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/

Lessons from a Changemaker: How to Prevent Burnout while Living Your Passion

Lessons from a Changemaker: How to Prevent Burnout while Living Your Passion

As a changemaker, you are passionate about making a positive difference in the world. You may have chosen a career as a helping professional, work for a non-profit or an international development agency. You may be an academic doing research focusing on improving the health of women and children or you may be CEO of a socially-responsible company. Whatever line of work you’re in, you feel “called” to it.

One of the challenges of being a changemaker is that we experience much joy from giving and sometimes may overextend ourselves by sitting on a number of volunteer boards, or by continually pushing through fatigue to finish that one last thing, rather than taking a break and listening to our bodies. Do you relate?

I understand. I’ve almost burnt out several times in my life. When we continually push ourselves without listening to our bodies, we run the risk of experiencing adrenal fatigue or burnout. Dr. James Wilson in his book Adrenal Fatigue The 21st Century Stress Syndrome notes that:

“adrenal fatigue occurs when the amount of stress [physical, psychological, emotional, infectious, environmental or a combination of these] overextends the capacity of the body (mediated by the adrenal [glands]) to compensate and recover from that stress or the combined stresses. Once this capacity to cope and recover is exceeded, some form of adrenal fatigue occurs. “ (p. 11)

While working in Afghanistan with the Ministry of Public Health, supporting them to develop their first strategic plan and building the capacity of internal teams to do planning, I got pneumonia twice within the first 6 months of living there. I recall being at the front of the room facilitating a national multi-stakeholder workshop with my team and feeling an incredible burning in my chest as I wrote on the flipchart. It wasn’t until I arrived home for a short break a week or so later and I felt really low in energy and on my husband’s suggestion I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with pneumonia the first time.

So how can you as a changemaker stay healthy, happy and grounded while making a positive difference in the world?

  • Connect with and learn to listen to and trust in your body’s wisdom. Our bodies are amazing receivers and transmitters of information. They always let us know if something is wrong. Body scanning is an excellent tool when we wish to increase awareness of our body and the messages it sends us. Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of Buddha, walks you through a detailed body scan and explains its power.
  • Spend regular time in nature. Go for a short walk at lunch or walk in the park after work. Go for a hike with a partner, friend or family member. The Japanese have done longitudinal research to show that when we walk among trees it reduces our heart rate, reduces our blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our bodies produce (e.g. strengthens our immune system).
  • Set strong boundaries. If someone asks you to participate in a new community activity (e.g. fundraise for a local charity) or add an extra project to your already “full plate” at work, learn to say “no”. As givers we often say “yes” without thinking about what we already have on our “to-do” lists. I encourage you when asked to do something new, to take several deep breaths, go inside your body and ask yourself the question: Will this bring me joy? Do I really want to do this? Do I have time for this? And if the answer is “no” practice saying “no” without feeling guilty.
  • Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Sleep heals and replenishes our bodies.
  • Unplug from digital devices for 60 to 90 minutes before going to sleep. Artificial light from screens increases alertness and suppresses the hormone melatonin by up to 22% negatively affecting sleep, performance and mood. [1]

If you’d like to learn more proven strategies for preventing burnout and staying healthy, happy and grounded while living your passion I invite you to check out my #1 best selling book on Amazon Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women. FYI, men find it useful as well J.  In the book I share 7 keys to what I call Creative Living. 7 keys to “consciously cultivating improved health, happiness, fulfillment and inner peace in your life.” Each key has powerful strategies and proven practices backed up by research from neuroscience, Eastern psychology and the health-promoting and healing benefits of the arts.

I’d love to hear from you what strategies you’ve found useful to prevent burnout and reduce the stress in your life. I welcome your comments and suggestions below.


[1] http://digitaldetox.org/manifesto/

How to Stay Happy, Healthy & Mindful during the Holidays

How to Stay Happy, Healthy & Mindful during the Holidays

The holidays are a time of joy, laughter, connecting with family and friends, and celebration. They also may be stressful on our bodies, minds and “pocket books”. With our already busy lives, extra baking, shopping, gift-wrapping, and entertaining can make us feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Here are a few tips to help you to stay healthy, happy and mindful during the holidays and beyond.

  • Take time for you – Holidays are a time to give to others, and they are also a time to give to yourself. Schedule time in your day for that yoga class, to go to the gym, for that bubble bath. Rather than jumping out of bed each morning and “hitting the ground running”, do a full body stretch; close your eyes and scan your body from head to toe noticing any areas of tightness or discomfort. Breathe into those areas and release that tension or discomfort.
  • Spend time in nature at least 3 times a week (for 15 to 30 minutes or more). Being in nature is SOoo therapeutic. Focusing on the beauty that surrounds you takes your busy mind off that never-ending “to-do” list. Did you know that the Japanese have done longitudinal studies that show when we spend time in forests (they call it forest bathing or forest therapy) it reduces our heart rate, reduces our blood pressure and increases the number of natural killer cells our body produces; which means it strengthens our immune system. During stressful times it is particularly important to keep our immune systems strong so we don’t end up with that flu or cold after our guests leave!
  • Celebrate YOU! At the end of each day identify at least one thing you want to celebrate about yourself for that day. It could be something you accomplished or how you responded in a stressful situation. When you constantly give to others without nourishing and celebrating yourself, you will become depleted and may also become resentful and/ or ill.

