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5 Ways Leaders Can Fight Burnout Culture

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I recently came across a viral post by Wharton School psychologist, Adam Grant, which claimed sacrificing , social life and leisurely hobbies for work was not the “badge of honor” society has long thought it to be. Instead, this work-first, life-second ideology leaves us burned out.  

Admittedly, I am part of the generation who thought burning the midnight oil was the right and only way to get ahead. Like many leaders, company executives and entrepreneurs, I spent much of my life working myself to the point of exhaustion. But wearing this “exhaustion badge” sets a dangerous precedent — one which leads to high levels of stress, and even physical ailments.

In an interview with The New York Times, Elon Musk detailed his 47th birthday spent locked away in his factory, pulling an all-nighter. Albeit a birthday, it was just another day in another 120-hour workweek for Musk. Some may say this is the price he pays for being a multi-planet pioneer and electronic car revolutionist. I say it is a price far too high. 

The problem 

The problem with burning the midnight oil is that, in time, this will do the opposite of what one has set out to do. Rather than accomplishing more, your productivity decreases. Instead of feeling and being healthier, you will feel and be less healthy.  

In a National Population Health Survey conducted by Statistics Canada, researchers examined associations between long work hours, depression and changes in selected health behaviors. Findings showed that women who worked long hours had increased odds of experiencing depression, whereas men had an increased risk of unhealthy weight gain. Both women and men were more likely to experience an increase in smoking with increased hours of work; however, women, specifically, were found to be at increased risk for drinking.  

The veterinary profession — one I have devoted myself to for over 25 years — has an alarmingly high incidence of suicide rates. In a joint study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2019, researchers showed that women veterinarians were 3.5 times (men veterinarians 2.5) more likely to die by suicide as compared to the general U.S. population. The researchers went on to cite the multiple stressors that may play a role, which included pet euthanasia, burnout, compassion fatigue, poor work-life balance and cyberbullying — a more recent phenomenon given advances in social communication technologies.  

Though research continuously shows poor work-life balance to be detrimental to our productivity and physical and mental health, billions of people globally continue to partake in the race to self-exhaustion. Why are we unable to stand against the current?

Related: The 4-Step Process to Conquering Stress for the Rest of Your Life

Combating burnout and stress 

Remember when work ended when you left the office? That is the practice of a long-gone era, as most of us check and answer work messages well beyond the defined hours of our workday. Some people today even prefer to respond to work messages after hours, as they feel it allows them to beat out competitors, or spend more time with family while keeping on track of work tasks. 

Being off work and being “on-call” are two very different things. According to a 2016 study, cortisol levels of people on-call rise faster in the mornings than those of people who are not required to be available, even if they do not end up working that day. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for regulating our fight-or-flight mode and raising stress levels. In general, cortisol reaches peak concentration when we wake up and decreases throughout the day. But scientists believe everyday stressors can negatively interfere with this cycle. For instance, if you are chronically stressed, your cortisol levels will remain high throughout the day. Or, in some instances, your cortisol will remain low in the face of a stressful event, which means you are experiencing “burnout syndrome” — a condition usually preceded by a period of prolonged stress. 

As the product of an “always on, always connected” culture, today’s professionals are finding it more difficult to mentally detach from work, and stress levels are subsequently rising. One recent study showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans need help for stress. While we cannot control all the factors that contribute to stress, we can control how we react to stress.  

If our minds actively worry about a challenging work or home situation, we have no time to take in what is going on in the present moment, digest information, reflect and pave a suitable path forward. This is when a “stress response” activates, and if the bodily systems involved in stress do not return to a normal state, the effects can be serious. 

Controlling our response to daily life stressors allows us to remain intentional in our leadership and clear in our decision-making; it allows us to be our best selves. And when we are our best selves, we produce our best work.

Related: Small Actions You Can Take to Decrease Stress at Home and Work

What else can we do? 

Here are a few ways we, as businesses, leaders and individuals, can collectively fight burnout culture. 

  1. Foster safe spaces. Many people will not share experiences or seek support due to fear of perception, or thinking it will be used against them or dismissed. We can create safe spaces for our employees by reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and fostering environments where people feel they can express themselves openly, without judgment. This could be done through mental health resources, tools, and training.
  2. Lead by example. Leaders can and should be transparent when they are doing well and when they are struggling. When leaders are open about their struggles with burnout and the steps they are taking to combat it, their team members feel comfortable modeling those behaviors. Mental health should be an ongoing topic of discussion. Try starting meetings with a well-being check-in. Since “busy” and “stressed” are not the badges of honor we want to be promoted, rather than asking the simple, “How are you?”, instead ask, “How is your well-being?” Remember, language is important — be intentional. 
  3. Show empathy whenever possible. The Covid-19 pandemic created micro-communities where people have experienced some form of collective trauma. Be conscious of the many ways each member of the team may be impacted. If you are aware or suspect someone is struggling, treating them with empathy can go a long way. This could mean pausing between meetings to check in on them, maintaining eye contact during a conversation, or offering mental health resources and tools.
  4. Support immediate needs. People in crisis need immediate support. The employer support system must focus on immediate needs (within any constraints) and then build upon that action. Employee mental health training can support this by educating employees on the immediate signs and symptoms of mental health or substance abuse issues, how to engage with someone who may be in crisis and the appropriate next steps for securing professional help.  
  5. Focus on mental health and wellness through the lens of sustainability. Short-term and long-term programs to support the health and well-being of employees are critical to sustaining a thriving workforce and company. Leaders tend to only pay attention when things are going bad or there is some negative reverberation on business. By revisiting the long-term plans at regular intervals, leaders can keep mental top of mind and repositions these initiatives as priority items. 

The reality is we all experience burnout at one point or another. But if people must burn the midnight oil to get ahead, we are fueling a culture of burnout. Leaders must speak up for their teams, as well as for others within their company, and create opportunities for sustainably managing employee mental wellness.

Related: 9 Ways High-Performing Entrepreneurs Handle Stress

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