Burnout is one of the phrases I hear most frequently at the moment. Particularly when talking to my public and third sector clients. They worry about burnout for themselves, but also for their colleagues and particularly for their teams.
This post reflects on the causes of burnout and suggests three ways that coaching can help.
What is Burnout?
Since 2019, the World Health Organisation has recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Interestingly, although this is relatively recent, most adults (85%) can correctly recognise the symptoms. We know it when we see it or we feel it.
Mental Health UK have a really clear definition of burnout, which is useful as a reference:
Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.
Common signs of burnout:
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached/alone in the world
- Having a cynical/negative outlook
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Feeling overwhelmed
Worryingly, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many more people are showing signs that they are prone to extreme levels of stress. This is having a huge impact on individuals and the organisations they work for.
Why is Burnout Getting Worse?
Very few people have had an easy time of things for the last few years. The Covid-19 pandemic was a sudden and lasting shock to everyone. Many people lost someone they cared about, but everyone lost their lifestyle for a prolonged period of time.
The acute phase of the pandemic is over (for most of us), but the ongoing impacts are still being felt. Unfortunately, they are not being acknowledged or addressed with the same level of attention as our global response to the pandemic.
And so, as a society, we are still recovering from the trauma of Covid-19, while also worrying about:
money and the financial crisis
how to continue to work from home or adjust to hybrid working
job security in a changing world
being isolated as friendship bonds struggle to recover
recovering our physical and mental health
In the public and third sectors, all of these factors are compounded by the efforts people have made as front-line or key workers. The long-term emotional and physical toll is showing up as burnout.
One way this is evident is in the questions people are asking on social media:
how burnout happens?
how burnout affects mental health?
how burnout feels?
how burnout affects work performance?
can burnout be reversed?
why burnout is sweeping the nation?
why burnout is hitting us now?
can burnout make you ill?
It is clear that, as leaders, we need to understand the answers to these questions if we are to create the best possible conditions for our colleagues to do great work.
What Does This Have to do With Coaching?
Many of the senior leaders I coach and talk to are showing signs of burnout themselves. Talking to other coaches confirms that personal wellbeing is one of the main subjects of current coaching conversations. This is in contrast to pre-pandemic times, when, for example, achieving goals and setting strategies would have been more high-priority subjects.
These same leaders are also noticing the signs of burnout in the people they manage and they are having to adjust their management and leadership styles to take this into account. One recent client confessed that they "feel more like a therapist than a leader at the moment".
These pressures are showing up in organisations and they are being compounded by the current environment. Leaders are having to learn new skills and approaches quickly, while also managing their own wellbeing.
All of this is very challenging for people to cope with on their own, which is why a coaching approach can help.
Three Ways Coaching Can Help With Burnout
Before I start this section it is important to be clear that burnout can become something more serious if it isn't treated correctly. If you are reading this and worried about your mental health, please reach out to a mental health professional for support. There is no substitute for this.
However, if leaders recognise that they, their staff or their teams are beginning to struggle, a different kind of coaching support could prevent things from becoming more serious and then help people to thrive again. This support can come in three different forms: individual coaching, team coaching and group coaching.
Executive and senior leadership coaching typically consists of a programme of five sessions (on Zoom or in person) over several months. Through this process the coach helps the client to refine their goals, explore the reality of their situation, clarify the options they have for action, and find ways to execute on their personal strategy.
Two of the classic underpinning coaching conversations are about values and balance. That is, to help the client to be very clear about their core beliefs and then to work out how to balance their goals, desires, commitments and time.
When working with clients at the moment, I often supplement these two conversations with conversations about wellbeing. By doing this, the client is helped to better understand themselves in the current context and then to make better decisions about their life and their work.
Of course, they also benefit from a confidential conversation with an experienced and trusted professional. This alone can be cathartic and powerful for the individual.
Team coaching is about accelerating performance as a team. It helps individuals to work together better to achieve common goals. This kind of coaching can be a single event (for example to discuss better ways to make decisions), or it can be a series of sessions to explore different ways to work better (for example meeting, goal setting, sharing work and so on).
When I coach teams, my main objective is to enable conversations between people. Conversations that illuminate better ways of doing things together. This can be a powerful tool for reconnecting teams with their shared values and common goals.
But, at the moment, it can also lead to some very raw and emotional conversations. This is where a skilled coach is important, to help the group to share their feelings, but then to help re-frame the conversation towards positive action.
Group coaching is about teaching and facilitating a group, but the learning happens as individuals. It can be useful for helping teams reach a shared understanding. It is more practical for larger groups.
When I run group coaching workshops, I often use a technique called "silent coaching". In this way I guide the group through a series of coaching questions and then ask them to share what they have learned at the end. This allows people to reflect (deeply and privately) on their own circumstances before they are guided towards positive steps.
The beauty of this approach is that, although each person is going through the process individually, a sense of community naturally develops. This sense of common feeling helps people to move forward because they realise their situation is shared with many others.
Burnout is recognised and real. It is impacting increasing numbers of individuals and organisations. In severe cases, people suffering from burnout should seek professional mental health support. In milder cases, individual, group or team coaching can help to create better conditions for people to feel well and do good work.
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it useful. If so I would be grateful if you could share it on LinkedIn or Twitter.
If you would like to talk to me about any type of coaching, the simplest thing to do is to book a free 15-minute conversation at a time that suits you.
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