How successful leaders Avoid Burnouts

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The term ‘burnout’ has been established in the urban dictionary for a while now – and I think it’s a term that’s here to stay.  It is especially prevalent in the entrepreneur world as small businesses and start ups require a marathon effort to get off the ground.

In fact, it’s rare to hear from an entrepreneur who has their work-life balance well sorted, with their personal wellbeing and family time coming first.

But I’m here to argue that it’s not impossible.  It does go against the current culture, and it does require a societal-wide intervention to make it happen.  But I believe that if any community can create a big shift like this, it will be the entrepreneurs.  We are such a determined, values-driven bunch of people!

When it comes to leadership, there is an added sense of pressure.  We are taught that good leaders lead by example, and so often we are the first to stay late, start work early, or both.  When we are invested in a small business we may also need to take on extra roles to fill gaps in staffing.  It’s no small feat.

But there are successful leaders who manage it all, and do so without burning out. They might appear mystical and rather unicorn-like.  But it’s not magic; the trick is in their approach to business and to life.  They have the ability to step back and look at their calendar with perspective, playing the long game with their time and energy.  Let me explain…

Back when I was a young physician working 100-hour weeks in the hospital, like all of my colleagues, I played the short game with my time and energy.  I lived from day to day, shift to shift, using caffeine to get me through.  This worked for a short while, but it wasn’t sustainable.  This is why medics have a high level of burnout too.

This pattern of work is not uncommon in the entrepreneur world.  And while you can make short-term gains this way, getting through something like a launch period, it cannot be sustained over time.  When it comes to leading your team, you cannot have perspective on how your business is running as a whole, while you are drained and have your eyes half closed.  This is also not a behaviour you want to ingrain in your work culture, leaving you with a burnt out team six months down the track!

Today I have learned through trial and error to lead my teams in a different way, and this approach is how I tackle life in general, not just work.  The driven, entrepreneur way of caffeinating and powering through is a short-term technique that over time leads to exhaustion and apathy. When we hit our energetic rock bottom, we struggle and fight to get our power back.  Sometimes we may spend a period of time feeling flat and lifeless, resting because our body won’t be ignored anymore.  This can often be accompanied by physical sickness, which some of us like to blame to whole sorry affair on.
“Oh it was the viral infection, not the job, I’m fine now!”

When we have recovered just enough to function again, we feel guilty about the work we have missed, and plough straight back into our old way of working – only for the cycle to repeat itself again.

Burning out is often cyclic behavior.  We need to unlearn the habits that lead to it.

When I launched my newest company, In8Vitality, I made sure not to fall into the old trap of over-working, even in our launch phase.  With my company’s ethos being based around vitality and wellbeing, it would have been completely against our mission for the team and I to burn ourselves out.  So we reminded ourselves and each other to take breaks, and especially to meditate.  

Meditation is a big part of my daily routinethat keeps me on track and stops me from losing perspective on the long game for my businesses.
As successful entrepreneurs who lead our team members by example, I really believe the key is to approach our work, and our lives for that matter, with the long game in mind.


Here are a couple of ways you can do just that:


The big step back

Many a small business workshop or book will tell you about the importance of having perspective on your business.  And many an entrepreneur will hear or read that advice, agree with it in principle, yet still get dragged into the small details at work, missing the bigger picture.

It might sound counterintuitive to take a step back or a half-day out from your business every couple of weeks, especially when you are busy, but it’s actually really essential.  If you can step back and look at the direction your business is headed, how the numbers are, and how your team are doing, you can prevent small problems escalating into bigger ones.

It’s our culture of rolling up our sleeves and getting ‘stuck in’ that sometimes shoots us in the foot.  I’m not saying don’t get stuck in, but rather reminding you of the importance of stepping back too.  See the busiest periods coming and put a strategy in place so your team doesn’t get overworked.  Spot the clashes in the calendar and aim for prevention rather than cure.

Equally important in regularly taking a step back from business is to reconnect to your internal ‘why’, the underlying motivation that led you to embark on your path to entrepreneurship.  All too often we get so focused on numbers or staying afloat that we lose sight of and a deep connection to our core values and mission -- all of which further put us at risk of burnout. Renewing your commitment to your initial passion and vision is crucial to longevity as an entrepreneur.



Foster an anti-burnout culture

You can lead your team by example in a healthier direction by taking good care of your own time and energy.  Meditate, walk on your lunch break, cut back on alcohol and caffeine, and make sure you get enough sleep.  You will feel better, have a clearer head, and be a more approachable person in the workplace.

It might take more than setting the example though.  Do keep in mind that your team may feel guilt around not overworking themselves, so actively give them permission to leave work on time.  You can show them you value them, and keep them healthy at the same time.  

Again, this is all adding to your long game.  Less burnout in your team will reduce absenteeism and staff turnover, and increase engagement from them.  Everybody wins when we work with this level of perspective.

At the end of the day, nobody gets into the small business or startup world with the aspiration to burn out.  We all come here following our passions, and the burnouts are an unfortunate side effect of our current way of working.

Our burnout culture evolved from somewhere, and just in the same way, a new, healthier culture can evolve too.  As more leaders begin to wake up to the win-win of focusing on wellness to play the long game, the small business world, I hope, will become a much healthier place to exist. 


Dr. Andrea Pennington(@DrAndrea) is an integrative physician, acupuncturist, meditation teacher and conscious communication specialist. She is the Founder of In8Vitality, a #1 international bestselling author, highly acclaimed 2x TEDx speaker, visionary brand strategist for Light workers, and Co-founder of the #RealSelfLove Movement.

Learn more about recovering from Burnout with Dr. Andrea’s free video series here.