How to Prevent and Heal from Burnout

How to Prevent and Heal from Burnout

Are there women in your life who are constantly giving to others and putting themselves at the bottom of the list? Women who are so busy serving others in their families, communities, workplaces … seemingly with boundless energy?

Women who seem to be strong and have it all together, and rarely if ever reach out for support from others; until they can’t.

Perhaps you are one of these women.

COVID has placed increased stress on women worldwide. They are burning out faster than before the pandemic. With the increased demands of working at home, home-schooling children, supporting others in their families, communities and workplaces, they are losing their passion, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, and experiencing feelings of cynicism and detachment.[1]

International cross-cultural studies[2]show that those in the helping professions (e.g. social workers, nurses, physicians, development professionals), and high achievers, are at higher risk for burnout than the general population. The curious thing about high or over-achievers is that we tend to work harder when we get closer and closer to burnout. It’s almost like we believe we are invincible!

I recall when I burnt out in late 2012; how I kept pushing through fatigue and NOT listening to my body. I had pushed through fatigue to finish that one last thing for many years, and was healthy (or so I thought), with no noticeable side effects. Until all that changed.

I’d been working on contract for an NGO that promotes women’s and children’s rights around the world for almost a year. Initially I was passionate about the opportunity and felt so aligned with their mission, vision and values. It was exciting to head off to a number of African countries for project start up and to meet the teams in the 7 countries I was working with! In the coming months, the project scope increased, and I was being asked to do more and more. Then, about 6 months in, I started to lose my passion. I felt like there was so much to do and so little time. Yet I kept pushing through.

Near the end of the year, I was invited to renew my contract in a reduced role. I was this close to signing and asked to sleep on the decision. When I awoke, I felt like a lemon that had been squeezed dry; and realized in that moment, that I had to finally listen to my body, I had to take a break. I got in touch with the Director and VP I’d been working with, thanked them, and turned down the opportunity. They said “Why?” and I said I wanted to create more balance in my life. At that time, I had no idea what that meant or how much time I would take off, but I started the new year with no work on my plate. A scary place for someone who has their own business! I took the time to reconnect with family and friends as I’d been travelling so much the past couple of years. I studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield; and spent a lot of time in nature.

After sleeping 10, 12, 13 hours a night for about 4 months and still awakening feeling fatigued, I went to see a naturopath who put me on some homeopathic meds; and within about a month I started to feel more like myself; my energy started to come back.

What I learned from that experience, and from doing in-depth interviews with high-achieving women from three continents is captured in the book “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women”. In this book, I introduce the concept of “Creative Living, “the conscious cultivation of increased health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life.” There are 7 keys to what I call Creative Living, and powerful strategies and practices to prevent and heal from burnout. I’ve distilled some of these in the strategies below.

Strategies You can Use to Prevent and Heal from Burnout

  • Integrate mindfulness practices into your life daily (e.g. body scanning[3] & mindfulness walking meditation[4]); these help you focus on the present moment, and get you out of the chatter in your head
  • Start listening to your body. When you feel tired take a short nap (e.g. 15 to 30 minutes if you can) or go for a short walk (15 to 30 minutes)
  • When you’re feeling stressed take 3 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth exhaling on each out breath. Notice how that makes you feel. This releases the hormone oxytocin which makes you feel more relaxed, grounded and at peace
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Sleep at least 8 hours a night and go to sleep before 11 pm
  • Set firm boundaries; learn to say “no”; being clear on your top 5 core values helps with this
  •  Spend regular time in nature – The Japanese have done longitudinal studies to show that when we walk in nature, particularly among trees, it reduces our heartrate, reduces our blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our body produces (i.e. strengthens our immune system)
  • Nurture yourself daily (e.g. have a bubble bath, listen to relaxing music, do something you love)
  • Try yoga. Experiment with different styles. Find one that works for you and do it 3 times a week or more for 30 to 60 minutes each time
  • Celebrate your achievements – both big and small
  • Unplug from technology 60 to 90 minutes before going to bed; and Unplug one day a week (if possible) e.g. on the weekend.
  • Schedule blocks of time in your calendar for you (e.g. work out at the gym, yoga, lunch with a friend, date night with your partner) and commit to doing them
  • If symptoms persist and if you are continually fatigued even though you sleep 8 or more hours a night, and have lost your zest for life, go to a recommended naturopath or a physician who is open to complementary therapies.

