Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses: When you’re burnt out [or close to burnout], your perspective can become distorted. You can see a glass-half-empty rather than a half-full one. Focusing on your strengths can help you feel empowered in the situation.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Bake.
James is a creative and self-motivated strategic leader with over 10 years of experience working with DTC eCommerce and personal development businesses. He is the Chief Operating Officer at BestSelf Co. and helps teams organize the chaos and focus on what matters to help businesses grow. James believes in incremental changes over silver bullets for long-term, sustainable growth and that it’s about being 1% better than yesterday, being proud of the work you do, and capitalizing on the compounded improvements.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Growing up my dad shared with me the importance of a solid work ethic. He taught me the power of dedication. I learned from him how to work quickly and juggle a lot of things at the same time. He also taught me the “Jim Bake way” which was just any means to getting something done, regardless if it was the right way or not. Needless to say, I learned from watching his mistakes: it’s better to solve the root of a problem vs. trying to stick things together with duct tape.
I have ADHD, which as you might expect, is part of my personality and my way of doing things. My mind likes to be kept busy, so to make school interesting I got involved in a lot of activities, explored leadership from a young age, and developed a knack for getting sh*t done. I realized my brain can process a lot of information at the same time and because I have a sharp memory, I became skilled at connecting dots.
Combined, my personality and ADHD means I thrive when I can think differently. I’m calm in crises and mastered the art of pivoting and rapid change.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I started my career in a direct mail marketing print shop before moving into digital when that became a “thing”.
One of my professors in college, Dr. Long-Tolbert, was one of the biggest sources of inspiration early in my career. I remember taking a class on ecommerce with a different instructor and the class was based around a semester-long project that involved setting up an ecommerce store and a whole merchandising plan using Microsoft’s Commerce Server. Well, the server setup was almost as old as I was and it barely worked, so the class started off kind of a disaster. I was having lunch with Dr. Long-Tolbert one day and she said something along the lines of what would I do if I was teaching the class and pushed me to look at the problem from a different angle. After lunch, I started researching other ecommerce platforms and overnight spun up a version of ecommerce on a hosting platform, then went into class the next day to show my professor. At first, he was taken back by the simplicity of ramping up multiple stores without an IT department or a big budget. After a day or two of tinkering, he called me up and asked if I would help rewrite the curriculum to use this platform.
Dr. Long-Tolbert has been a good friend of mine over the years and while I’ve learned a lot from her, this moment changed my perspective as to what is possible in my career.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
That person would be Pat Maguire. Pat hired me for my first DTC job over 10 years ago. Before my time with Pat, I worked the agency life; putting out fires 24/7 and constantly feeling burnt out. Pat is one of those people who knows how to build a great team and who gives people the space to discover what they’re good at.
I was one of the younger directors in the company. Almost everyone else had some serious longevity. More often than not, my ideas were passed up because I “didn’t have experience”. When those situations came up, Pat and I would team up and run pilot programs to create a proof of concept. It wasn’t unusual for our pilots to debunk some of the ‘this-is-how-we-always-do-things’ thinking. Pat taught me the importance of being and creating a safety net for your team so they can trial and error without the fear of being reprimanded if something didn’t work out. This style of leadership promotes innovation and experimentation and it’s something I practice at BestSelf Co.
Pat also taught me the importance of helping others hone their craft. During our 6 years together, we joked about the ‘revolving position’ on the team. It was a coordinator role, where, for the most part, people only stayed in for a little over a year because they were promoted or they moved on to bigger roles. A year might not sound like very long for most, but in a company where the average tenure was 15+ years, Pat encouraged rapid career development and progression.
The other thing I’ll never forget about Pat is how she always made time for me, no matter what was going on. We had a standing weekly 1:1 and no matter what chaos was going down, she always made time for it, even if we met for 15 minutes because she knew how important this space was to me.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Invite the journey and enjoy the experience.”
As someone with ADHD who thrives when organizing chaos, and enjoys juggling multiple things, I need to remind myself to enjoy the moment. It’s one of the reasons I started practicing yoga and meditation and took on hundreds of hours of training to better my practice. I needed to teach myself to slow down and enjoy life more intentionally.
