How Leaders Can Avoid Burning Out Whilst Working From Home During The COVID-19 Lockdown

Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive and business psychology coach and is the founder of RenOC. Karen was head of trading at one of the largest UK fund managers for 15 years and she was instrumental in helping steer the ship into less choppy waters during the 2007 financial crisis.  Since then she has retrained with a Masters in Organisational Psychology. 

Hands up if your life has been changed pretty dramatically over the past few weeks?  Pretty much the whole world will have been impacted by COVID19 and one of the most inevitable and noticeable outcomes is a steep deterioration of individuals’ mental health.  This powerful mix of emotions – typically a heightened and continuous sense of fear and uncertainty, is leading to some severe cases of anxiety and stress, which when elevated over a prolonged period, will lead to burnout.  And leaders are at the forefront.  There are many things that leaders should and could be doing in these unprecedented and unsettling times, but the following three will be a good place to start: be agile – take smart, practical & strategic steps; trust your vision, yourself & others; and finally focus religiously on self-care, which is vital for you and for everyone else around you.

‘Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.’ —Publilius Syrus

Burnout is something that is on an upward trajectory that is rather frightening.  For example, 44% of all work-related ill-health cases was down to stress, depression and anxiety (2018/19 HSE) and the figure is most likely to be higher the more seniority and responsibilities you hold.  With the current crisis, this figure will undoubtedly be higher.

Signs of burnout:

  • Chronic fatigue – lack of energy, physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, sense of dread exhaustion, forgetfulness and lack of focus and ability to concentrate
  • Physical symptoms eg chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath dizziness, headaches etc
  • Increased frequency of illness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Anxiety – mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess which may worsen over time.
  • Depression – pessimism, apathy, hopelessness, cynicism and detachment
  • Lack of motivation, productivity, poor performance and judgments

What does this look like in practice?

  • Constant mood swings, anger and lashing out at others, blaming everyone else for ills
  • Impulsive and erratic behaviours and decision making, mostly based on irrational beliefs as opposed to facts
  • Paralysis – head in the sand and refusal to acknowledge the situation and others, such as not answering calls, emails and requests for information
  • OCD – obsessive and often unreasonable focus on a particular strategy/way of doing things or someone else’s ‘substandard’ behaviour or cleaning the house

How will this affect your business?

  • Loss of motivation and morale in you and the business ie an underperforming and disengaged team who will, by definition, deliver substandard work
  • Lack of direction – unclear and confusing communications means a chaotic and disorganised workforce and teams, ill-thought-through strategies and execution
  • Increased risk in all areas and an inability to manage them
  • Loss of faith in the business and its mission which will result in defections when things start to turn

What can a leader do to minimise the risk of being burnt out?  After all, being burnt out is not something that one chooses to have or be.


Be agile – take smart, practical and strategic steps

When one is constantly anxious and stressed out, it is virtually impossible to see the wood for trees and the feeling of being overwhelmed will be at its greatest.  A really practical way which will almost instantly ease some of the burdens that leaders carry is by focusing on pragmatic, immediate and achievable steps, ones that allow you and your teams to feel like you are actually doing something of value.

  • What is controllable by you?
  • What can you do to serve existing or even new clients and customers?
  • How might you improve on what you already offer eg faster, differently, as an alternative to a competitor?
  • How do you ensure you continue to deliver excellent quality?
  • What considered but calculated risks can be taken?
  • What can you do to great effect in the very short-term?  How can you get there?

By having agency, making decisions and taking action, the anxiety of failing and things going wrong will diminish greatly.


Trust your vision, yourself and others

Now is not the time for doubt and self-doubt. Now is the time for resilience, fortitude and endurance.  All the blood, sweat and toil invested in the business will come together beautifully but this can only work if you have faith in your vision, in your abilities and those of your team.

  • Practise and execute emotional intelligence rigorously.  Be aware of your own thoughts and emotions, as well as those of others.  Manage and regulate them as best as you can to be a calm and trustworthy leader.  If you have to make layoffs or furlough employees, do so with compassion.  For your remaining staff, be empathetic and patient as you motivate them with your vision to soldier on.
  • Communicate regularly, directly and honestly tro your stakeholders – be they your employees, suppliers, shareholders or your clients
  • Trust the people that you’ve hired to collaborate with you and with their teams to help you navigate these choppy waters
  • Be prepared to learn and ask for help from others externally and internally

Leaders are there to provide stewardship in good times and bad.  Your stakeholders will take their cue from you so you need to show up.  However, by trusting your team to help you through this – you are proving that the business greater than the sum of parts.  This will ease the inordinate amount of pressure that you are under, ie it’s okay to let go and trust others to step up with you.


Be religious about self-care

Last but not least, is self-care.  For many, this will conjure up images of bubble baths and lush spas in exotic locations.  And this absolutely is not to be discouraged! However, in a time of no travel and severe austerity, this can be but a distant dream.  In reality, self-care is far more prosaic and yet far more important.

Self-care is about raising your self-awareness and committing to making the changes for your own good and for those around you.

  • Checking in with yourself regularly and frequently
  • Good quality sleep
  • Getting a little more exercise
  • Staying hydrated
  • Taking medication as prescribed
  • Eating healthily at regular intervals
  • Creating healthy boundaries
  • Taking a break from social media, the constant news cycle of virus updates, and from people & things that stress you out
  • Being more self-aware and practising being more mindful of yourself, your thoughts and emotions

And doing it again and again and again, all day every day

Some ideas of questions whilst checking in with yourself:

  • What does it look like when you’re flourishing?
  • What does it look like when you’re floundering?
  • Do you know when you are stressed/floundering?
  • What happens when you are stressed/floundering?
  • How do you know when to stop reacting and start acting?
  • What are your triggers?
  • Is self-care important to you?
  • Why is self-care important to you?
  • What will motivate you to stay on track?
  • What challenges do you foresee?
  • How will you overcome those challenges?
  • What kind of role model do I want to be?

Without self-care, you as a leader will not be of much value to your business, your employees or your families.  Looking at some of the examples above about what that might look like, a question that might be asked is: would you want someone irrational, impulsive and obsessive guiding this ship?

‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ – Martin Luther King Jr.

There is no doubt that the current situation being faced by everyone globally is frightening, upsetting and anxiety-inducing.  It is understandable that any human may want to buckle under the pressure especially if you have responsibilities to your stakeholders, the business as well as your family.  These are unprecedented and unfathomable times.  However, burnout is not inevitable.  The situation you are in may be uncontrollable but your actions – for yourself, your employees and your family are not.  With some smart thinking, collaboration and a whole lot of self-care, you will be much better placed to navigate this and come out stronger.



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