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How have you been travelling during this time of physical restriction, working from home and the ongoing uncertainty of how long we will be living with Covid-19?

So many people I’ve spoken to tell me they are just plain exhausted.

Every day they are going through the motions or getting up, doing what has to be done and then slipping into a torpor, glass of wine in hand, scrolling through to the next episode of the Netflix series they are addicted to before collapsing into bed for a night of fitful and fragmented sleep.

Whether you’re a CEO, business executive, business owner or hard-working professional many are feeling this burn of fatigue but spare a thought for the leaders, because the latest statistics published by the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey are deeply worrying.

Since the onset of Covid-19, 84% of Australian leaders are at risk of burnout.

As a leader, it’s definitely not been a time for comfy leather upholstery and long lunches (if it ever was). The leader is the one shouldering the responsibility for those working for them, ensuring others have the resources and support required to do their work whether from home or the office but commonly lacking it for themselves. They are the ones having to trust that their employees are doing what they are supposed to do because while we have all got had cameos inside each other’s homes on Zoom calls and Microsoft Team meetings, you can’t see what’s going on the rest of the time.

They are ultimately responsible for the decisions that will take the business closer to recovery or the abyss.

The results from GLWS highlight how the disruption of increased demands on personal and professional lives is taking a toll. Stress levels are rising and when there is little outlook of this reducing any time soon, this can quickly morph into loss of attention, increased distractibility, poor sleep, getting lost in the politics of the workplace, or dealing with toxic relationships.

Running on high levels of adrenaline and extra coffee does not make working additional hours under pressure sustainable or desirable. Too much adrenaline contributes to the emotional exhaustion where you can’t think, make a sensible decision or want to contribute.

Should you take a day off when super stressed?

Ideally yes… but if taking a mental health day is viewed in a bad light by the organisation, how can you do this without resorting to telling a white lie about why you need a day off. And when it’s the boss needing time out, the whole organisation is in trouble.

Workplace wellbeing has always been important and never more so than now. But if your workplace has currently cut back on wellbeing programs because of economic concerns my question is,

“How can you effectively support those (including leaders) who are currently doing it tough, unsure they can keep going with heavy workloads and currently considering jumping ship for health concerns?”

When running on empty is not an option, what can you do to stay safe and reduce your own risk of losing your Mojo (brownout) or sliding into burnout?

This is the time to be having those conversations about work design to:

  • Ensure workloads are manageable
  • Discourage working additional hours every day
  • Reinforce the need to take regular breaks and holidays when due
  • Disconnect when appropriate from technology
  • Encourage self-care and mental wellbeing

Burnout can present differently in different situations, in intensity and duration. It is currently more prevalent in women. The gender difference also being that women with burnout tend to experience more emotional exhaustion, while men feel greater depersonalisation.

And it’s not a one-time sideshow. If you’ve ever experienced burnout, you may recognise the signs a little easier, but you are by no means immune to sustaining multiple bouts.

Be mindful also that those at greatest risk of burnout aren’t necessarily those you think might be. One study found it is more common in those perceived by others to be highly competent, resilient, organised and psychologically healthy.

Gallup listed the top five reasons contributing to burnout as:

  • Being treated unfairly
  • Having an unmanageable workload
  • Lack of clarity about the role
  • Lack of communication and support
  • Unreasonable time pressure

Does any of this ring true for you?

If so, what will you do about it?

On a talk-back radio show this week I was chatting with the host about why mental health days are so important during this challenging time to help each of us manage our stress more effectively and why we find it hard to ask for them.

Some of the callers phoning into the show shared their stories and the overall picture was disappointingly one of “you don’t tell your employer you need time off for mental health” because

  1. they won’t believe you and think you’re skiving (where is the trust??)
  2. they think this means you are clearly incompetent and not capable of doing your job properly (you’re not broken – just asking for some time out to de-stress)
  3. you are perceived as a liability (would this be the same if you had broken your leg?)

Clearly the stigma around stress, mental illness and burnout is alive and well. And what happens when your boss refuses to accept you are suffering from burnout, that it’s all in your head and you are depressed, despite your doctor’s note that provides the diagnosis.

This is wrong on so many levels. The management of someone with burnout is NOT THE SAME as for depression or anxiety although it is recognised the two can coincide. And since when does a boss’s opinion override a medical diagnosis? An employer with their head in the sand is not only doing their employee a disservice but their entire organisation.

Did you know that as a full-time employee you are entitled to 10 days sick leave each year whether for a physical or mental ailment?  You don’t need a diagnosis (because you are stressed, not diagnosed with a mood disorder) or have to tell your employer the reason you need that time out. Much will depend on the quality of the relationship between yourself and your employer or boss.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s heart-warming to hear of enlightened employers who recognise when everyone in their team or department has been through a challenging patch and tells everyone to take a day off to recover. Obviously, this depends on the nature and structure of the organisation but treating people as grownups and acknowledging their effort and dedication will pay back in spades later.

Deal with a problem when it’s small rather than allowing it to grow and fester.

Isn’t it better to take a couple of days to sort things out in our heads rather than pushing on through hoping we’ll make it to the finish line?

Because the reality is the next deadline will now be looming large and you won’t have the mental energy or motivation to be able to deliver your best work. You are shackled to a rapid downward spiral to eventual burnout.

How do you know if you’re at risk?

There are a number of burnout inventories available which can be very useful. But there are some even simpler guides to where you might be sitting on the mental wellbeing scale.

Mental wellbeing is not merely the absence of mental illness, it includes a high level of natural resilience, the ability to recognise when things are out of kilter and a toolbox of strategies that include daily activities that support your mental wellbeing and an emergency flare to send off when things have turned to custard.

Every day is different. However, if most days or every day is becoming a challenge, you are constantly battling fatigue, not feeling yourself, stressed, unmotivated and basically feeling horrible, it’s time to call “time out” to assess what’s really going on.

I like to use the analogy of running out of fuel.

  • If you’re out of gas you’ve essentially reached burnout. This is where time off and a good psychologist can work wonders.
  • If the gauge warning light is telling you to stop at the next garage, look out because you could be running out of fuel any moment now.
  • When you’re feeling the strain, you’ve got some fuel left, it’s enough to get you home so long as you’re not forced to take a detour or end up in a side road of extra work.
  • It feels a whole lot better when you’re confident you’ve got enough in the tank to see you through the day comfortably and some in reserve. Now you can focus on the important things and stop worrying on the unimportant and non-urgent.
  • Enjoying good mental wellbeing allows you to operate at the top of your game. You’re feeling great, you’ve got enough spare energy to get out doing all those non-work activities that bring you so much pleasure. Life’s good.
  • At the peak of your mental wellbeing you are flourishing; you are happy, engaged, motivated to deliver your very best, and satisfied with your life, work and relationships. Life’s great.

Where are you on the mental wellbeing gauge?

If you’re lower down on the scale than you’d like to be there are a number of effective strategies and tools you can adopt. I cover these in my Thriving By Design: Elevating Mental Fitness Program. Simply email me to set up a time to chat if you’re interested in finding out more.

If there’s one thing Covid-19 has taught us, it’s that prolonged chronic high stress is bad news for our physical and mental wellbeing. Better job design, empathetic leadership and a workplace culture founded on care promotes the possibility of more sustainable high-performance workplaces that are great to work at in the future.

Burnout sucks and it’s a massive waste of human potential. Let’s make burnout history by making mental wellbeing the NORM.

Are you flourishing or feeling singed around the edges?

What does your workplace do to keep you safe from burning out?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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