Preventing Burnout

In my average week, I work with 8 clients for 90 minutes at a time. Then I have about 5 conversations with people who are interested in working with me, or someone connected to me wanting to think through a leadership challenge that they are facing. So, by the time I sit down to write this letter to you, I have a good sense of some of what people are grappling with in the moment. It is my hope that the blending of my coaching and writing gives you insights, inspiration and examples that help you in your lives.

As this week has unfolded, I have been grappling with whether to focus on burnout or share the insights from Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow on the impact of the coronavirus on our lives.

Then, one of my clients described herself as drowning under the demands of life in a pandemic, I asked her “What would be the best thing to do if you were literally drowning?” She answered, “Float. Float until you’re calm enough to know what to do.”

That decided the direction. Today, we float. Next week, hopefully feeling a bit more energised, we will turn our attention to Christakis.

Before we kick off, I thought you’d want to know that Lethabo Motsoaledi, co-founder and CTO of Voyc, (and part of this community, I am proud to say) was named by Het Financieele Dagblad as one of the 50 Talents of 2021. It’s always great to see South African talent rocking the global stage. You can congratulate her by posting your comment here.

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Almost everyone I have spoken to in the last 6 weeks is feeling some degree of fatigue, and whilst that is not necessarily burnout (see below) it could become that, so the insights from this great HBR conversation between Alison Beard and Prof Christina Maslach, a Professor of Psychology who is based at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, are useful.

Maslach clarifies that burnout is not a medical condition but rather an occupational phenomenon. It is rarely an individualised experience, but more often the consequence of systemic factors in the way that work is organised and experienced.

It is an important point to internalise. If someone is courageous enough to speak of their burnout, it should be a caution for us to look more widely because it is probable that more people are experiencing it, and therefore the organisation is leaking valuable energy.

Maslach defines burnout as having three components:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism and alienation from the job, which manifest as “a negative sense about what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.”
  • A sense of personal professional ineffectiveness.


She identifies 6 forces that can cause burnout.

  • The balance between the demands of your role and the resources you have to do the job. When the demands exceed the resources, it inevitably results in increased stress.
  • Control, which Maslach defines as “the amount of autonomy and choice and discretion that people have in carrying out their job. She notes, that “when you do not have adequate autonomy, this leads to high levels of stress, very negative reactions by people who are being locked in and not allow to improvise or improve or try and do the best job possible.”
  • The absence of reward and positive feedback. This need not be only financial but includes clear affirmations for behaviours and actions that make a positive contribution.
  • The nature of the workplace community. “When there is a lot of hostility, competitiveness, destructive competitiveness, lack of support, lack of trust”, it contributes to burnout.
  • The presence of impartial and ethical practices and policies. If you feel like you’re being treated unfairly, you are more vulnerable to burnout. Unequal practices are more likely to therefore deplete the long-term energy of your organisation.
  • Values, which she says “is really the meaning, the importance of the work that you’re feeling proud of what you’re able to accomplish, that you’re doing the right thing. That you are making a difference in a positive way for whatever it is that you happen to be involved in.”


Interventions in one or more of these areas can help prevent burnout.

She cautions us, that so often our instinct is to do more but equally powerful is to ask what we can subtract from our own and our employees work-lives that would make a difference.

Way back in 2012, auto manufacturer VW configured their servers such that employees would only receive emails over 30 minutes before and after the work, and not over weekends. This BBC article explores the ways in which an always-on culture fosters anxiety (again, ultimately reducing the effectiveness of your organisation) and how different employers have reduced expectations on email responsiveness.

What might you consider doing?

Maslach says, “where I’ve seen greater success is where you start with these smaller things.” She advises to focus on “what are the easier things, the doable things, the low hanging fruit, the things that if we could just begin to make those kinds of (small) shifts, it would help people?”

It is something I see often, small wins both add back enormous energy and help build momentum. Once one problem is solved, you build the confidence that more can be done, you see more opportunities. Start small.

What is the one small change that you could commit to for your team or for yourself?

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Of course, we also have to build our own resilience, not to the point of martyrdom, but personal mastery is a critical component of leadership.

Linda Graham’s Resilience is packed with great exercises that help one build a strong foundation.

She notes that 25% of our brain’s real estate is dedicated to visual processing and that “visual memories and imagined scenarios can be as real to the brain as actual observations.” This means that we can use the “power of visualisation and imagination…to establish equilibrium in your neural circuitry, creating a safe base to come home to.”

If the image of floating in warm water makes you happy, then lie on your back and take yourself back to that moment. Remember all that you can about that moment, the feel of the water, the colour of the sky, the smell of ozone. Go inwards, what did you feel like as you floated?

As you go about your day, repeat that memory. Perhaps before putting the kettle on, pause, go back to the memory of floating, evoke it again. Practice bringing it back. It will then be available whenever you feel like you’re drowning, you can go back to that place that establishes equilibrium.

It may not be floating; it may be another memory that gives you that sense of peace. Follow the same process, so that you know you’ve created that place that you can go to.

When you remember to do it, congratulate yourself.

In doing this you are connecting yourself to something you value, exercising control, and giving yourself positive affirmation. These are all powerful counters to the forces that trigger burnout.

Grahams ends this particular chapter with a Chinese proverb that says, “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”

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In closing, I will leave you with this thought from Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life,

“At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why.”

If this is the first time you’ve read one of my letters, you can subscribe here.

I hope you have a floaty week. Stay grounded 😉


PS: My clients are people who want to have significant impact, live joyful lives, and build a humane world. If you’d like to work with me, you can find out more from my website.

PPS: I received this message entitled “Do You Wear PPE To Work?” from South African publisher, Jacana Media. I love their generosity.
(This letter was first published on 14 February 2021)

Strategy, Soul and Self

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