Burnout expert Sarah Tottle characterises it as feelings of lethargy, exhaustion, a lack of interest in things that you used to be passionate about, cynicism and disengagement.
“The most noticeable traits happen when a person who is usually happy and positive soon becomes withdrawn, low in mood and cynical,” she explains.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified burnout as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Sarah says that before this, there were few clinical definitions, meaning doctors would often misdiagnose burnout for depression.
“Burnout is more than just simple exhaustion. It’s a psycho-physical response to extreme and prolonged stress. Chronic stress can induce it. The body shuts down and simple tasks can become impossible to accomplish.”
Sarah believes the best approach is for people to acknowledge that overworking is a critical factor in burnout. “When someone feels they don’t have control over their life or work, this can exacerbate symptoms,” she says.
“Giving people autonomy, encouraging their creative side and allowing for flexibility at work can help lower the risk of burnout. Avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach is also important. Lead by example. Don’t overwork, don’t stay back at work and avoid emailing after hours.”
If you feel like you may be teetering on the edge, you’re not alone. Six executives share their tips for staying inspired and avoiding burnout.
Jessica Fialkovich, President and Co-Founder, Transworld Business Advisors – Rocky Mountain: “I’m a big believer in peer-mentoring groups. I’m involved in the Entrepreneur’s Organization, Colorado. This group is incredibly valuable to me, not only from a business growth standpoint, but all of the members are business owners, too, so I never feel alone when I’m coming up against hurdles in my business.
“It’s also essential to take a step away from your business. My husband and I are co-owners of Transworld, so it can be easy to get very caught up in our company. We have days where we disconnect from our technology, and we’re big travellers, too, to make sure we can rebuild our energy stores and feel refreshed when we come back to work.”
Anne-Sophie Dumetz, Founder, LUMINISTAS: “I ask myself the question: ‘Have I been going too hard?’ Sometimes, the fastest way to find inspiration again is to give myself a chance to exhale, slow down and do something else entirely. Best options typically include nature, people, connections and creativity. Dance party? Sure. Walk in nature? Yes. Art? Yes.
“Ultimately, I don’t believe passion, purpose and inspiration are things you can achieve or create tangibly. They are states of being and ways of operating in the world. The key is to choose to be passionate, to act purposefully and to feel inspired by the way you operate in your life. It all has to line up with your values and operationalising those in your day-to-day groove.”
Pat Garrett, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Six Park: “Surround yourself with competent go-getters who have 100% buy-in into the company’s mission, and learn to delegate to and empower these team members; this helps avoid burnout and also motivates staff.
“It’s increasingly evident that sufficient sleep and exercise, whether that be yoga, brisk walking or other activities, are critical in maintaining physical and mental health and go a long way towards avoiding burnout.
“Make sure to spend time with family and friends, or whoever makes up your support network outside of the work environment. Also, make sure to share not only the successes you may achieve as a CEO but even the challenges and frustrations.
“Always pursue and maintain your passions and hobbies outside of work and do not let them go idle; this leads to the ‘rut’ feeling that can become a habit and is the first step towards burnout. Don’t feel the need to be too stoic; being a CEO does require leadership and a sense of strength and direction, but we’re all humans and have frailties.”
Maxine Lee, COO, Skalata: “First, understand when you’re starting to feel uninspired. Over the years, I’ve become more attuned to the symptoms that lead to being uninspired.
“Are you getting distracted by small, unimportant tasks or flitting from one thing to the other? When you aren’t able to focus on high-leverage activities and get into flow-state with a project and you start to spend too much time putting out fires, you’ll start to lose focus on the big picture.
“Give yourself permission to step away from the business, switch up your environment, apply a different methodology to how you usually operate as a business and prioritise your to-do list.
“Simply clearing the inventory in your mind will give you more mental energy to apply yourself creatively and restart your inspiration. This works well for me, and I encourage my team to do the same when they’re feeling overwhelmed.”
Catherine Cervasio, Owner, AROMABABY: “I regularly travel, especially to China, so avoiding burnout and reigniting passion is critical. Having been in business so long and juggling many roles, there have been times when I have had to make an effort to stop and step back.
“It’s so important to find your joy, whatever that means to each person, and get back to what you are passionate about. I find being in nature – taking long walks along our local river on weekends and whenever else – has been empowering and pivotal to me feeling inspired.
“I also try to start each day with 60 seconds of gratitude in the shower, which means deep breathing, using aromatherapy oils and setting an intention for the day.”
Alex Dyer, CEO and Founder, Tutor House: “There are a few things I do to avoid burning out. The first few are generally around trying to live healthily by eating well and exercising regularly. I find that establishing healthy habits gives you the best chance of rising to challenges at work, with more energy and a generally more positive outlook.
“I also try to put my work and the company into perspective. I used to have a real issue switching off from the business. Back in April 2019, I set myself some new rules, like not checking emails after 9pm or before I set off on my morning commute, to help me to separate work from the rest of my life.
“In terms of destressing, I find that reading is a great escape and a source of inspiration. I’ve also found inspiration in looking to other successful CEOs, mainly when you read the full story of their journey and realise that, just like you, they had their ups and downs but pulled through.
“Finally, clichéd as it sounds coming from a former teacher, the thing that keeps me inspired at work is coming away from each week with learning. Knowing that my team and I are continually growing as individuals keeps me motivated and inspired.”