The greatest risk now for your business and what to do about it
Exhausted, demoralised, drained.
Just some of the comments popping up in the forums I'm part of at the moment. As the initial post-lockdown 'sprint' comes to an end, it's no joke that so many people are feeling this way.
For leaders and those responsible for making the decisions in your business, I have one plea. Don't just keep going.
The real risk of burnout
I know there's too much to do. I know there aren't enough hours in the day. I know everything is constantly changing. I know the people you work with are sometimes difficult, entitled or unreasonable. But you simply have to make sure that you are looking after yourself, and that means adequate rest, time away from the business, and a host of other things that will help you to navigate this season successfully. Even if you had all the leadership skills and resources you needed or wanted, you would still need to manage yourself.
I write this from painful and personal experience. I've stared in the face of burnout during my career. Thankfully I hadn't broken down, but I was pretty close to it. Years of leading an organisation through successive crises and periods of rapid growth had begun to take their toll. I reached the point where I lost energy and interest in almost everything. Being a driven perfectionist, I did what I had always done before, I dug down, and changed gear. I summoned all the willpower I could to refocus on what needed to be done, to get myself up for the next thing, and push through.
And nothing happened. I simply had no physical, emotional or mental energy to summon. The tank was dry, and I had nothing left.
It took a very long time to return to anything approaching a 'normal' capacity. And in rebuilding, I have learned my lesson. Digging in, pushing through and keeping going is sometimes necessary. But you are not a machine. And your body and mind have limits. Abuse them too often like I did, over too long a period of time, and your body will take over. You will experience enforced downtime as your body takes over, and it's a surreal and scary experience.
Thankfully there's a great deal of good advice out there on how to manage our well being. And I had some great help and a loving family and group of friends alongside me. Something that I've found really useful is to pay attention to three dials on a 'wellbeing dashboard'. It's a really simple analogy, but one I found really helpful (and revealing).
The three gauges
The three gauges to watch - physical energy, mental energy, emotional energy. With each one, we need to recognise our fill levels and make sure that whilst depletion is inevitable, replenishment is not, but it is essential.
Physical energy - our physical body isn't a machine, as Dr Matthew Edlund, director of the Centre for Circadian Medicine in Florida says in 'The Power of Rest'. “It’s an organism that’s being continuously renewed and rebuilt.” And so denying your body the recovery time it needs, the right food, adequate hydration, and giving it too many stimulants will decrease its ability to function. If you're always feeling physically tired, it's still possible to push through. But only for so long. Feeling tired after a long day is normal. Feeling tired before you start is not. Take a look at your physical gauge, and do what's necessary to stay in good physical shape.
Mental energy - the 'Always On' malaise of modern life in the digital age means that we run into big problems through mental fatigue. And so it's essential to prevent our minds from running on empty, recharging by things like taking some breaks from technology. A 'digital sabbath' if you like, is a great thing to try. It doesn't have to be a whole day, but leaving your phone in a drawer whilst you unwind, and getting rid of the blue screen at least an hour before bed will help you rest better. You have to manage the inward flow of information. Constantly thinking about the things that cause us stress makes it harder to recharge. Multitasking is another great drain. The journal Psychology Today states that "ninety-eight percent of people can't multitask—they don't do either task as well." So stop it!
play = time spent without purpose
Emotional energy - this is the one that a lot of people miss. And I certainly did. Although I was physically fit, well rested, and was taking time away from the business, it was the lack of emotional replenishment that I made time for which led to being emotionally exhausted. And for many people, that's because the ways that we replenish emotionally could be seen as frivolous. An irresponsible use of time even. Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as 'time spent without purpose'. For the achievers out there, this might feel like the definition of an anxiety attack. If we're not using every moment of the day to 'be useful', then we're failing. But we can’t ignore what research tells us: Play — doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help achieve a goal — is vital to human development and wellbeing.
I've found the emotional tank is a real 'horses for courses' part of managing energy. The things that work for me won't work for you and vice versa. Here are a few to give you a flavour:
Treat yourself - it doesn't have to be (and probably shouldn't be) anything major. I found even going out for a coffee with a good book, a pint in the pub or even a hearty brunch out on a weekday worked wonders.
Declutter - for many people, a cluttered mind is not helped by a cluttered desk, bedroom, surgery or computer screen. Marie Kondo fans will testify to the therapeutic benefits of decluttering, so why not spend some time trying it?
Do something artsy - paint by numbers for grown ups has taken off ion the past few years, as more people discover the emotional and mental health benefits of mindful activities like painting and drawing.
Write in a journal - getting you thoughts down on paper can stop them running around your head endlessly
Make a list of your accomplishments - in the midst of a hard time it's very easy to stay focussed on what's wrong. But gratitude, recognising your achievements or what Sports Psychologist Steve Bull calls 'Confidence Peaks' serve as a reminder that you're capable of some great things.
Do something fun - time spent without purpose - play a game with your kids, kick a ball around, whatever it is, discover the joy that an unproductive activity can add to your life and your emotional tank
Spend time with close friends and family - the importance of close interaction and time with people you love and who love you is well documented. I know that not everyone's home life is an oil paining (ours certainly isn't!) but there is still replenishment to be found in time with those close to you.
Meditate or pray - Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that meditation or prayer can help people find purpose in their lives if they feel down or stressed.
It's important to ensure that all three of your energy gauges are reading healthy. An imbalance in one will lead to a breakdown of the whole system.
None of this is rocket-science. It's common sense, and yet we know that doesn't mean we will actually do it. That's why personal trainers, business coaches and the like have never been more popular. My hope is that if you're currently wearing yourself down, that this simple reminder will cause you to stop and take stock of your dials.
Yes, there's too much to do.
No, there aren't enough hours in the day.
Yes, everything is constantly changing.
But to put yourself in the best condition possible to get through this, so that you can succeed, help your team and look after your business, paying attention to your gauges is vital.
If you need help with some of the issues raised in this blog, here's a list of resources.