What strategies have you found helpful to reduce stress in your life and to prevent and/or heal from burnout? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

Gift yourself and those high-achieving women in your life; those who “do” more than “be” and “give” more than “receive” “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women” .


[1] Sherrie Berg Carter, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010.

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/jan/21/spot-the-signs-of-burnout-before-it-hits-you?CMP=ema-1694&CMP=

[3] Scan your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes noticing where there is any tension or discomfort. Breathe into those places and set the intention to release the pain and discomfort. This is helpful to do first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. It helps you become more aware of your body and the messages it sends you.

[4] When doing mindfulness walking meditation, it is most beneficial to do it outside. When you begin to walk, instead of thinking about the argument you had with your partner that morning or worrying about the performance review you’re going to give to a team member who is underperforming;  instead focus on all of your senses. Feel the breeze on your cheeks, smell the salt sea air, hear the birds chirping, see the beautiful vistas that surround you … . When thoughts come to mind as they will, imagine putting them in a cloud and watching them float away and then return to focusing on your senses. Do this 3 times a week to start for 20 to 30 minutes a time and notice how you feel during, immediately after and after a week or so of doing this.

What Leadership Stories are You Telling Yourself?

What Leadership Stories are You Telling Yourself?

I encourage you to take a moment to sit down, close your eyes and reflect on the leaders you have experienced in your life. Think about your first boss at your first “real” job. How was she or he? Were they kind, open, approachable, understanding? What were the dominant traits they possessed that you recall?

Now reflect on other leaders you have had in your life. Were they people you looked up to, who made you feel good about yourself, and provided opportunities for you to stretch yourself?

I’ve spoken and worked with a number of women who have accomplished much in their lives and yet did not regard themselves as leaders. Part of the reason why, was because the leaders they had experienced to date had not been people they wanted to emulate. They did not have positive memories associated with many of them. Perhaps you relate?

I’d like to share an example from my own life. Years ago, I worked in government at the federal level. One of my colleagues who worked on the same floor but in a different division was an articulate, creative and intelligent black woman. She had a vision to create a Unit to serve an under served group she cared much about. Her boss asked her to write down her vision, mission, the number of Full Time Equivalents required for the Unit and submit it to her. The boss then shared the document with “higher ups” as if it was her own, without acknowledging my friend as the creator. The Unit was approved with a budget attached and rather than offering my colleague the position, she interviewed and brought in a Unit Head from outside of our Division and totally excluded my friend from the process.

That experience had a really negative impact on me. I felt so bad for my colleague. I started to notice what I perceived as a cancer growing in the organization. In team meetings, my Division Head would call down a younger male team member in front of us all because she perceived him as a threat. I realized I could no longer work in this toxic environment even though I enjoyed my work and believed I was making a difference. Soon after, I met the partner in a consulting firm and was invited to join them which I did. I left my government job with the benefits and supposed stability and lost the matched contributions to my pension plan.

Perhaps you have experienced something similar. The impact this and other negative experiences I had with other leaders, was to associate the negative qualities I had seen and felt with leadership. When asked to join a Women’s Leadership Network a number of years into my career and to speak at their monthly meeting, I felt anxiety and fear rise up. Was I really a leader? For many years I denied that fact and I believe it was largely due to the negative experiences I had had with female leaders in my various positions.

In order to be an effective leader, it is obviously helpful to have experienced and been mentored by one or a several “good” leaders. Those who you respect and view as positive role models. That said, if you’ve not been that fortunate, it is important to reflect on your experience with leaders in your life and notice how that has affected your perception of leadership and interest in being a leader.

