The Road to Burnout is Paved with Good Intentions

I’m lying on the floor in my apartment, between the living room and kitchen, Survivor™ BUFF pulled over my eyes, which I’m actively crossing. This helps me to stare into the middle of my forehead, searching for a dark expanse as I try to “let go” and “just be.”

I’m in savasana, the rest period after yoga. My watch timer is set for 6 minutes. My online instructor encourages me to rest for as long as I can, but more than 6 minutes feels self-indulgent. I really should get on with my day.

I try to make yoga a morning routine. Getting present and into my body and breath grounds me and keeps me from spending the day operating entirely from my forehead. And yet I’ll often skip it, sometimes for days at a time.

Usually what supersedes yoga and other self-care practices involves my computer. I become pulled into a vortex that offers endless opportunities to feel productive, and I’ll do THAT for as long as it takes.

One more email. One more task. I will “one more” myself until the spell is finally broken by my screaming bladder. By then my tailbone hurts when I stand up. It’s as though I’m convinced that I need to be suffering before I can take a break and recover.

Until Tuesday two weeks ago.

That Tuesday I walked past my yoga mat straight to my desk, convinced I needed the extra time to get stuff done. But when I started my computer, I was greeted with an ominous logo and an endlessly spinning circle.

As my already-late-for-work husband googled potential solutions, I narrated all five Stages of Grief out loud as I went through them.

Three days later, when I finally walked home from the Geek Squad, laptop cradled defensively in my arms, I had a new awareness. I had been forced into an abrupt and rather jolting work stoppage, which helped me notice a familiar pattern had returned.

While I’m blessed to work for myself doing work I love — work that doesn’t feel like work — I had drifted back to an old tendency of mine: hyper-productivity. Being in front of my computer makes me feel productive. And feeling productive has always made me feel worthy.

It’s a seductive little reward loop that narrows my focus and leads to my own suffering.

It took a computer crash to lift my head up and notice what I’d forgotten: what matters most to me is creating a meaningful impact while experiencing an overall sense of well-being. Just as I’ve done in the past, I’d forgotten the well-being part.

Oops, I did it again.

* * * * *

As humans, we live in a dance between how we’re being and what we’re doing. Each plays the counterbalance to the other.

Like the Ancient Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, the seemingly contrary states of being and doing are in fact complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. How we are being gives rise to what we do and what we do gives rise to how we are being.

Imbalances in this natural interplay can come at a cost. Under-valuing doing can cost us the impact we can have through our actions. Under-valuing being can cost us our sense of meaning and our overall wellness.

Burnout, and the gradual road toward it, is an outcome of the imbalance between being and doing.

The Well-being Continuum

Imagine our being state as a continuum, where well-being is at one end and the opposite — let’s call it ill-being — is at the other.

While few people would choose the state of ill-being, those suffering from burnout, or on the road toward it, have somehow landed there. Again, not by choice; it’s more likely they believed the choices they were making in what they were doing were well aligned to how they wanted to be.

Their road to burnout was paved with good intentions.

What happened?

Most of our doing involves behaviors and routines we perform daily, often without thinking much about it. Our environment gives us a cue (alarm clock goes off), which triggers a behavioral routine (groggily fetch a cup of coffee), which gives us a reward (begin to wake up).

Because these patterns have become subconscious, it takes awareness and effort to change them. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that, like an onion, behavior change has layers.

· The outward layer of change focuses on outcomes — what we get.

· The middle layer of change focuses on processes — what we do.

· The inward layer of change focuses on our identity — what we believe.

While most of us try to change our behavioural habits by first focusing on a desired outcome or what we’ll do to get there, Clear encourages us to instead begin by focusing on our identity — who we believe we are and who we want to become.

In the case of professional burnout, this approach can be helpful, but tricky.

* * * * *

Take Kevin’s Case.*

Kevin believes himself to be a dedicated, effective high-performing leader. This is his identity.

