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Help, I’m an Exhausted and Stressed Leader!

Prevent becoming exhausted or stressed, Maxine's view. Credit: John Wagner

Leaders around the world are exhausted

Exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, tired, and unappreciated – those were a few of the recurring word cloud themes in a leadership round table conversation a few days ago. It doesn’t surprise me given what I hear first-hand, but it amplifies a few notches when it is simultaneously said by a couple of hundred individuals. 

One poignant example is an HR leader talking about leading a restructuring program affecting hundreds of individuals. Many of whom she personally knew and expected to pick up the slack after the layoffs. The HR leader was inundated with messages and complaints. She had drop-ins of distraught individuals feeling unappreciated and struggling to find meaning and purpose in their work post-restructuring. Almost all the remaining employees were indicating that they would also leave if they could find alternative employment, even at less pay. A “perfect HR storm” is in the making if it is left unchanged.  

Why is it happening and more importantly, what can we do about it as individuals?

Why are exhaustion and burnout so prevalent?

As much as we may want to believe otherwise, the pandemic effect is still felt by many. Add to this rising inflation, a global economic slowdown, and mass layoffs in some sectors. The impacts are individuals feeling squeezed at all ends. The demand to deliver the same outcomes with fewer people is pushing individuals to operate like a machine. Humans are not wired to operate in this way. Consequently, job dissatisfaction and fatigue set in. It spirals further as all organizational levels feel it. Meaning traditional avenues of workplace support are also lacking affecting well-being. 

The organizational solution is rather simple in concept, yet difficult in practice. It entails creating space for feedback (such as “stay interviews”), downtime, defining clear boundaries, and establishing work schedules to employee needs. The practical difficulty is the commitment and stamina to see through such profound structural changes.

This leaves us wondering, how do we as individuals tackle the issue when the broader solution may be out of our immediate control?

Taking personal control of our world

One of the most common mistakes that I see individuals making when feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or stressed is not taking the time to do things that help the situation. There are many reasons and excuses for not doing something. However little realization that we control much of what is happening within us. The control we absolutely have is over our behaviours, our actions, and our responses to external stimuli – whether stressful, unfair, overwhelming, or unfulfilling.

A few steps set us on the path to regaining control:

  1. Act right now
  2. Find new approaches and behaviours
  3. Leverage your unconscious mind
  4. Lean into your personal support system

Act right now

Let me illustrate a few of these in action. Act on good ideas to develop a sense of power and kill off endless revisits in our head of “should have, could have” thinking. When we act to help ourselves, we identify practical solutions, feel self-reliant and enjoy the benefits for ourselves faster.

New approaches and behaviours

Finding new approaches is all about avoiding the dreaded tunnel vision and rigidity when stress sets in. Feeling exhausted or overwhelmed leads to a loss of our cognitive and emotional ability to consider alternatives. The result: we default to our dominant way of managing things which is not always the best way in each situation. In such moments, the best approach is to match our values to the needs of the situation. Ask yourself: is a different approach (than your dominant one) better suited in this case?

Unconscious mindsets

Leveraging our unconscious mind is about letting it drift with the challenge we’re facing. It has a naturally brilliant way to solve issues and spur creative thinking without much active effort on our part. How many times have you let go of actively thinking about something only for the solution to pop into your head? This is the crux of the unconscious mind solving it and then “sending it back” into our conscious mind to then act on it. 

Personal support

When we feel overwhelmed, we can subtly pull away from important connecting activities that we usually do. For instance, we usually give our kids a nice long hug when we arrive home from work. Suddenly it becomes a quick squeeze because we’re thinking about other things. In these moments, we deprive ourselves of self-care. Leveraging the concept of Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account, in these moments we, therefore, fail to invest in ourselves and in our important relationships.  Support systems get us through the toughest of moments but only if we lean into them. 

Final Thoughts

Exhaustion or burnout are not inevitable outcomes. They are avoidable traps with the right steps. By being aware of the ways we take control, we can lead ourselves and others through challenging moments. Recognizing patterns and knowing the steps to avoid the pitfalls helps us make small changes to overcome them and avoid exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout. 

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your advice with others on how you manage yourself in and through challenging moments to prevent becoming exhausted, burned out, or stressed.   

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: John Wagner

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