Are you telling yourself a leadership story that is no longer serving you? Is it time to change the narrative?

I would love to hear whether you have experienced something similar and how your experience with leaders has affected your interest in and comfort with being a leader. I invite your comments below.

Celebrating Endings & New Beginnings: A Useful Process

Celebrating Endings & New Beginnings: A Useful Process

December is a great month to reflect on your achievements from the current year and to set intentions for the coming year.

A process that I’ve found to be extremely useful for myself and my clients is to answer the following questions and journal about them at the end of one year and before starting a new one.

Reflections:

What are the accomplishments I am most proud of in 2020? 

What am I most grateful for this year?

What lessons have I learned regarding relationships, work experience, my business, my own blind spots … over the past year?

Intentions:

What are my intentions for 2021 (in five areas)?

  • Personal life – i.e. What my personal life looks and feels like. Note that it is important to write your intentions in the present tense as if you have already accomplished them. For example; “I am strongly connected to myself, my gifts, my fears, my strengths. I courageously uncover any and all fears, doubts and limiting beliefs that are holding me back from standing in my true power and fulfilling my larger vision and mission … .”
  • Related to my Health i.e. What my health looks and feels like. “I feel great! My body is toned, strong and flexible. I radiate health and vitality – physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. I do yoga 3 to 4 times/week, meditate daily and spend regular time in nature hiking, kayaking, swimming, cycling …
  • Financial – i,e. What my financial life looks and feels like. “ I average $_______ thousand a month in terms of income generation through Creative Life Coaching & Consulting. I feel financially free and serene. I pay off my credit cards every month and my line of credit is paid off. …
  • Spiritual – i.e. What my spiritual life looks and feels like. “I continue to meditate daily and deepen my ability to go within and connect with the Universal wisdom. I continue to strengthen and listen to my body’s wisdom. … “
  • Intellectual – i.e. What my intellectual life looks and feels like. “I am flexible, flowing and open to new ideas. I connect with my creativity easily and effortlessly. … I blog regularly and creative ideas come to me easily. I design and facilitate workshops and retreats that many women connect with and learn from.”

I encourage you to experiment with the process above. Feel free to change the titles of the 5 areas suggested to ones that resonate for you. Reviewing your intentions quarterly and noting how you’re doing in relation to them, helps keep them top of mind and provides encouragement to move forward. Using your intentions as a “touch stone” at the end of each year to review your achievements is helpful.

Celebrating your accomplishments feels so good and is important to provide you with the energy and commitment to move forward and fulfill your intentions. Here’s a short video that explains why it is important to celebrate.

Best of luck reflecting on 2020 and setting bold intentions for 2021. To your health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace!

I invite you to try out the process and welcome your comments below. Feel free to share this post with others.

Intuition and Leadership: What is the Link?

Intuition and Leadership: What is the Link?

Have you ever interviewed a potential staff person or manager who on paper looked amazing, answered the questions thoughtfully, came to the interview well-groomed and appeared well-mannered and reliable? Your rational mind (left brain) thought “this a great candidate; I want to hire her or him”, yet there was something niggling that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Something that didn’t feel right; yet you went ahead and hired that person. Three months after they started their position, you realized they were not a good “fit” for the organization. One of your organizational values was collaboration and they were extremely competitive to the point of withholding information from other team leads. On reflection, you realized that your body had told you this person wasn’t right for the organization and yet you let your head overrule your heart and did not listen to your body’s wisdom.

As women, many of us have been taught from a young age that in order to get ahead and be successful, we need to suppress our natural feminine qualities such as intuition. These feminine qualities have been undervalued in general in our families and by society and we have learned that in order to get ahead in business and in life that we need to assume the more dominant masculine qualities such as rationality and valuing logic over intuition.

The recent pandemic has shone the light on many aspects of our societies and organizations that are no longer working. It has reinforced the need for us to reconnect with our authentic feminine leadership qualities[1] such as intuition, collaboration and creativity[2] and recognize their value and importance.

