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The Best Way to Battle Burnout

The recent Vox Media/Watermark survey of professional women was full of nuggets about what women want from the future of work. Hybrid and remote work, more time off, more mentoring and coaching were all heartily endorsed. Underlying it all — deep feelings of burnout.

This is a serious problem. In some countries, burnout is treated as a medical problem with a recovery time of 18-24 months. In the U.S., we’re more likely to see it as a character flaw. But the pandemic has changed that perception, and with women exiting the workforce in alarming numbers, companies are starting to realize that sacrificing their teams’ well-being for short term profits isn’t going to work for the long haul.

Several of Watermark’s programs this past month gave me new ways to think about burnout and stress at the micro and macro levels.

Among the things I learned:

Burnout isn’t your problem. It’s about your organization.

Jennifer Moss, researcher and author of The Burnout Epidemic, says we are too focused on ‘downstream’ solutions — individual techniques and wellness programs that address burnout when it’s already taking a toll. Instead, we need policies and norms that prevent exhaustion and attrition. “I don’t call it work-life balance, I talk about work-life boundaries,” she says. In that framework, the leader’s job is to create those boundaries— and then model the behavior. Creating rules about not answering emails on weekends won’t work if the leaders do it anyway, she says; that just creates “invisible pressure.”  Anyone who has felt dread on Sunday about work on Monday needs to read this book. More important, any leader who wants to save their teams from feeling that dread needs to read it—and put Moss’s many research-and-reality-tested suggestions in place.

Stress and burnout make decisions harder- Your body has the answers.

Ellen Snee, EdD, a noted executive coach and author of the new book Lead, was a nun before she joined the corporate world. Her convent training taught her the difference between reflection and discernment, and in a fireside chat with us last week, she passed along a powerful technique to help us make better decisions when we’re under stress.  “We all know how to make lists of pros and cons,” she said. But listening to your body — really listening — is a better way to get to your ‘yes.’  How to do it? Consider the problem (quit your job or stay?), and then act as if you’ve already decided. “Think the thoughts you would have if you had already made the decision. Be in that mental space for several hours or a day, and see how your body feels.” Do you feel deflated? Elated? Scared in a good way? Then do the same mental exercise with the opposite choice. The point is to tune into your deepest desire and leave the mental chatter—which is often full of other peoples’ judgements and wishes for you—behind.

The stories we tell can change our workplaces.

In Watermark’s last Community Forum on Leading with Inclusion, our speakers and participants agreed that creating truly inclusive workplaces means changing not just our norms and practices but the stories we tell. For Sally Thornton of Forshay, the “old stories of success” are getting in the way of creating workplaces that foster well-being and belonging. “One [story] that no one ever talks about is, when you become successful and lead a company, you believe that it was a meritocracy, that you worked really hard, made all these sacrifices and never slept. But you did not become successful in an inclusive environment. You didn’t. So pay attention when you hear that old story, because we need new stories, new superheroes.”  

I see superheroes all around me — women and men who are challenging the old stories of leadership, who are elevating kindness and caring, and who are thinking broadly about sustainability as well as success. Their practical wisdom is the fuel that keeps me excited and hopeful about the future.

You can hear more from our speakers in the links below. Have a listen — and please join us in the next several weeks as we focus on how to create the connections that will sustain your continued success and well-being.

Please join me later this week on November 17 with Vox Media and The Cut to learn more about the findings from our joint survey.

Peggy Northrop

Peggy Northrop is CEO of Watermark, a nonprofit membership organization focused on redefining leadership. Peggy joined Watermark in February 2020. A media consultant, communications expert, advisor and entrepreneur, Peggy spent the first two decades of her career as an award-winning editor in New York City, where she held senior editorial positions at some of the most iconic names in women’s media, including Vogue, Glamour and Real Simple, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of More and Global Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest. She returned to the Bay Area in 2013 to serve as Editor-in-Chief of Sunset Publishing, and in the same year co-founded Shebooks, an e-book company devoted to publishing stories by and for women. Peggy is an advisor and investor with Portfolia, which creates investment funds designed for women to back the companies they want to see in the world. She is also a mentor with SHE-CAN, the educational organization that trains the next generation of female leaders in post-genocide countries. She currently serves on the board of directors of Washington & Jefferson College.

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