Executive performance versus executive burnout: perform at your best without burning out

Developing your skills to notice both what’s going on inside you, and inside the wider system, will elevate your leadership thinking and practice, says Katy Murray

Your performance is of course about you – how you develop your skills, build your confidence and personal efficacy, how you step into your leadership potential and – critically – how you stay sustainable. I’ve witnessed too many passionate, ambitious, talented execs experience burnout. You don’t need to sacrifice your own health and wellbeing, even for a business that you care about.

If your workplace is not invested in your thriving, then there is at least a conversation to be had, if not a re-think about where you can best fit and give your best.

Your performance is also about the organisational, workplace and sector systems that you navigate. Too many companies put it on their employees to ‘be more resilient’ when they’re experiencing pressures of uncertainty and heavy workloads, rather than examining the systemic and cultural factors inside the workplace that are creating and perpetuating burnout.

Developing your skills to notice both what’s going on inside you, and inside the wider system, will elevate your leadership thinking and practice. Seeing how the individual and the system aspects interact is also essential. If you find that you ‘fit in’ to the dominant culture of your organisation, you will hold privilege, power and access in that system. If you’re on the margins and less of a ‘fit’ into the cultural ‘norm’ in your workplace, you may be navigating workplace barriers and biases, dealing with daily micro-aggressions, and it will likely be much harder for you to thrive. You are not broken and needing to be fixed, this is about being in a system that wasn’t designed for your thriving.

I’ve witnessed many leaders navigate workplace systems to a senior level and then dismantle nothing that will benefit anyone else. If you hold privilege within a workplace system you can use your voice and access in a way that can make the workplace more resilient for others, while enhancing your own performance.

Notice what’s going on inside YOU:

1Map your own holistic resilience wheel. Think about your emotional/ mental/ physical/ spiritual and relational wellbeing. What aspects are feeling strong and healthy at the moment, which aspects need some attention? What will you do to boost that area for yourself? For example, what do you do in your life that gives you most joy and how can do more of that? (mental/ emotional) Who are the people that you spend time with and they top up your energy? Make sure to schedule time in your diary to see them (relational/ emotional). We know that the regular practices of exercise, good sleep, hydration and eating a nutritionally balanced diet sustain our emotional/ physical/ mental health – it’s a case of actually doing it and prioritising these practices.

2Notice your inner dialogue and foster healthy mental habits. Intention setting, affirmations, and gratitude practices are small habits that over time build up your mental and emotional resilience, to support you as you face work and life challenges. Keep track of your daily energy and moods so that you can notice if you need a boost in one of more aspects of your resilience wheel (see #1 above). Life events can create additional adversity, past trauma can surface, and we all will go through times when we need extra support to sustain our own wellbeing. Seek advice and treatment from your GP, health care professionals and therapists when you need it. If you feel you need a permission slip to prioritise and centre your own health, healing and wellbeing – this is it!

3Map your energy – get to know your own daily, weekly, monthly bio rhythms. Work with your highs and lows rather than choosing to ‘push through or be ‘always on’. Take charge of your diary in so far as you can (we usually have more wriggle room than we think we do) and schedule your day to work with your energy ebbs and flows. More focused in the mornings? Use that time to focus on your most important tasks, when you need to find flow. Energy slump in the afternoon? Batch together less demanding tasks and set yourself a timer to minimise distractions and work through them in a more pacy way. Use music you love to match your mood – high energy when you want to feel pumped, slower beats or classical when you want to go into deep focus. Get into the habit of taking a walk for exercise and fresh air, or a nap, during the day, if that’s what your body needs, it will replenish your energy. If you find your energy and motivation dipping, take a break. Schedule regular space in your calendar for creative thinking, strategic planning, review and reflection. Schedule regular time in your diary for being with your colleagues, time when you focus on getting to know one another and building trusting relationships, not just on the tasks.

4Map your relational eco-system. Who’s in your corner? Where are you accessing support and accountability? We all need it, particularly when we’re in leadership roles. How diverse and broad is your network – break out of your ‘looks like me’ bubble. A breadth of network will build your resilience in the longer term. Who gives you feedback (as you get more senior it gets rarer). Start building reciprocal trusting relationships now – you need people around you who will speak truth to your power. 

Notice what’s going on inside the SYSTEM of your workplace:

1The ‘always on’ and lack of workplace flex is debilitating for anyone who wants to have a life in balance, and particularly for women and others who hold caring responsibilities. Data shows us that companies who focus on diversity and also wellbeing are the most profitable. Managers who support employees to manage their workloads have happier employees who are less likely to leave, this benefits everyone. Who can you have a conversation with to call out this ‘always on’ culture and start to shift it?  What workplace flexibility would best suit you and members of your team?

2Conduct a mini cultural audit – does your workplace foster an ethos where people can talk about their wellbeing and mental health? Where everyone is encouraged to thrive? What accommodations and flexibility is available for those with additional caring responsibilities, or neuro- diversities, or hidden/ visible disabilities. When you’re considering these questions, you’re considering how to create inclusive environments that will benefit everyone. What conversations can you start with your senior team and peers.

3Talk with your team and map your team resilience wheel together (#1 above). Notice and celebrate your strengths as a team, identify where there are vulnerabilities (e.g. we’re good at checking in with one another on a friendship level, we’re not so good at modelling reasonable work hours to one another). Consider the relationships in the team where can you help to build more cohesion and trust.

4Spot your own privilege –where do you have power and access, where do you ‘fit’? Who else can you invite into those spaces (who looks and sounds different to you)? Who can you mentor/ sponsor who has a different mix of power/ privilege to you. It’s often those who are already at the margins who do this extra mentoring and support work ‘side of desk’. How can you value and affirm that work?

Katy Murray is a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant specialising in leadership development and author of Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide to Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work

Katy Murray is a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant specialising in leadership development and author of Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide to Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work

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