As leaders, it’s important to practice self-care, take time to disconnect and set a healthy example for our team members.
I’ll never forget my first few months as a manager.
I was so excited to get to connect with and support my employees, to teach them all my tricks and to model that you didn’t have to work yourself into the ground to be successful.
Yet, as the one-on-one meetings started to happen and the new tasks came pouring into my inbox, I realized that this wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows. I was met with the tears and anger of frustrated employees, my calendar was inundated with hours of additional meetings, and my inbox and task lists were overflowing as they’d never been. I’d be lying if I said that the honor of the promotion didn’t quickly morph into (more than) a little bit of overwhelm.
How could I handle all of this? How could I lead, advocate for the team members who had trusted me with their worries and woes, and get all these new tasks and responsibilities done without getting lost in it all?
I’m a high achiever by nature. I hold myself to high, seemingly impossible standards and, as a textbook Enneagram 3, I’m constantly battling against my perfectionist, people-pleaser tendencies. Those tendencies were rearing their ugly heads more and more now that I had a team of 20 people counting on me.
Yeah, I was nervous, but I was also up for the challenge, because—well, I guess I should be honest about something: I have a distinct advantage when it comes to overwhelm. In addition to being a manager, I’m a burnout and stress management coach. This stuff is kind of my bread and butter.
Don’t get me wrong; I mess up. I took on way too much in August—three speaking engagements and running our company-wide professional development training, in addition to August being the busiest month of the year for my industry. It was bad, and I’ll admit it: The burnout coach burned out.
Now, you may not own your own business, but I’d be willing to bet you probably know a thing or two about wearing extra hats in your work life, am I right? Thought so.
So today, let me share with you five things that I’ve found tremendously helpful for avoiding burnout and managing stress in a leadership position.
- Prioritize your self-care. No matter what industry you’re in, being in leadership is taxing work, and we need to prioritize recovering from it. However, when I say self-care, I don’t mean sleeping and exercising. The physical side is important, yes, but it’s just as important that you prioritize emotional self-care. Give yourself space in your life to unburden all the stressors that you’re carrying, some of which might not be your own.
- Make time for rest and disconnection. One of the biggest issues I see in leadership is the complete lack of rest, even during your time off. After hours, we’re checking emails in case our people need us. On vacations, we’re making ourselves available for questions. This is a big part of the problem. There’s something called the “pile-up effect,” which was coined in a 2011 Nature article by Thomas Kannampalil, Ph.D., and refers to a snowball effect of emotional exhaustion when we don’t disconnect from work—and it can get ugly. The best way to mitigate this effect is to rest. However, we need to go beyond just sleeping. You can get mental rest by giving your brain a break. You can get social rest by spending time in solitude, especially if you’re drained after spending a lot of time on Zoom. Take a rest from anything that feels like it’s draining you. To help with that ...
- Check-in with yourself often. I’m a big believer that one of the best things everyone can do to help themselves avoid burnout, especially in leadership, is to self-reflect. I sit down once a week and simply review my previous week, taking inventory on the things that went well and the things that triggered and stressed me out. The power of this activity is that it might shine a light on things that are contributing to your burnout that you might have never thought about. For example, in the case of my August bout of burnout, I came to the realization in September that work wasn’t draining me. It was my overflowing social calendar and, oddly, cooking for myself. So, I took some social activities off my plate, planned an isolated “me” weekend and started using a prepared meal service for a month and a half. In doing so, the burnout that was so draining started to dissipate.
- Have a master calendar. If you’re wearing a lot of hats, this is going to help you keep from overcommitting yourself further. Often, those of us in leadership positions keep our work calendars separate from our personal calendars—understandably so. It can be overwhelming to look at a calendar that includes both. However, having the ability to see both your work and personal calendars together in one place gives you a better idea of what you have on your plate holistically. Despite what we might think, burnout is not just occupational. Burnout is something that result from being overwhelmed in your life, and having a master calendar that includes all of your commitments—personal or professional—can help you navigate that more effectively.
- Know that you’re setting the example. One thing that many leaders often forget is that they’re setting the example for their direct reports. It’s easy to say that we overwork and overcommit ourselves because we want to be there to support the people on our teams, but there is also a drawback to this mindset. These people, who likely want to advance in their careers, are seeing that you’re always available and often assume that, if they want to advance, they need to be too. As leaders, we need to keep in mind that our employees look up to us. They look to us to model proper boundaries, workload and how to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t doing these things, they see that. So, if we want to avoid creating a culture of burnout, we need to set that example now. Plus, sometimes knowing that it’s about more than just us can be exactly the accountability we need to take back our lives from burnout once and for all.
Ellyn Schinke is a former scientist and certified professional coach. After spending over a decade in academic and corporate environments, she's on a mission to help busy, burned-out corporate professionals free themselves from burnout and find their balance.