and sensitivity to people from diverse backgrounds
  • Lots of energy.

There are many styles of facilitation and each facilitator develops their own unique approach.

Benefits of an Outside Neutral Facilitator

You may be a leader, project manager or changemaker who has some facilitation expertise. If so, that is valuable. That said, it is useful to hire an outside facilitator for the following reasons:

  • They are a neutral third party and don’t have any biases or strong affiliations with any of the involved stakeholders
  • They can free you up as a leader to observe the group and team dynamics
  • They can enable you to contribute your ideas as a group member
  • They can provide a valuable “outsider” perspective on the group and its dynamics.

The Power of Facilitated Processes

I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of a well-designed and facilitated process. An example is while leading the design team of an international development project in Nigeria that was to be implemented in 2 states – one in the Muslim North and one in the Christian South. With the support of my team, I facilitated a process whereby the key stakeholders in each state had the opportunity to identify their current situation, vision a desired future (after 5 years of project support), identify the gaps between NOW and THEN and what support they needed to move toward their vision. The participants in each state identified someone to present their key findings to a national workshop held a week later in the capital city. My team supported each representative to prepare a PowerPoint of the key workshop outputs to present at the national workshop.

Partway through the national workshop, the head of Policy and Planning in the Muslim state stood up and said “Brothers and sisters, I thought we were so different from you. I believed we were not as advanced as you educationally and that our challenges and visions would be totally different. Hearing you present today I now realize that we are essentially the same; you face the same challenges as we do and have a similar vision. I am so looking forward to working together with you to turn our vision into reality!”

Another participant stood up and exclaimed, “This is the first conference I’ve been to in this country where students have been together with representatives of different levels of government, health providers and academia. Students should be here as THEY are the leaders of tomorrow!”

Such peak experiences are highlights of this work. They make me passionate about the opportunity to design and facilitate processes that bring diverse groups of people together, change beliefs, foster collaboration, and create initiatives that make a difference.

In Summary

Well-designed and facilitated processes have the power to:

  • Foster increased understanding (e.g. among different cultural and religious groups)
  • Model and promote collaboration within an organization
  • Create new partnerships
  • Build ownership; and
  • Foster creativity and innovation.

If you have a new project you’re designing, a multistakeholder initiative you’re working on, need some visioning or a new strategic plan, I’d love to speak with you. Please visit https://pamela-thompson.com/process-design-facilitation/ to book a Discovery Session.


[1] Where I received my initial training in facilitation, mediation and conflict resolution

[2] I was a member of the first group of facilitators who were certified in Canada by the International Association of Facilitators.

What Are Healthy Organizations & Are They Possible?

What Are Healthy Organizations & Are They Possible?

In many organizations regularly working overtime is still a badge of honor.

I have a number of close friends who have been high achievers in academia, brought millions of dollars into their institutions, and who have been harshly mistreated by certain “higher ups”.

I have also experienced colleagues who have been undervalued and made to feel they are in jeopardy of losing their positions because they have proposed a creative solution in an organizational culture where maintaining the status quo is the norm.

Increasing numbers of high performing younger and younger women (e.g. in their late twenties and early thirties) are coming into my life having been diagnosed with breast cancer, mono, and/or on stress leave and antidepressants. Burnout and adrenal fatigue continue to be rampant and yet are often “kept under the covers”.

Since I launched my coaching business in 2009, I’ve coached a number of high achieving women and provided them with tools and support to change their lives from constantly driving and striving to healthier, happier, more balanced lives. I’ve recently realized that this is not enough. It is one thing to provide a person with tools and support, but if they return to a work environment that does not enable them to put those tools and strategies into action, it is rather like sending someone on a training and having them return to a workplace that doesn’t enable them to apply the new skills they’ve learned. It is frustrating, unsatisfying and doesn’t address all of the issues.

I realize that it is only part of the solution to provide high performing women and men with tools and the vision of a healthier, happier life. The other part of the equation is to change our organizations so they are healthier. 

I would like to start a conversation on this. What is a healthy organization? Is it possible to create healthy, successful organizations?

To start “the ball rolling”, here are a few characteristics of what I believe constitute a healthy organization. A healthy organization:

  • Treats their staff and management with respect
  • Is clear on their values and “walks their talk”
  • Values creativity and innovation and creates space to enable this to happen
  • Values and fosters collaboration within the organization and with outside partners
  • Is lead by balanced and mindful leaders ( See –https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/balanced-mindful-leadership-time-new-type-leader-pamela-thompson/ )
  • Recognizes that many of today’s issues are complex and require multiple disciplines and ways of thinking to address them
  • Embraces change and supports its staff and management to better understand and embrace the change process
  • Provides a physical environment that supports well-being; for example, a meditation room or garden, indoor plants, on-site gym, yoga and childcare
  • Makes a healthy profit
  • Gives back to the community

These are a few of my thoughts. I welcome yours in the comment box below.