Need to Breathe – Leadership Interrupted

In Motivating Women by Christi Bintliff

I am an enthusiastic workaholic, sound familiar? I bet a lot of you are saying YES!

I have often been described as driven, with an unstoppably strong and inspiring work ethic. The more challenging it is, the more focused I become.

I seem to reach my highest potential when navigating through crisis and chaotic situations. It is what drives me, motivates me, and most of all challenges me.  I call it creative chaos.  And, while I love it, it can also take its toll.   This is a trait that puts me and many others at a risk of job burnout or at the very minimum extreme exhaustion.

Never in a million years, would I have thought that I would be writing about this topic.  Let alone having experienced it.  But here I am embracing my vulnerability to cast a light on a topic that many professionals, to include those in dentistry are now facing.

The circumstances of this pandemic created a work challenge that I never expected. The workday spilled over into evenings, weekends which lingered for months.  There was so much uncertainty and so many unanswered questions.

It is over a year since it began.  During the height of it, I was running on adrenaline and hyper focused on making sure that my doctors, team, and practice would survive this crisis.  Playing the lead role of Superhero!

I thought I was handling the pressure and stress though there had been subtle signs that I was starting to crash, but I was quick to dismiss them.   And thus, created the false reality that I was fine. When in fact it was the most overwhelmed that I had ever been, and none was the wiser.

In the last quarter of 2020, I noticed that I felt extremely tired and run down. I found it hard to get up in the morning.  I would get knots in my stomach at the thought of another workday. I felt like I could not handle one more problem that required me to find a solution. And once at work, I would often shut my office door and cry silence. This was totally out of character for me.

I did not recognize the leader that I had become.  Nor did I like her very much at that time. I had become easily agitated, overwhelmed and cynical.  I felt like a surfer who gets plummeted by a huge wave and desperately swimming upwards to catch a breath only to get wiped again.

What happened to that positive and inspiring person? The hustler, the warrior, the superhero.   Where was she? I had seemingly vanished during the uncertainty of that rapidly shifting period.

As leaders, being able to successfully manage our mental, emotional, and physical well-being is crucial in avoiding burnout and/or exhaustion.  The position faces high expectations and demands, not just in performance metrics, but in how we respond to the challenges.  We are conditioned too always be “on”.  But, when the stakes are high, pressure more intense, and need to support others greater; there appears to be less avenues to help maintain our edge.

In the onset, I had no idea what was happening to me.  I needed to know WHAT this was and what caused it.  So, armed with a glass of wine I consulted with my old friend, Google.  This led to me to an article from the Mayo Clinic noting these questions as a tool in helping you recognize burnout symptoms:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

I found myself answering yes to so many of those identifiers. The subject of burnout and exhaustion had never crossed my mind. I felt that this was a good time to schedule appointment with my physician to discuss my concerns.  She felt very strongly that I was in the onset of burnout and as a result it had caused some underling medical issues.

Sadly, this situation is often viewed as a tabu topic that seemingly diminishes our leadership abilities.

Personally, I felt shame in admitting that I had reached that point. I wrestled with the fact that I desperately needed to pause, reflect, and redirect my focus on my health and well-being.  I felt it somehow made me feel weak as a leader.

I started looking at it differently.  When it is time to change the oil in our car, we do it!  We know that performing routine maintenance is crucial for its overall performance and extend its lifecycle.

The same mindset should apply to us.  Our mind and body are the vehicle that drives us through life.  This means we must regularly perform MEP (mental, emotional, and physical) maintenance.  I realized that I had not done this for myself.  I had let the pressure and stress of work consume me.

Moving forward, I have implemented some wellness strategies to help me gain momentum which include achieving work/life balance by setting boundaries, pre blocking scheduled uninterrupted time off, making time for exercise/mediation, eating healthy and staying hydrated, limiting social media time, getting plenty of rest and focusing on things that fuel my passion and purposes.

Knowing how easily this happened to me; it important that I help leaders have situational awareness to this growing crisis lurking within their practice.

Employee burnout is a pause for caution because it affects every aspect of their business.   Dental IQ noted more than 84% of dentists and 26% of dental auxiliaries reported feelings of burnout.  Taking it one step further, When I Work noted burnout results in lost productivity, high turnover and healthcare costs ranging from $125 to $190 billion, all of which can have serious impact on the business’s bottom line.

Employees are your most valuable investment.  Employers must be able to quickly recognize the signs and be able to provide support to employees who may be experiencing burnout.  Or better yet figure out how to keep them from out in the first place.

Here are some helpful suggestions from the Society of Human Resources Management.

  • Establish management training.
  • Lead by example.
  • Promote a healthy work schedule.
  • Build a great work culture.
  • Provide tools and resources to build resilience.
  • Develop a mental health policy.
  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities.
  • Hold walking meetings.
  • Meet regularly one-on-one.
  • Practice open communication.
  • Promote work/life balance.
  • Monitor Workloads
  • Insist employees take off.
  • Prioritize workplace wellness.

There is no magic wand to prevent burnout, but it can be mitigated by implementing some best practices.