This quote is a great reminder to NOT burn out, but instead, find moments to appreciate and to have the curiosity to see where the path may lead.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now, the BestSelf Co. team is working on some really exciting projects. We’ve just launched the Little Hero’s Journal which is a 13-week guided adventure for children aged 7–12. This journal teaches young people essential life skills such as confidence, self-awareness, and gratitude helping them cultivate the growth mindset and self-expression needed for success. I love the idea that we can help children get ahead in life by helping them develop the skills most adults have to teach themselves later in life.
We’re also working on some products that promote more mindfulness and presence. Being productive is just one piece of life’s puzzle. We also need to learn to “be”. Some of our upcoming products focus on this aspect. For example, two new products coming out this fall inspire pause and presence through play and will empower people to live through their values.
Watch this space!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I think one of the most instrumental character traits is my ability to connect pieces to find solutions. When I started in marketing, my strength wasn’t being the SME on the latest platform or channel but working cross-functionality to make growth happen. There are so many pieces involved that often need to come together.
These are the three skills that were most instrumental to my success:
- Quick thinking — I learned early on in my career that more often than not, making quick decisions based on back-of-napkin-math was the secret to moving fast. This approach allowed the project to keep moving while buying time for deeper analysis to confirm assumptions. My ability to make quick, but well-thought-through decisions creates nimbleness and fast action. It’s a powerful way to create an edge and get ahead of the curve.
- Calmness under pressure — One of the many things Yoga has taught me is when you face discomfort, take a deep breath, and another before reacting. I’m able to handle and hold a lot without getting phased or shaken. Team members often tell me that my calmness helps them handle troubleshooting better because the calmness spreads!
- Embrace the ADHD brain — I’ve lost count of the 6 & 7-figure ideas I’ve had for teams and companies that came up while I was spinning in my chair talking about the random things that popped into my brain! Sometimes it’s best to go with the flow and see where things end up.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
Burnout is a concern that’s always in the back of my mind. I’m at risk of burnout because of my personality type. At BestSelf Co., I lead a nimble, creative, fast-moving team and need to support their well-being too. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and learning about burnout, not only for myself but also for my team and to incorporate into the products we create.
Personal growth & development are a big part of my training and interests. I have a yoga and meditation background — both of which are practices that can help reduce stress and promote mindfulness and being present in the moment.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
At the core of burnout is emotional exhaustion where you feel so depleted and drained that you have nothing left to give to your job and maybe even your passions, hobbies, and relationships.
As a result, you experience a debilitating overwhelm where your mental capacity is reduced to the point where you can’t think straight or make decisions about what to do next. You can’t organize the chaos around you and you need to pump the brakes so you can create a pause and create some relief.
When you’re burned out, your cup is empty. You can no longer pull from the well because it’s depleted and in desperate need of being refilled.
This is different from stress.
Stress is over-engagement, which leads to diminished energy and anxiety. In comparison, burnout is disengagement coupled with a sense of helplessness and demotivation.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
For me, the opposite of burnout is feeling balanced and in flow. It’s a feeling of momentum and traction where you’ve got everything going. Where you’re juggling multiple balls and you’re on fire — in a healthy way.
I think it’s also a feeling of being a part of something bigger than you [in comparison to burnout, which can feel very lonely and isolating]. I was reminded of this while watching archery during the Olympics. One of the teams had this fantastic ritual of encouraging and high-fiving each other after every shot [even if an archer didn’t do well]. The vibe was tangible and you could feel how it was driving everyone to be their absolute best at the moment. This is the opposite of burnout.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
In my opinion, the whole “grin and bear it” response is a weak response. We’re undergoing a culture shift where our mental health is becoming equally, if not more, important than our physical health. We’re starting to have open, honest discussions around mental health. It is past the time where we bury our emotions and feelings and we sacrifice our well-being.
Burnout can have lasting effects on our lives. I’ve seen people quit their jobs as a result of burnout.
Burnout can also drain confidence and overall life satisfaction; it can harm our home life and relationships and lead to a loss of creativity and innovation. We’re less willing to take creative risks and experiment. Research shows that burnout can lead to changes in sleep habits, increased use of food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel, and even show up as physical symptoms (e.g. — weight gain or loss, trouble sleeping, unexplained headaches or stomach issues).
The cost of burnout is high and not just one we pay as individuals, but as a society as well.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
Various factors can cause job burnout. Workplaces are often responsible for the causes of burnout and they need to take responsibility to make the necessary changes to help overcome burnout.
