#84 - Protect your spark with Sally Clarke

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Hi there! The term “burnout” has been used quite a lot in the last decade. However, since the pandemic, about 38% of people in organizations meet the WHO’s definition of a burnout. That is an enormous number. This is even higher for the 18-24 years-old demographic. In this episode of Rebel Leader with a Heart, I talk with burnout researcher and coach Sally Clarke about the causes of this phenomenon and how we can prevent it.

Sally’s path to burnout researcher

Before doing law school in Australia where she was born, she was an exchange student in the Netherlands. After finishing law school in Adelaide, Sally quickly ended up in a large European financial law firm where she worked 80 hour weeks. At first she was very driven and competitive, but pretty soon, her health started suffering. She flew to Nantes to meet her brother at which point she collapsed to the floor when she saw him and started crying. She was in a deep burnout and was able to quit her work as a lawyer. She took some time for herself and became a yoga and meditation teacher. At some point she got curious about what had happened to her and decided to delve into some research and later on wrote two books! Now Sally is co-director of an organization that helps leaders and organizations create healthy cultures to embed well-being and how we work.

What is a burnout?

This is a pretty interesting question. We often hear about burnouts or we may have experienced them ourselves, but what defines a burnout? The World HealthOrganisation defines a burnout as a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress. They also identified three dimensions of burnout.

1-     Exhaustion

This is pretty straightforward. You feel completely fried, no amount of sleep makes you feel energized. You wake up with a sense of dread.

2-     Cynicism or withdrawal

It’s a sense of cynicism towards your work that may spill into other aspects of your life. The enthusiasm towards the work and your colleagues fades. At this point you’re distancing yourself from your work and your co-workers.

3-     Reduced professional efficacy

You aren’t able to produce the same level of quality of work as before, or it might take you way longer. This is especially dangerous for the high-achievers out there that are truly attached to their intellectual identity and can feel their“edge” slip away from them.

Why is it so present in today’s society?

The first thing to notice, is that the causes of burnouts are very misunderstood. Many organizations try to prevent it by treating individuals and focusing on individual wellness. But very often, the individual isn’t the root cause, it’s the organizational culture and structure. Sally gave a beautiful analogy for this: if a lot of the fish in a beautiful lake become sick, healing each individual fish isn’t the best way to tackle the problem. Rather, you’d start looking at the water quality and the ecosystem of the lake and try to improve this instead.

The rise of burnouts was also hugely facilitated with the pandemic. At first, there were a lot of positives; people could spend more time with their families and spent less time commuting. But pretty soon, the negative effects started to become noticeable and even dominant. The workload stayed the same, but coffee or water cooler talk – the small moments to boost our energy and briefly let go of the workload – disappeared. People thought they had more time to work because commuting wasn’t an issue anymore, but this only led to them working instead of commuting! Even now that life is back to normal for many of us, the hybrid work model has become a standard for many companies and these effects still last.

What can we do about it?

We can tackle this problem on two levels: the organizational level and the individual level. Let’s look at the organizational level first.

There is a great negative correlation between work environmental safety and burnouts. Creating a safe work environment should be high on every leaders priority list.By embodying a role model and showing vulnerability and self-awareness, you create an environment where people trust and respect. It’s also hugely beneficial to experiment and look for things that make us spend our time optimally. Also don’t disregard the power and energy of your young employees! They are the demographic with the highest burnout percentage (48%!) and should be able to connect with fellow graduates and be social in general. So give them enough growth and learning opportunities to nourish their curiosity.

If you’re maybe not in the best position to change the culture of your team or company, there are still things you can do for yourself to make you more resistant to burnout. According to Sally, there are three components:

1-     Self-compassion

Believe on an intrinsic level that you have value just as you are, independent on your output or productivity. You are human and you matter!

2-     Self-knowledge

Do some investigating for yourself and find out what your core values are, what gives and costs you energy. How do these values impact your life and do you want to live your life according to these values?

3-     Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the hardest of the three to master, as it puts the previous two components into practice. It is about how we do the things we do on a daily basis. It’s being connected to ourselves, our body and our mind and reading these physical and emotional signals. That way we can truly see whether we’re living according to our core values and believing that we matter.

There is a lot more to burnouts and how we can avoid them on a organizational and individual level. If you found this interesting, be sure to listen to the full podcast, or check out Sally Clarke with the links in the show notes. I’ll see you in the next episode!

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