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Executive burnout: The biggest excuses we make to ourselves

Shirley Hulley

"I'm too busy", "I don't have time", "I want to but..." Does this sound familiar? When it comes to taking care of ourselves as a priority in our lives, over work and family obligations, we come up with every excuse in the book as to why we can't. We seem to be conditioned to believe that all other obligations are more important than our own well-being, which should come last. Time management for a busy leader consists of driving oneself even harder and cutting further into personal recovery time. So we are always on time for the ever increasing work deadlines, sacrificing our personal recharge space to look good and be reliable. Unfortunately, this situation can't go on forever.

The eight common "stories" we tell ourselves are:

1. Once this project/time of year/financial year end is over, things will settle down.

2. If I achieve this goal I will use my bonus to splash out on a holiday with my family.

3. I will take care of these nagging symptoms and see the doctor once the project is finished.

4. My sleep patterns will settle down once this busy period is over.

5. I'll get back to gym once my travel schedule calms down.

6. I'll pick up my hobby/sport/interests again after year-end.

7. I'll start meditating, attending church, spending quiet time in nature once the budget is delivered.

8. I would put away my phone but I have to keep it on in case a client/my boss/my team need me...

Steven R Covey told the story of two men in the forest:

Sharpening the saw

A man was busy sawing down trees in a forest. He sawed and sawed - cutting down many trees. After a while, his saw blade became blunt and it became increasingly difficult to saw down the trees and he sawed slower and slower. Another man walked by and said: "Hey why don't you stop and sharpen your saw?" The first man replied, "Because I don't have time!"

Are we not sharpening the saw?

As human beings, we are designed to take breaks to rest and refuel, to get adequate sleep, to nourish our bodies. Taking care of ourselves, taking breaks holidays, eating well, getting exercise, making time for recreation and leisure are not luxuries. For some reason we have decided in our wisdom that a job or company goals are more important and so we don't stop to sharpen the saw.

And then what happens?

We become less effective as our "saw blade" becomes blunt. We become forgetful, lose our creativity, start feeling stressed, our mood dips, our temper "shortens". We feel heavy and guilty and resentful. Often depression sets in. Physical symptoms start to manifest. We ignore those too, still trying to appease our corporate goals. Yet we still we continue "sawing away" until one day the blunt blade snaps...

What encourages this self-destructive behaviour?

In fact many corporate environments - while professing to care about their people - encourage and reward all the wrong behaviours: working punishingly long hours, not taking leave, not taking breaks, never being off sick, always willing to take on more. These are seen and applauded as signs of loyalty and dedication and will likely earn you the next big promotion.

We need to hold up the mirrors and honestly answer these questions as leaders:

  • Self-awareness: Are you guilty of any of the habits mentioned in the above two paragraphs?
  • Leave and vacations: Did you last take a real break in the past six months?
  • Eating habits: Do you eat healthily and regularly every day?
  • Exercise: Do you exercise at all and if so, is it regular and consistent?
  • Health: Do you have regular health checks and do you attend to symptoms immediately when they occur?
  • Leisure: Do you have a fulfilling hobby, sport, pastime that you are passionate about and that you never miss because of work deadlines?
  • Family: Do you have times when you completely detach by switching off phones and all other forms of technology to spend meaningful time with your loved ones?
  • Spirituality: Do you make time for any form of building/feeding your innermost being, if this is formalised religion, communing with nature, meditation, mindfulness or quiet time?

If you answered yes to the first question and no to any of the other questions, then you are already making sacrifices, which have potentially damaging effects over time.

You may have started to make positive changes by yourself on many occasions only to have your good intentions fall by the wayside. You probably need help and support to keep you focused and on track. This can take the form of appointing a trusted coach, seeking medical/professional advice and finding out about various options available to you.

Whatever you do, stop buying in to your own fairytales about the day when things will settle down and get back to normal. Start making time to sharpen the saw today.

After fifteen years of corporate general management, and a great deal of valuable experience gained in several high-level executive posts,  Shirley was driven by a desire to share and teach using transformational training models which would deliver impactful results in organisations.

In her role as a business coach and owner of Optimal Capacity, Shirley offers her clients programs designed to radically enhance the personal capacity of leadership teams and employees. She delivers game-changing business interventions that create profound behavioural shifts – resulting in easy efficiency, higher profits, and sustainable business growth.

In her role as head of operations for Lumina Learning Shirley qualifies and accredits new business and client practitioners in the use of the Lumina Learning suite of development tools and their application. She supports and develops the SA practitioner network.