Possible causes include:
- Lack of control — not having the necessary resources or being unable to make changes to your schedules, assignments or workload could lead to burnout.
- Unclear job expectations — not knowing what is expected of you, especially in times of change, can add unnecessary stress.
- Lack of social support — especially now with people working from home, it’s easier to feel isolated at work (and in your personal life).
- No work-life balance or an imbalance — if work takes up too much of your time and energy, there may be nothing left for family, friends, and personal time.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
1. Celebrate small wins. This may sound like a small, insignificant strategy, but it’s a step that can protect against burnout as well as sparking recovery from it. Our biggest defense against burnout is often a sense of daily progress. We feel rejuvenated when we move forward on our goals and help others achieve theirs. I have a “Win The Day” tracker I use, where I write out at least 3 wins each day. On a good day, this ritual is the cherry on the cake that lifts my mood higher. On a bad day, this habit forces me to find something that cultivates a sense of positivity and accomplishment, which helps me remember who I am and what I can do. Clocking wins is a strategy that works as a team too. Every Friday, each team member at BestSelf Co. shares their top wins. It’s a simple, yet powerful way to acknowledge and appreciate each other as well as providing a platform for acknowledging our successes.
2. Talk to someone. It’s tempting to isolate yourself when you feel burnt out.
We need to feel comfortable expressing our needs. For example, a team member approached me recently and asked for some time off because they needed some space. I’m proud of the culture we’ve created at Bestself Co, where a conversation like this is possible. Of course, it’s a case-by-case basis, but knowing employees feel safe to ask for what they need creates an opportunity for the pressure valve to be released when the risk of burnout gets too high.
3. Evaluate your working environment. Burnout is an indication that there’s too much on your plate and that something has to give. You don’t have to wait for burnout to take this step! I recommend that you periodically check the demands of your job to ensure you’re set up for success, work-life balance, and fulfillment. For example, are your work expectations still fair? Are there ways that you can gain more control over your time and your day? Is the level of support and opportunities for delegation sufficient for your job? Do you need to redraw boundaries to take back your energy and your time? This is a conversation you can have with your coach or mentor [if you have one]. Alternatively, you can explore these questions in your journal or in a conversation with a friend to help you get clarity.
4. Know yourself. Burnout can be a time of re-evaluation. Ask yourself what do you want? Get clear on the lifestyle you want to create. Assess how much pressure you’re able to handle and discover the routines and rituals you can implement to protect your mental health and sustain your energy and vibrancy. For example, I find my daily gratitude practice incredibly valuable. Each day, I write down three things that I’m grateful for — regardless of what’s happening. This practice is a great perspective shifter and helps to remind me that there’s always something to appreciate.
5. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
When you’re burnt out [or close to burnout], your perspective can become distorted. You can see a glass-half-empty rather than a half-full one. Focusing on your strengths can help you feel empowered in the situation.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
People who feel burnt out appreciate any load taken off their shoulders. With the pressure of responsibilities and expectations reduced, there’s more space, energy, and bandwidth available for recovery. Friends can cook meals, take care of household chores, or offer to take the kids — anything that gives their friend back time.
Other suggestions are to offer a listening ear — and be there without judgment; or organize fun activities that help the person feel better.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
When a member of staff is burnt out, the company’s response is key. It’s not enough to simply take over or reassign their work. Instead, it’s important to look at the root causes and understand what — if any — the job role of company culture contributed to the situation. Sometimes, people get burnt out because of unrealistic expectations. In recent times, staff has been picking up the slack due to illness, lockdown, and other COVID-related reasons. It’s important to not overburden staff — especially if someone is a people-pleaser.
Employers can create space and offer help.
They can show understanding or offer a sounding board.
They can also shift deadlines [where appropriate].
It’s also important that encouragement is offered and there’s a focus on the employees strengths, not weaknesses.
Employees’ also need to acknowledge the importance of their employee’s mental health and well-being and take proactive steps. This can be done by investing in mental health training and programs.
For example, the dating app Bumble recently shut all its offices worldwide to combat workplace stress and burnout among its employees. More than 700 staff were given a fully paid, one-week holiday. I saw on LinkedIn that Nike did something similar. I’m happy to see this trend and I hope that it will become more commonplace. Vacations are so important — especially in our always on culture.
