When was the last time you took a few minutes to really look at how you are doing? All of us are going to go through rough patches in life. In one such patch in my life a therapist friend asked me if I was getting better over time, staying the same, or getting worse. I was able to take a moment to reflect and honestly say I was getting better, rather than getting worse. The thing is, it is ok to be doing worse but that’s a warning sign that you need to do something about it. The important thing is that you know!
Now I hear you say “this is all very nice Leon but what has this got to do with leadership?” Recently I was talking to a group of leaders going through a lot of stress and change. After a bit of a chat one of them said “well, as always we will just have to power through.” Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time to grit your teeth and just get on with something difficult things. Often at work we have to deal with things that are difficult and challenging. Having the resilience to “just powering through” can be a useful short term strategy. However, if overused it is a recipe for burnout or worse.
Sadly I’ve seen this from first hand experience with someone very dear to me. They found work draining but it provided a great pension and it was their dream job. They “powered through” all the warning signs. They started to get more and more anxious going to work. They felt relief on Friday but worrying all Sunday. They could not get relief. Eventually they ended up in a ball, after everything had gone black. They had a nervous breakdown, from which they have still not recovered.
The mistake we make, in mental health, is that we think mental health is for weak people or at least not us. All that means is you have been lucky. With the right conditions, even the vey best of us can be broken. These conditions are not as extreme as you might thing: feelings of isolation, lack of control, feeling that nothing you do is good enough, inability to see a way out.
As I work with clients and their teams, in addition to bringing about the change they are seeking, I am always looking for signs that members of the team are heading towards burnout. Often solving that problem enables far better outcomes for the project.
A few years ago was one example. I was working on a £10M transformation programme. We were relying on a third-party supplier to make some changes but our contact was just not delivering. If he didn’t deliver by the deadline, it was going to cost a small fortune in project and licensing costs. We took all the right business actions to resolve this “blocker:” We kept a very close eye on it; we instigated daily calls; we escalated the issue to his manager. We did everything except pay attention to how he was really doing…because that is not what we do in business, is it? That is messy human emotions, we don’t have time for that! I agree, but you’ll pay far more in delayed projects, in sick pay, in having to hire new staff.
Instead, when we got Alex on the phone, I asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m just worried about being humiliated again!” Messy human emotions, right? I said, “we are on the same team Alex, we all want the same thing.” He started to show us what we needed, so I told him, “this is exactly what we need, you must be a lot less stressed now!” He responded, “it could still all go wrong.” I replied, “The biggest risk is over, what is left we can sort out together!”
After the call, I worked with him directly and we just solved issue after issue. It was fun. We delivered and had another successful project. I asked Alex afterward what my impact was on that call. His response holds the secret to being healthy at work. He said, “before that call, I was working 60 hours a weeks but nothing I did was good enough. After that call I knew I had an ally. It became a real buzz to work on the project with you.”
Nothing obvious had changed for Alex, same office, same project, same workload. The change was he was no longer isolated, he felt in control again and he knew what he did mattered. Everything had changed. I’ll be honest with you, I felt as good about helping another human avoid burnout as I did in being fundamental to the transformation programme that I had been contracted to deliver actually delivering on time. Having seen the human cost first hand, I want to help every human I can avoid the pain of burnout, breakdowns and worse.
Take a moment to reflect on if you are feeling like Alex. Are you feeling isolated? Try find a colleague you trust and share it with them over a drink. You matter enough. Are you feeling like nothing you do matters? Maybe you need to think the unthinkable and change environments.
I was reminded of Alex, when I spoke to someone last week. They in a high-powered job and feeling trapped. I asked how she was really doing? Is she getting better, staying the same or getting worse? She took a moment and said, “I’m getting worse, but if I don’t keep this job I will lose my house.” I asked the unthinkable question: “Is it really so bad if you lose the house?” Her response was “it’s not a stupid question. Probably not.”
For the person I know who had a nervous breakdown, it took them 5 years of “powering through” to go from healthy to very unhealthy. They have still not recovered. If they knew then what they know now, they would have taken themselves seriously and ensured they made the changes to be doing better even if it meant giving up something they thought they really wanted.
So, how are you really? Are you doing ok, are you getting worse or are things getting better for you?