I’d love to hear your strategies for staying happy, healthy and mindful during the holidays. Please share them below. Feel free to pass this on to others you care about.

[1] Here is a useful resource on mindful eating: http://thecenterformindfuleating.org/

 

Releasing the “Pause Button”: Lessons Learned from Creating Space

Releasing the “Pause Button”: Lessons Learned from Creating Space

Introduction to the Experiment

If you’ve been following previous posts you’ll know that I “pressed the pause button” on my business in late June of this year. What I mean by this is I consciously decided to take some time off even though I was healthy, but was feeling a bit tired and uninspired. You may check out this post – https://pamela-thompson.com/creating-space-the-how-and-why/ – to learn more about how I consciously created more space in my life.

I’m excited to share that within the past 2 weeks, I’ve become inspired, feel re-energized and a new direction for my business has surfaced. I’ve realized that I want to integrate elements of my consulting business with my coaching business and to serve heart-centered leaders and changemakers. Stay tuned for more details to come!

The intention of this post is to share the lessons learned from my creating space “experiment”. This past few months have been one of only a couple of times in my life when I have consciously decided to stop working, to spend more time “being” and to focus on “getting out of my head” and “into my body”. Perhaps you relate?

Lessons Learned

One of my friends recently referred to the past 4.5 months as a “fallow” period in my life. A time similar to winter (in the northern hemisphere) when crops and perennial plants go underground and it looks like they are dead and nothing is happening. What really is occurring is that they are in hibernation and things are happening but they aren’t evident. I recently heard that grizzly bears give birth while in hibernation. How cool is that! I feel like even though I wasn’t actively reflecting and wondering what to do next during this period, that things were indeed happening. Similar to a new green shoot pushing itself out of the ground, I feel like the new ideas for my work organically emerged.

So what were the key lessons I learned from this conscious “fallow” period?

  • Spending time in nature (almost daily) was an incredible gift. Now if I don’t go for a walk every day to a nearby park or the ocean for at least 20 to 30 minutes, I feel like I need and haven’t gotten my nature “hit”. I don’t feel as energized, joyful and as calm as when I immerse myself in nature daily.

 

  • I now feel more in touch with my body. I’ve changed my diet and have a lot less indigestion than before my “sabbatical”.

 

  • I feel more relaxed and that is a state I can access more easily than before.

 

  • I am more joyful and playful and feel more connected to my “inner child”.

 

  • I feel more present in my conversations with others.

 

  • I feel more sensitive to those around me and have to be careful not to take on their stress or negative energy

 

  • I feel like I’m letting go of some old patterns that no longer serve me; e.g. trying to change someone I care about when they demonstrate unhealthy practices.

 

  • I feel much gratitude for having been able to give myself this gift.

I realize that we can’t all take 4.5 months off every time we’re feeling tired and uninspired. However, I do believe that consciously creating space in our lives is therapeutic, reduces stress and stimulates our creativity, not to mention the positive benefits it has on our relationships.

I’d love to hear from you about strategies you’ve found helpful to create space and if you’ve done something similar to my recent experiment, what you discovered. Feel free to comment below and to share this with others.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

When Did You Last Treat Yourself?

When Did You Last Treat Yourself?

I recently returned from an amazing 7-day yoga retreat in Spain. What made it so amazing? The nurturing and intimate environment that Soulla and her friendly team at https://www.soulshineretreats.com/ created where everything was planned and done for us. From creative vegan meals prepared with love and served by an amazing chef, to the beautiful venue – a huge house overlooking the ocean with an infinity pool; to the candles by our bedsides that were lit each night; to the gifted alternative healers and the thoughtful team who anticipated and cared for our every need.

Soulshine Retreats, run by the experienced yogi Soulla, has about a 60 percent return rate. Out of the 14 people who participated in my retreat, 11 had been to at least one or more of Soulla’s previous retreats. Why do you think that is? Part of it is due to the beautiful spaces Soulla selects, the warm and caring team she has put together, her warm and soothing voice, the creative and thoughtful way she skilfully designs and delivers her daily program of yoga, meditation and workshops. The other reason I believe is that few of us in our busy lives take time out to nurture ourselves. We spend much of our time giving to others; to our families, friends, staff … . We also have packed schedules and spend much more time doing than being. These are several of the key attributes of High Achieving Women that I share in my book – https://pamela-thompson.com/books/.

There is strong evidence to show that if we don’t take the time to create space in our lives to receive and give to ourselves and take time to be, we are often unable over time to cope with the stress of everyday life and either burn out, go on stress leave or get diagnosed with cancer or an autoimmune disorder such as fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis.

I’m not suggesting that you head off to one of Soulla’s retreats every time you wish to treat yourself; although that would be awesome! I’m suggesting that you create a list of ways that make you feel special and nurtured and consciously incorporate these into your life on a regular basis. Some of mine are:

  • Walking in nature in a nearby park or by the ocean close to where I live
  • Having a bubble bath with a candle and dim lighting
  • Listening to my favorite music
  • Having a massage; ideally with the masseuse coming to my home
  • Having a pedicure
  • Going to live theatre

When I do the above, I feel more relaxed, rejuvenated, creative and in alignment with the mantra I am worthy. I deserve the best and accept the best now.

I’d love to hear from you what things you do to treat yourself and how you feel when you do them. I welcome your comments below.