As authentic feminine leaders how can we reconnect with those parts of ourselves that we have disconnected with based on previous feedback and experience? How can we learn to listen to and trust in our body’s wisdom?

  1. The first step is to believe that your intuition is a valuable quality and you can learn to access it and trust it. Dr. Bruce Lipton[3], a stem cell biologist, has done extensive research to show that the cells of our body are affected by our thoughts. This means your thoughts and beliefs biochemically affect your body and you have the power to change them.

Did you know that our heart and gut have nerve endings that send signals to our brains? The Heart Math Institute – https://www.heartmath.org – has done research showing the powerful influence our hearts and guts have on decision-making and strategic thinking.

  • Become consciously aware of your body. Notice the feelings you are experiencing. For example; have you sensed tension and stress when you walk into certain environments or organizations? We often say “We could cut the air with a knife.” Have you noticed that when interacting with certain individuals you feel tense and can’t wait to leave their presence? These are examples of our bodies warning us and trying to keep us safe.

On the other hand, have you been with someone who makes you feel appreciated and valued in his or her presence? Our bodies are amazing receivers and transmitters of information. Integrating tools and strategies that bring conscious awareness into our lives enhance our leadership abilities.

  • Learn practices and tools that help you get out of your head and into your body.
  • Body Scanning – is a mindfulness technique from Eastern psychology that is rooted in Buddhist principles. Mindfulness teaches us to focus on feeling emotions and sensations in our bodies and notice what is going on in our minds. The practice helps us to focus and be present. Rather than thinking about the argument we had with our partner this morning or worrying about the performance review we are having this afternoon, instead we focus on the here and now.  

Here’s an example of how to do body scanning. I find it helpful to do it in bed on awakening. It then “sets me up for the day”.

Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take several deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then return to regular breathing; in through your nose, and out through your nose.

From a state of open and relaxed awareness begin scanning your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Notice any sensations you feel (without judging them) from your scalp, forehead, ears, eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth. Then move down through the rest of your body. You may scan several times from head to toe in one sitting, or, after scanning once, attend to places in your body where you feel the most sensation. Experiment with this tool and find the process that is most useful for you. This may be done first thing in the morning and/or at night before you retire. It also may be done at various other times during the day.

  • Spend regular time in nature – make a conscious effort to spend at least 30 minutes outdoors in nature each day if possible. Find a park, go for a hike or walk among trees or close to a body of water. Notice how your body feels when in the forest or by water. Focus on your senses rather than your thoughts.
  • Practice yoga regularly (at least 3 times a week) – There are many types of yoga available. Experiment with different styles and find one that works for you. Yin yoga is a good place to start, especially if you have an active mind that rarely stops chattering. Yin has a meditative quality, is usually done in a warm room and involves holding poses for up to five minutes so that connective tissues loosens and energy blocks release. There are many studios who now offer classes online for minimal cost.
  • Meditate daily (for at least 10 minutes) You may be thinking: “I don’t have time to meditate”. That’s what I thought for many years until January 2013 when after almost burning out, I began meditating on a daily basis. I was and still am amazed by the benefits. Meditation enables me to be less reactive and more responsive in my interactions with others. I’ve noticed that at times it enables my brain to “split” so that when I’m engaged in an interaction, I also experience part of myself “sitting on my shoulder” observing the interaction. This provides me with the big picture and helps me stay calm and detached from the outcome. Daily meditation has enabled me to quiet my mind, freeing me from the chatter that is often not helpful in focusing and moving toward my goals.

  • Nurture your body on a regular basis – I find it helpful to have a total body massage every 4 to 6 weeks with a trusted practitioner. Some massage therapists are also healers and energy workers and I ask them what they notice about my body. These massage therapists/body workers can help you go within and get in touch with what your body is telling you. They can also help release energy blocks that may be negatively impacting your body and decision-making.

Another strategy I’ve found helpful is to ask myself/my body “how can I nurture myself today?”, listen to what comes up and reward myself. It could be a bubble bath with candles and your favorite music playing, it could be curling up and reading your favorite book or poetry. Whatever it is, listen to the message and if possible, reward yourself.

