2020 August

COVID Exhaustion?

MHS President/CEO, Karen Lehman

Over these past weeks, I have become increasingly concerned about leadership burn-out.  I hear over and over words like “my team is exhausted” or “I really need a vacation but I can’t leave my team.” Operating in a 24/7 mode is difficult in the best of times, but these are the worst of times, and the constant vigilance to the pandemic is taking a toll on leaders.  Operating in a mode that requires persistent and unwavering focus without a healthy balance of personal care and rest is not only unsustainable, it is also poor role modeling to those we supervise and serve.

In their research, the Wellbeing Project  (co-created by several organizations, institutes, and a foundation to focus on catalyzing a culture of inner wellbeing for all changemakers) found that it was universally difficult for respondents they studied to distance themselves from their work.  People “closely identified with their roles and felt that working to exhaustion was still a badge of honor.”  Outcomes of their research supported that “organizations generally played a significant part in enabling a culture that was either supportive, or dismissive, of their inner well-being.”  Where do you and your organization fit on this continuum?  Do you tend toward being supportive or dismissive of well-being? 

I know that it is much harder to find work/life balance when you are a leader in a small organization.  There are fewer people to cross-train in order to support each other’s vacation and time away.  But the same problem exists in larger organizations as well.  It is easy, and dangerous, to position yourself as the only person who can handle the day to day implications of the pandemic.  This is both a hero and savior mindset.  In the long run, you will not be able to balance the daily or short-term needs of your organization with the long-term strategy and vision that is needed for sustainability if you are working in an exhausted or fatigued state.

It has been well proven that when a person takes time to rest, they are more empathetic, kinder, more open to ideas, more emotionally resilient, and have more energy and endurance.   It makes sense then that when leaders take time for themselves individually, it translates into a more positive organizational culture.  When you have succession planning in place, and have trained and cross-trained for key responsibilities, a culture of trust, cooperation and shared responsibility emerges.  It is always a sign of great leadership strength and depth when you can leave your office and know you have trustworthy colleagues and team members that can carry on without you. 

I’m hoping this message moves you to plan a vacation and time away from work!  But what are some steps that might be helpful to consider?  Document your most important work processes.  Get a commitment from your team on how vacation time will work and how responsibilities will be distributed and shared.  Most importantly, you have to learn to let go.  Know that every opportunity to let a key member of your team handle additional responsibility strengthens their leadership and offers opportunity for building self-confidence.  Working to exhaustion not only weakens you and your organization, it also sends a not so subtle message that you don’t trust others to take responsibility, and that you are irreplaceable.  What is the message that you are sending to your stakeholders by not taking time away? 

I love the title of the Wellbeing Project report; Wellbeing Inspires Welldoing: How changemakers’ inner wellbeing influences their work.  It sums up my message this month in a very succinct and poignant way.

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