Leader Burnout

When Giving, Giving, Giving gets Exhausting

Good leaders use Empathy and Compassion. For our team to succeed in today’s crazy, unpredictable workplace, we need leaders who help the team cope, bounce back from adversity and flourish, even when things get VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) — and today, let’s face it, things are pretty much always VUCA.

Leadership EQ

There are tremendous leader benefits in utilizing the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) skills of Empathy, Trust-building, Deep Listening, Compassion and others. Using our Leadership EQ skills brings demonstrable benefits to:

· Employee Engagement

· Optimism

· Motivation

· Commitment

And for those leaders who like to consider themselves human beings (show of hands?), there are further personal rewards in engaging with colleagues in meaningful, authentic ways: We connect as people. We relate. We help others grow and — if we’re any good at this Leadership thing — they grow us right back.

As often noted, we typically spend as much time with colleagues as with families or friends. The truth is that Work/Life Balance is a fiction. We have only Life. And the people we work with get a big part of our Life, which means they get a big part of us. But how much?

There is no such thing as Work/Life Balance. We have only Life.

How Much of You Do They Get?

The value of Leader Empathy is seldom challenged. The question is: how much of you do they get? Not just your own team, but colleagues, bosses, networks, mentees? After all, this Empathy, Compassion and Care stuff takes a lot of your time… and a huge amount of personal energy.

Successful leaders know which parts of the job come easiest to them, the “cruise control” parts of their role. Perhaps the technical side of work for some; for others, it’s the admin or operational tasks. But authentic Empathy and Compassion are never on cruise control for any of us. Empathy and Compassion are always effortful. They tap into our reservoirs of personal feeling, and those reservoirs are limited, private, reserved.

Empathy and Compassion are always effortful.

How do we get the balance right? How can you offer enough of yourself to support Resilience in others while at the same time not letting it suck the life out of you? How do you as a Leader cope with Compassion Fatigue to avoid Leader Burnout?

Compassion Fatigue for Leaders

Giving, giving, giving at the office. Many leaders are glad to do that. But research shows that over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of Compassion.

Compassion Fatigue was originally studied in the caregiver professions, but now covers anyone whose capacity for Empathy is sapped to the point of exhaustion. That early focus on “other-directed care” occupations — on people who take care of other people for a living, such as nurses, social workers and therapists — doesn’t this also describe you? How often as a Leader do you feel like a nurse, a social worker or a therapist?

How often as a Leader do you feel like a nurse, a social worker or a therapist?

Here’s an interesting research finding which underlines the point: People who score high in the personality traits of Conscientiousness and Perfectionism are particularly at risk for Compassion Fatigue. Unsurprisingly, successful leaders typically score high on both traits: Conscientiousness and Perfectionism.

It’s time to recognize that Leadership today is one of the caring professions. It follows from this that Leaders are subject to Compassion Fatigue … and to Burnout.

Boundaries or Burnout

What’s the solution? How do Leaders deploy Empathy, Compassion and other Leadership EQ Skills while avoiding Compassion Fatigue and Burnout?

Most of us establish boundaries of one kind or another to set limits and preserve our core selves. These boundaries may detach and distance us from our people (Distancing Boundaries) or they may move us toward productive engagement with them (Engagement Boundaries).

  • Distancing Boundaries — We detach and distance ourselves from the team to save ourselves. We harden and toughen our external shell, avoid sharing “feelings” with staff, try to separate work-life from life-life, insist on an office culture free of emotion (there’s no such thing, of course).
  • Engagement Boundaries — We engage with our teams on a ‘whole person’ level, try to be fully human, recognizing that positive and negative emotions are part of everyone’s working lives. We give and give and give …. perhaps until we ourselves become exhausted by the expense of Empathy and Compassion in the workplace.
We give and give and give … until we ourselves become exhausted.

The Middle Way

As always, Mindful Leadership begins with Self-Awareness:

· Are you a person who tends to detach or to engage with colleagues’ emotions?

· Do you back off to protect yourself or do you get in there all messy?

· Do you pride yourself on the Empathy and Compassion you bring to leadership, but find yourself exhausted and burned out by its cost?

Good self-assessment tools (see below for links to two excellent examples) may help us gain insight into our leadership personality and our own vulnerability to Compassion Fatigue.

Three Steps

Here are three further steps Leaders can take to balance Empathy with their own Wellbeing:

Balance Empathy with your own Wellbeing

1. Recognize how much your Empathy and Compassion are costing you. Do you withhold to protect yourself? Are you always giving, giving, giving to exhaustion?

2. Make some tough assessments about which members of your team (who, where and when) are worth the investment of your Empathy. Whose engagement, resilience and commitment are most crucial to what you’re trying to achieve? This may sound ruthless, but it’s actually one of today’s leadership fundamentals. Look around you. The flourishing leaders you admire most choose where to invest.

Flourishing leaders decide which people are worth the investment.

3. Adjust your boundaries. For some Leaders, this means recognizing that you’ve been over-protecting yourself and you’ll achieve more by investing more EQ. For some others, this means recognizing that the Empathy and Compassion you’re so proud of in your leadership are actually exhausting you.

The key is to appreciate that Empathy is expensive. We must spend it carefully.

Online Self-Assessment Resources (Free)

Compassion Fatigue Self-Assessment (PROQOL)

HEXACO PI-R Personality Self-Assessment