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Managing burnout – planning the courageous conversation you might need to have

Written by Caroline Stern - 4 minute read

Reaching the point of burnout

Several healthcare leaders I am working with have reached the point of burnout after such an intense 18 months in pharma and biotech. It got me thinking about the options leaders have when they reach burnout and how they might choose to manage the situation with their line manager 

A recent post by Dr. Amanda Kirby [1] provided some useful indicators for how to recognise burnout at work, which I summarise below and then suggest some advice for how leaders can have the courageous conversation to proactively address their situation, rather than the alternative of keeping going until burnout leads to breakdown.  

What is job burnout?

Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress, a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.  Burn-out is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

It is characterized by three dimensions [2] 

  •      feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  •      increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job 
  •      reduced professional efficacy.

Recognising the signs of distress

Dr. Amanda Kirby suggests some questions to ask yourself if you feel close to, or at, burnout 

  •       Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  •       Do you have a feeling of dread on a Sunday evening?
  •       Do you have trouble getting started and motivating yourself?
  •       Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  •       Do you avoid participating in conversations with others unless you have to?
  •       Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  •       Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  •       Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to reduce feelings?
  •       Have your sleep habits changed?

There are several steps people can take to reduce the future risk of burnout, such as time away from the computer, (especially in the evening and weekends) healthy eating, exercise or meditation, taking a holiday or break. But the question that people I am working with today are grappling with is ‘how do I manage it at work?’. 

Courageous conversations

Courageous conversations are the subjects that are difficult to broach at work with those close to you, such as your manager – they are the sort of conversations that can stir strong reactions or emotions, maybe on both sides.  

If you feel overwhelmed or burnt out at work, discussing this with your line manager might feel like the most natural thing in the world, or alternatively, it might feel like career suicide. Most of us will fall somewhere between these two extremes and planning for the conversation in advance, especially when you are already exhausted, will help ensure you get the support and outcomes you need. 

I chatted to Carol-Anne Whittaker, one of our experienced executive and agile coaches about how she works with leaders to prepare for courageous conversations.

Here is her advice: 

Prepare for the burnout conversation with your manager before you have it

Identify the facts

As far as possible when describing your current situation or workload, use facts about what is expected of you. Writing a list in advance can help you to clearly explain to your manager why your workload is unrealistic or unachievable. 

Make it real for you

When you are at burnout, its very important that you can articulate how you are feeling and how it is impacting you.  Talking about feelings at work can often trigger strong emotions such as anger or tears.  Finding the words that are right for you in advance and speaking them several times out loud, either to yourself in the mirror, or to someone you trust, will help you to know that they really are a true description of how burnout is affecting you, allowing you to talk more calmly and with conviction. 

Think about the possible reactions you might get

When preparing to have a conversation with your manager about burnout, it’s a good idea to put yourself in their shoes and think beforehand what their reaction might be. What might they think or feel and how might they react when they hear what you have to say? This will prepare you to have an open, two-way discussion and help you to consider their perspective. 

Think through what you want the outcome to be

Its almost certain that at some point in the conversation, your manager will ask something along the lines of “what do you want to happen?” or “how can I help you?”. Thinking through the options in advance, with a prioritised list of alternatives, such as reduced workload or hours, increased resources, or even a complete break, will enable you to rationally discuss your ideas for how you would like to be supported.

Consider the unintended consequences

Whilst it is almost always the right thing to raise burnout with your manager, it is worth sparing a thought in advance for what could go wrong. Asking yourself ‘what is the worst that can happen?” is an important check step. It might help you to frame the conversation in a different way, or to identify some different solutions to help your current situation, whilst removing any potential negative connotations for others. 

If you need a sparring partner to help prepare for a courageous conversation on managing job burnout or other difficult to discuss topics at work, get in touch or take a look at details of our Insocius performance™ programmes.  We have a team of experienced exec coaches who know the pressures of Pharma and Biotech and would be happy to work it through with you.

ref 1:

ref 2: International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)

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