This is a start. For additional evidence and tools to help you reconnect with your intuition and learn how to use your body to make wise decisions see Chapter 4 in my book Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women.

I welcome your comments below. What tools and strategies have helped you get in touch with your intuition? Do you agree that intuition is an important authentic feminine leadership quality?


[1] It is important to note that men can also possess and learn feminine leadership qualities.

[2] https://pamela-thompson.com/why-feminine-leadership-holds-the-key-to-creating-a-world-that-works-for-everyone/

[3] To learn more about Dr. Lipton’s groundbreaking work check out his book “The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles” (2008) published by Hay House Inc.

Why Feminine Leadership Holds the Key to Creating a World that Works for Everyone

Why Feminine Leadership Holds the Key to Creating a World that Works for Everyone

Many of the critical issues we are facing in the world today are due to holding on to old paradigms and belief systems that no longer serve us. These include: valuing logic over intuition, leading from our heads and egos rather than from our hearts, rewarding individuals over teams and undervaluing collaboration and teamwork, believing that we are different from others based on religion, race, country of origin …,  and acting and believing that our planet’s natural resources are infinite.

I believe that “authentic” feminine leadership holds the key to addressing these critical challenges and to creating a world that works for everyone.

What do I mean by a world that works for everyone? In a nutshell I mean a more equitable, humane, just, sustainable and peaceful world.

Why feminine leadership and Why Now? Why the time is right for women’s leadership and active participation in creating a world that works for everyone:

  • Lessons from history; when women are involved in decision-making and politics, outcomes are more inclusive and positive
  • Lessons from COVID-19 and women political leaders’ rapid and effective responses using their feminine energy and feminine values; (e.g. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, British Columbia’s provincial Medical Officer of Health) 
  • Recent demonstrations against the police and anti-black racism around the world and the acknowledgement of systemic racism in our societies and institutions by leaders worldwide.

The world is ripe for change. We are at a point to examine lessons from the past, let go of old beliefs and structures that are no longer working, explore new paradigms and focus on creating a better world: a more equitable, humane, just, sustainable and peaceful world.

The difference between masculine and feminine energy – Female Energy (Yin) is associated with BEING and GIVING whereas Male Energy (Yang) is associated with DOING and RECEIVING.

Our organizations and societies have been focused on DOING and RECEIVING and it is time to create a balance between Female and Male Energy. When people feel pressure to continually drive and strive (be in their masculine energy), it creates chronic stress and negatively impacts their bodies, their minds, their relationships, their productivity and their bottom lines.

It is time for more women to step into leadership positions and for feminine leadership qualities to replace the dominantly masculine ones that our systems and organizations have been built upon.

What are Authentic Feminine Leadership Qualities and Why are they Important to Creating a world that works for everyone?[1]

An authentic feminine leader is:

  • Compassionate – “feeling and showing sympathy and concern for others” (Oxford dictionary). “Compassionate people often have other positive traits like generosity, kindness, and understanding. People who are compassionate feel the need to impact the world around them in positive ways.”[2]

In order to create a world that works for everyone this quality is essential. To better understand and deal with critical issues such as systemic racism and gender-based violence, we need to learn and model compassion. To be compassionate has been perceived as weak and not what leaders typically do; however, as Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, so thoughtfully commented recently:

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

  • Intuitive – uses their body as well as their mind to make decisions e.g. heart and gut.

When I reflect on my life, all the decisions I have made by “going inside” and listening for the answers, have always been the right decisions for me; whereas those made solely from making the ‘pros and cons’ list and only using left-brain logic have not always been the ‘right’ ones. Did you know that our heart and our gut have nerve endings that send signals to our brains, and that our hearts and intestines contain neural tissue? The HeartMath Institute[3] has done research to show the powerful influence our hearts and guts have on decision-making and strategic thinking. I encourage you to think about how you typically make decisions and the impacts of those decisions.

