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Self-care for leaders: How to handle pandemic burnout

Self-care for leaders: How to handle pandemic burnout

Self-compassion and self-care practices are vital for leaders to combat pandemic burnout in themselves

Burnout is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon, a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

It is characterized by three dimensions:
• feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
• increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
• reduced professional efficacy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressures on managers as they try to navigate how to look after their staff and keep the business afloat. Some key findings from a recent survey of small business owners in the US by Capital One Business illustrates this point:

• Small business owners are exhausted after navigating almost two years in the pandemic, with 42 per cent saying they are currently experiencing burnout or have experienced it within the past month.

• Over the past year, nearly half (47 per cent) of business owners report feeling run down and drained of physical and/or emotional energy.

• Forty-five per cent of business owners report that running a business during the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

· Small business owners are struggling to step away from work during the pandemic and more than half (52 per cent) of business owners have not taken a vacation in the past year.

· Small business owners are deprioritising their work-life balance and struggling to find ways to address impacts from the Great Resignation and worker shortages, as 44 per cent of business owners report having worked more than usual due to the employee shortage in the past year.

As these results show, under the prolonged stress of the pandemic, small business owners are prioritising their work over their health and wellbeing. The imperative for these leaders is to do everything they can to ensure their business survives the economic fallout from government actions to curb the spread of coronavirus. Experiencing burnout is a sign that this strategy (to keep going irrespective of personal cost) is unsustainable in the long term.

Leaders need to develop strategies to cope with pandemic burnout. Self-compassion and self-care practices are vital for leaders to combat pandemic burnout in themselves.

Self-compassion

There are some common myths about self-compassion; it is self-pity, is a sign of weakness, is narcissistic, leads to complacency. In fact, the opposite is true. Research by Kristin Neff and others has shown that when we show compassion to ourselves, it increases our resilience, empathy, integrity, compassion towards others and productiveness.

Self-compassion comprises three elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. It is normal for human beings to make mistakes, worry and have self-doubt and behave in less-than-ideal ways. Self-compassion practices permit leaders to acknowledge that no one is perfect and ‘It is OK to not be OK’.

Often when something goes wrong or we have a tough conversation, we ruminate and our inner critic cuts in telling us that we are bad, other people think less of us, we are useless and so on. By noticing and being curious in the moment about how they are feeling (mindfulness), leaders can better understand the triggers that give rise to a range of unhelpful emotions and behaviours such as disappointment, anger, shame, fear, sadness, regret.

Frequently, leaders feel that no one else is dealing with the same problems that they are. They believe that their situations are unique and so feel isolated. Self-compassion enables them to recognise that they are not the only ones who are experiencing symptoms of pandemic burnout (common humanity). Another survey conducted in the UK by FreeAgent echoed these findings, 51 per cent of, approximately 2.9 million, small business owners have experienced burnout since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Practising self-kindness stops them ruminating on their negative feelings and give themselves the grace to feel as they do without judgement; to treat themselves as they would a good friend in a similar position.

Self-compassion frees leaders to think more constructively about how to deal with their situation.

Self-care

Self-care is more than exercise and eating healthily. Self-care is a broad concept that considers the whole person and acts to guard against or manage stress and maintain or enhance wellbeing and overall functioning. There are several areas to consider in achieving this, such as physical, professional, psychological.

Physical self-care involves taking care of the body and ensuring an overall healthy lifestyle. This includes healthy eating, exercise, doing the things that they enjoy, getting enough sleep, being in nature and so forth. These activities can be incorporated into the workday and act as a productive pause when leaders are feeling stressed and tense.

Professional self-care concerns taking care of themselves at work. It includes creating a workspace to their liking, taking time to connect with colleagues, managing their workload so that they take enough breaks and developing outside interests. The Capital One Business survey revealed that 52 per cent of small business owners had not taken a vacation in the last year and 62 per cent had not taken a week or more off and were working longer hours. These leaders are putting their work above everything else to their detriment. Productive pausing is a useful habit for leaders to adopt.

Psychological self-care is about taking care of their minds. Activities in this realm might include taking time for personal reflection, noticing their inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences, cultivating self-awareness, and engaging in personal and professional development. It is also about saying no to taking on tasks or responsibilities when they do not have the capacity to do them without increasing their stress levels.

Adopting practices of self-care in each of these domains will enable leaders to achieve better physical health, improve resistance to disease, better productivity, enhanced self-esteem, increased self-knowledge and more to give to others.

In addition to developing self-compassion and self-care routines, leaders should cultivate their support network so that it comprises individuals in whom they can fully confide and be themselves. This support should include at least one person with whom they can be totally open about everything; with whom they can share their challenges, who help them navigate the difficult times and dilemmas they are facing. This network may include professionals who support individuals with mental health issues.

Pandemic burnout is real and affects many people. Leaders need not feel ashamed that they are experiencing it. Finding ways to normalise their experience by connecting with others in similar positions, seeking out support and developing restorative habits will allow them to combat the symptoms of pandemic burnout and increase their resilience, health and well-being.

The author
Dr Joan van den Brink is an executive coach, management consultant and founder of Araba Consulting. Her new book, The Three Companions, is available in paperback. You can read an extract from the book here.

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