Employers (and teammates) also need to honor time off booked by their colleagues.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
I think it starts with a conversation. Until recently, our society was reluctant to talk about mental health. It took a pandemic for us to finally have an open conversation around the importance of mental health. I’m grateful for the influencers and people in prominent positions who’ve been taking a stand for mental health. It’s one of the reasons we were so proud to create the Impact Deck for GQ’s BestStuff Box — a box focused on inspired mental health and well-being.
Company-wide conversations help spark awareness and understanding — and that needs to come from all corners of the business. For example, do teams and managers know what burnout looks like? Are they able to identify the signs to help people before they hit rock bottom? Do they know how to spot the signs such as low energy, feeling “checked out”, increased lateness or absences, negative attitude towards work, decreased performance, feeling overwhelmed or overworked?
As a leader, it’s important to be vulnerable. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking about their challenges. Here are some of the strategies we’ve instilled into the BestSelf culture:
- We built a culture of connection through check-ins — team-wide and individually.
- Lead by example. I share that I take a walk in the middle of the day. I tell my team that I’m turning off Slack for the evening. I don’t hide my staycations. My team even knows that after 3 pm, I’m usually done with video calls and prefer audio-only. I model routines, boundaries, and behaviors that protect me from burnout — so my team feels safe to identify and ask for their own needs to be met.
- Each Friday, we celebrate our team and individual wins [it’s a powerful way to ensure everyone feels seen and acknowledged]. We also answer the question of the week. Sometimes this is taken from one of our products. This time is invaluable for strengthening team bonds. The BestSelf Team does feel like family — and because you take care of your family, we’re inspired to take care of each other. The team-building work we do helps develop this ethos.
- We also set boundaries as an organization. We are a creative, innovative team, which means we are never short of ideas. We’re also a small team with limited bandwidth. To ensure team members aren’t overburdened [and therefore at risk of burnout], we keep track of new ideas on a “parking lot”. We review our priorities as a team weekly and very often, we postpone or jettison things that aren’t in our wheelhouse.
- 1:1s with my direct reports. I try my best not to turn the meetings into status meetings or where I’m just assigning work. Ask questions like “What can I do to be valuable?”, “What can I do to help you be successful?”, “How can I help?” It’s important to me that my team feels supported.
- Feeling brave enough to say no. If you say yes to a request, what are you saying no to? A yes is nothing without the no that gives it boundaries and form. Here’s what this looks like in the workplace. What projects do you need to abandon or postpone? What meetings will you no longer attend? What resources do you need to be successful? In your desire to please, be sure that you don’t take on more than you can realistically hold — or burnout becomes a step closer.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
One of the most common mistakes is people feel they need to quit their job to reverse burnout. Another thing I see is people think that it’s just them and they blame themselves.
Burnout is the end of a spectrum and many factors cause it — both personal and workplace based. Burnout is an invitation to review the way you live and work. It’s an opportunity to regain balance, review priorities, and revisit boundaries. When people can reclaim their power in the situation, they often discover that there’s a solution that can make space for more success, joy, and fulfillment than was previously available.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Company-wide holidays. We’ve done this at BestSelf Co. Not only does a proper pause create space for rest, recuperation, and reinvigoration, it creates space for more creativity and innovation too.
Often our best ideas don’t come when we force them. Instead, they pop up when we least expect them — often when the conscious mind has been given a break. Company-wide holidays could be the trigger for your next big thing!
Company-wide holidays are also really good for making staff feel valued and appreciated. When everyone is off at the same time, no one is worried about being left behind. No one has to worry about the number of things they’ll have to catch up on when they’re back. Instead, they can fully relax — knowing that everyone is taking a break and that nothing will be missed.
Ultimately, humans are not machines. Anything we can do to show people that their quality of life outside of work matters, the more loyalty, well-being, and positive health we can inspire.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Offhand, I can’t think of one person in particular that I would want to meet. I love meeting new people and I’m a big believer that people come into our lives at the right time.
I’ve learned so much from some of the most unassuming people. I’m always open to a genuine conversation. You never know where that conversation could lead.
If you’re interested in connecting, reach out via LinkedIn.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best place to discover my work is to check out the products, tools, downloads, and resources we have at BestSelf.co.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!