To remind us of the importance and power of intuition I offer this insightful quotation from a brilliant man:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. We will not solve the problems of the world from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” (Albert Einstein)

  • Creative – As a leader is important to create a shared vision to lead and inspire others. I’ve experienced first-hand the power of creating a shared vision among various levels of an organization while doing strategic planning and also when designing and implementing international projects that involve different disciplines, cultures and religions. A well-designed and facilitated process has the power to create understanding and ownership and to change attitudes and beliefs. To encourage creativity and innovation it is also important to foster a culture that encourages experimentation and learns from its mistakes (e.g. annual Failure Report from Engineers without Borders).

In the words of Ashley Good in Engineer’s without Borders 2017 Annual Failure Report:

“We hope this report serves as an acknowledgement that systems change is complex and therefore some degree of failure is inevitable. … we need to create room for ourselves to try new things and experiment in pursuit of figuring out what might work to shift the system towards our vision. Therefore, the best thing we can do is be willing to take the risk of trying something new, and at the same time, get really good at detecting where our efforts are failing early, analyzing effectively, and applying our learning to continuously improve [4]

  • Collaborative – believes in and models collaboration. This is important when dealing with complex situations and issues. Barbara Gray[5], an organizational theorist and veteran mediator, has written extensively on the importance of involving multiple disciplines and sectors to solve complex problems. 
  • Inclusive – recognizes the importance of different races, religions and ethnic groups being represented “at the table” so their voices are heard, understood and included in the process and outcome.
  • Emotionally Intelligent  (EI) – capable of recognizing their own emotions and those of others, discerning between different feelings and labelling them appropriately, using emotional information to guide their thinking and behavior, and managing and/or adjusting their emotions to adapt to environments or achieve their goals … Studies have shown that people with high EI have greater job performance, mental health and leadership skills. [6] Leaders who are not emotionally intelligent often surround themselves with people similar in thoughts, beliefs and actions to themselves, do not see their blind spots and also are challenged with differing points of view and in being creative.
  • Authentic – “walks their talk”; clear on their own values and beliefs and lives and leads aligned with these.[7] As a leader it is important to consistently “walk your talk” so people feel safe, trust you and are aware of what is expected of them

What can you do to help create a world that works for everyone?

  1. Get clear on and live life in alignment with your core values.  (For more info on values see https://pamela-thompson.com/do-you-live-in-alignment-with-your-core-values/)
  2. Practice Regular Self-care. Do yoga, go for regular walks in nature, have a bubble bath.
  3. Listen to and trust in your body’s wisdom.

Some tools to help you connect with your body’s wisdom are Mindfulness practices. Such practices help us get out of our heads and into our bodies. They help us to live “in the present moment”.

Think about someone you’ve hired in the past, who on paper looked great, but you had an uneasy feeling about during the interview process. You let your left-brain logic rule your decision-making, and within a few months had evidence that this person was NOT a good fit for your organization. For tools to assist you to learn to make decisions using your body’s wisdom check out chapter 4 in “Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women” available atwww.amazon.com/dp/B0145ZGDO2

  • Tap into and express your creative side (right brain) on a regular basis.  

Is there something you enjoy doing that when you do it you become immersed in it and lose track of time? It 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.

  • Choose an area of focus that you’re passionate about; e.g. climate change, women’s health, gender equality … and get involved with a group that is advocating in that area of focus; a group that you feel aligned with.

Here’s to You and to working together to create a world that works for us all!

Do you agree or disagree with the statement: Feminine Leadership holds the key to creating a world that works for everyone? I welcome your comments below.


[1] Note that men can also have and learn these qualities

[2] https://blog.mindvalley.com/compassion-vs-empathy/

[3] https://www.heartmath.org/

[4] https://www.ewb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/EWB_FAILURE-REPORT_EN_03-08-2018-pages.pdf

[5] Gray, B. 1989 Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_intelligence

[7] For more info on values see https://pamela-thompson.com/do-you-live-in-alignment-with-your-core-values/

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/