As Kevin’s workload began to exceed his capacity, he adjusted what he did by delegating some to his team and expanding his day to include early morning and evening work. He continued to meet his deadlines while staying effective. Kevin’s identity has been preserved.

· Identity: Kevin believes he’s a dedicated, effective high-performing leader.

· Processes: He will delegate and work longer hours.

· Outcomes: He meets his deliverables effectively.

Here’s where it begins to get tricky.

Subtle cues in Kevin’s organization’s culture foster the shared (and subconscious) belief that high-performance leadership involves sacrifice and that being overworked is the price every leader must pay. This reinforces his identity; his intention is to be a high-performing leader.

Kevin’s workload and pressure continues. He doesn’t want his team overworked, believing good leaders protect their team. So, with good intentions, he quietly takes on more work, increasing his hours through weekends. Again, his identity has been preserved.

Kevin attends a senior leadership meeting where one executive commends the team for their hard work, sharing that she too has sacrificed — she’s missed family events and hasn’t taken a day off in several months.

This shapes Kevin’s belief that self-care and personal well-being is self-indulgent and selfish. Kevin resists the belief that he’s either of those things, so he continues to dive into his deep pool of work, with the intention of being generous and unselfish.

A few more cycles of this and Kevin has slid down the well-being spectrum and, all the while with good intentions, has landed ill-being. He is suffering.

As some of the symptoms of burnout show up, he might become resentful, leading to more suffering. He might disconnect from his spouse, creating more ill-being. Gradually his effectiveness dissolves, but Kevin has sunk into a feeling of futility and helplessness. He can’t see his options or create a new way.

What has Kevin, his team, and the organization lost? His sense of well-being. His best thinking. His innovation and creativity. His capacity to be in relationship. His most impactful leadership. Gone.

His road to burnout was paved with good intentions.

What are our options?

If how we’re being informs what we do, we need to change our beliefs about how we’re being. We need to look at each side of the well-being spectrum and see our identity differently.

First, we need to do away with the belief that personal depletion is a sign of contribution. That good leaders, heroic leaders, accept their state of ill-being and suffer as needed. Individually and organizationally, we need to see the signs of burnout as red flags, not badges.

We need to eradicate the attraction toward ill-being as our identity.

Second, we need to do away with the belief that personal self-care is a sign of weakness. When we internally label our self-care and well-being practices as selfish, self-indulgent, or superfluous we will resist them because we don’t want to be those things.

We need to eradicate the repulsion away from well-being as our identity.

To unleash our most creative, holistic, impactful leadership, leaders and organizations must do the important and thoughtful work of noticing and balancing the interconnection and balance between being and doing.

What were Kevin’s options?

Before Kevin could lift himself out of ill-being, he had to begin shifting his beliefs about what it means to be a leader. He paused long enough seek support. He used the Recovery Zone to recover back to himself, re-centering in his purpose and values from a place of self-compassion.

He kept recovering back to himself as he made small steps along the well-being spectrum. As he shifted out of ill-being, he was able to make better personal choices, create meaningful boundaries, and lead others by his example.

He continues to mindfully notice where he is on the spectrum, to pause and re-align his being and doing to his new identity: a creative, effective, impactful leader. He continues to use the Recovery Zone to remind himself of who he is and the kind of leader he wants to be.

Your Turn

In this moment, from a place of self-compassion and staying mindful of what’s most important to you, where are you on the well-being spectrum?

What internal and external factors are pulling you toward ill-being?

What internal and external factors are bringing you toward well-being? What factors are pushing you away from well-being?

What do you need to believe about yourself and your identity to integrate your being and doing in a way that sustains your well-being and impact as a leader?

* * * * *

*Kevin isn’t a real person. His story represents the experiences of several of my coaching clients.



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Trina Hamilton

Trina Hamilton

I help people recover from uncertainty, disruption and confusion so they can lead from the best parts of themselves.