5 ways successful leaders avoid burnout

When employees thrive, organisations shine. However, getting work done in the midst of a global pandemic has sapped energy reserves for many people, making employee wellbeing a focal point for business leaders and their companies.

We recently spoke with a few colleagues across Korn Ferry Asia-Pacific to learn how they are protecting, maintaining, and increasing their own personal energy, and helping their team do the same. As leaders, we all shared common experiences. The need to continually rebalance work and life, to focus on what we can do – not the things we can’t control. And to ensure we respect the work hour boundaries of our people.

If you’re feeling the pressure to be ‘always on’, you’re not alone. In April, a survey of over 18,000 respondents across different global markets measured health and wellbeing perceptions based on social activity, family life and work. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore all scored in the 50s, well below the global benchmark of 61.3.[1]

Our own global research suggests 57% of employees feel more anxious since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and 54% said they are more emotionally exhausted. A worrying 72% believe they are currently burned out.[2]

Even those that aren’t burned out or depressed are experiencing what US-based organisational psychologist Adam Grant describes as the ‘absence of wellbeing’ – languishing.[3]

The ideas my colleagues shared align with five pillars Korn Ferry recently identified as ways to sustain wellbeing and performance. Optimal wellbeing can fuel more plentiful and positive personal energy – and this sense of vitality can, in turn, lead to better performance.

1. Awareness

Studies show people who are more mindful report lower levels of workload stress, and as a result, feel less emotionally exhausted. If you can remain present under pressure, you can make better decisions – responding, rather than reacting out of instinct or habit.

Esther Colwill, President Korn Ferry Asia-Pacific, says she practices yoga at least four times a week. “I had been a yoga practitioner for more than 25 years. When I had children I almost dropped it due to the limited personal time being a working mother allows. Having brought it back into my life helps my physical and mental wellbeing,” she says.

Try:

  • Meditating, even for just a few minutes a day, to slow down to pay more attention to your thoughts and emotions
  • Practising frequent self-reflection – put time aside to think about alternative views for your situation
  • Developing self-knowledge – understand how your values, beliefs and assumptions impact your life, actions and the people around you.

2. Resilience

It’s one thing to talk about turning adversity into an opportunity for learning, and another to live that experience. But the more you deal successfully with difficult situations, the more confident you will be in your ability to deal with future challenges.

May Knight, President Korn Ferry Advisory Asia-Pacific, suggests breaking big milestones down into smaller, more achievable goals. “It will help reduce the sense of burden. And always stay optimistic, as sustaining a positive mood can drive positive behaviours.”

Esther says she avoids “sweating the small stuff, or dwelling on things I can’t fix."

“On a daily basis, I prioritise my work along important versus urgent axes, so I can make progress and feel good about what I have accomplished.” She also suggests showing other team members the importance of taking time off. “Everyone needs the mental space a break can create.”

  • Shifting your focus from threat to growth
  • Breaking complex challenges into smaller problems to solve
  • Regaining control by prioritising tasks and creating an action plan
  • Choosing consistency over perfection.

3. Social connection

The depth and quality of our interactions with other people have a profound impact on our energy levels – and it was sorely tested by COVID-19. Social isolation is linked to higher levels of anxiety, and lower levels of self-worth and life satisfaction.

Pip Eastman, Managing Director Korn Ferry APC RPO Solutions, says she always makes sure she is available and her team knows she will prioritise and make time for them. “I keep very regular times for one on ones, to minimise rescheduling. I make sure we have time for a proper catch-up, not just to run through our to do’s or updates.”

She is also conscious of respecting their work hours and boundaries. “If I do work on the weekend to clear my emails, I wait until Monday morning to send them – I don’t want to create an expectation for my direct reports that they should respond or work on the weekend.”

Try:

  • Expressing gratitude and practising compassion
  • Volunteering or helping someone in need
  • Collaborating with others on a project or problem-solving activity.

4. Purpose

We are all driven by something, and this sense of purpose is a source of lasting energy that can help us find meaning in what we do. Korn Ferry research shows people with a strong sense of purpose are better able to succeed in an uncertain world – they can manage complexity and cope with stress more effectively.[4]

“Working with a big purpose helps me avoid letting little things bother me,” says May. “Sharing common objectives with my team helps build trust and collaboration – which in turn helps their wellbeing too.”

Try:

  • Finding your purpose – ask yourself what your top five strengths are, the most important things you value and the legacy you want to leave behind
  • Share your purpose – write it down
  • Enact your purpose – reshape your work and work environment to align with your purpose and strengths.

5. Healthy habits

It’s hard to leave work at work in the digital age, especially when ‘at work’ is at home. But those who can detach during off-hours report higher levels of life satisfaction, better sleep, less emotional exhaustion and better overall health. That’s why it’s so important to make exercise, healthy eating and sleep part of your daily routine.

Pip says exercise is really important for her. “I do boxing or HIIT sessions at least five days a week. It helps me manage stress levels and sleep better.” May says she goes sailing or hiking on the weekends, and tries to exercise in the gym every morning.

As well as making time for things other than work – such as being with family or exercising – I also encourage my team to take up at least one hobby and give it a full year. Some have learned a musical instrument, others painting or pottery.

For me personally, tai chi is the key to being healthy every day. It has also helped me increase my immunity – good health is something I will never take for granted.

Making conscious choices in each of these five areas can help you manage the natural ebbs and flows in your own personal energy levels – leading to greater motivation, engagement, creativity and productivity. And by leading by example, and helping your direct reports set their own boundaries and healthy habits, you can foster greater wellbeing across your organisation.