5 Discrete Warning Signs of Burnout Leaders should Know

Leaders will never recognise what they don't understand. It starts with education.

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Feelings of disbelief, betrayal & hopelessness rumbled with fury from deep within my core. 

My ability as a circus performer was being challenged.  That’s right, the ridiculous juggle parents do every day to manage the demands of our kiddos along with the commitments that come with our jobs.  Familiar?

By this time, I was hanging onto life by a flimsy nylon thread, desperately trying to keep everyone happy both at work & at home.  Now I was hearing someone at work wasn’t & it hurt hard.  The news came like a lightning bolt out of blue, leaving me feeling like I’d copped a powerful wallop across my face.

My anger was nuclear.  I’ve never experienced it before & hope I never will again.

What came next was THAT point.  I lost control of my usually composed emotions & in front of everyone, I cracked.  I was unrecognisable. It was horrifying.  I remember the thought flashing through my mind, “Peta stop, stop, stop, you will lose your job”, but I couldn’t stop.  I wasn’t in control.

Thankfully I didn’t lose my job, the incident quickly forgotten. However the next day, I realised I’d experienced losing something much worse. In that moment, I had lost my mind. 

How the heck did I let it get that bad?

An excerpt from Maggie Hamilton’s recent book When We Become Strangers offered another example of extreme stress:

“I have also had the misfortune of watching someone have a full blown nervous breakdown,” tells Harry, who describes watching a senior commodities trader in an unstable market become “overwhelmed with information & sheer volume of calls, calculations to keep his position steady.

It was a classic sort of scene from a film with traders on their feet, waving their arms around,” he reflects. This trader was under a lot of pressure & “all of a sudden he stopped: put the phones down, & standing on one leg exclaimed that he was a tree. The whole trading room burst into laughter then after 20 minutes, still standing on one leg, we realised this was now serious & phoned for a rapid response paramedic. The man was sedated & taken to the hospital, in the meantime persisting he was still a tree & crying because he “was being cut down’“. It is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen. He never traded again.”

As transferable as our universal skills are across industry, burnout does not discriminate.  While my role in the medical device sales industry had very unique demands, particularly on my time, for a long while I managed it beautifully. The adrenalin like a drug. 

Then, stealth like in its nature, as various life stresses compounded upon each other, it started to creep up on me. 

What were the warning signs? I wonder & am asked about this often. 

Systemic signs of burnout are not only important for us to recognise as potential candidates, with the role of the manager woven intricately through an employee’s experience at work, these signs are equally as important for leaders to recognise in the personalities amongst their teams. 

The recently published Gallup workplace report found: 

“the way people experience their workload has a stronger influence on burnout than hours worked.  It’s not just the number of hours you work; it’s how you are managed & how you experience work during those hours.”

At the time I couldn’t distinguish the warning signs from the daily demands of my job.  Today, they are as clear as day. 

Here are 5 less obvious indicators of burnout (based on my experience) leaders should keep an eye out for within their teams:

1. Withdrawal from group settings

The moment I started to feel overwhelmed by stress I retreated.  While what my brain really needed was connection, I chose isolation as it minimised the amount my brain had to digest.  People became too hard & commitments became too much pressure. 

It’s worth noting consistent absence from someone who is usually a familiar face.  Avoidance can easily be disguised as “busy”.

2. Responsibility Neglect

In My Beautiful Mess I speak of the “pile of bills unopened on the kitchen bench”.  When daily, adult responsibilities start to become too hard, I know that’s a warning sign.

When a team member who is usually diligent with their reporting & correspondence suddenly goes quiet, showing curious & gentle concern might be wiser than a demand. 

3. React vs respond

Let me present exhibit “start of this blog”!  For me, this is like a siren going off.  Living a life singeing at the edges with compounded stress, is not sustainable.  Our brains don’t have the capacity to process a considered response when they are constantly in a panic to survive. 

When a usually calm demeanour is sabotaged by an emotional hijacker, compassion is required by all to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. 

While the moment might not be the right time, the process of seeking to understand needs to be followed through.

In my case, the superficial problem was merely a symptom of much deeper turmoil.  Albeit at the time, I couldn’t have told you what that turmoil was.

4. Unusual changes in behaviour

Momentary relief from stress comes in many forms.  Reprieves that enable us to run from reality & avoid hard truths.  Most of us would realise these behaviours can rarely be hidden.  It shows up the next day.  We wear it on our face. 

Look for the morning after masks disguising real life.

5. Lethargy

It wasn’t tiredness, it was utter exhaustion.  I recall one afternoon falling asleep at the traffic lights, woken only by the driver in the car behind me tapping on the window.  My habitual day preserved my energy as I operated on autopilot & I still couldn’t keep my eyes open. 

With autopilot comes tedium & tedium risks a reduction in fulfilment.  We become robots & work horses, rather than thriving, growing & fulfilled beings.

Keep an eye on your robots.  Churning sameness stagnates the best of us.

While burnout manifests differently from one to another, its common thread is devastation & disruption on the impacted person’s whole life.

As an occupational (WHO) phenomenon, workplace leaders play an integral part in identifying the warning signs within their teams. The broader organisation owning the responsibility for educating their leaders in what to look for & creating accessible pathways of support for all involved.

The solution of this serious workplace safety issue starts with education. No one will ever recognise what they don’t understand.

Let’s increase awareness together.

Peta x

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