Tony: Hi, this is Tony Devine, managing partner at the Grey Matters Network. This is a podcast in our series of podcasts, with one of our experts. Today I’m delighted to be joined by Caroline Hughes. Caroline has had a long and successful career in a variety of national and global companies, mostly in the HR discipline. Do you want to give us a bit more about your background, Caroline?
Caroline: Yeah. Thanks Tony. And hi everyone. Yeah. As you said, the career is getting longer actually by the day, but mostly in HR and predominantly the roles I’ve had are in talent management, leadership development and leading large scale transformation. I’m very fortunate to have worked in brilliant organizations like the Central Bank during the Troika program where I was head of change and also an NCOH where I was a global leadership development director until recently. So very fortunate that I’ve always had kind of nice big, juicy roles that I could get stuck into and really lend my skills and keep learning all of the time.
Tony: Juicy another word for challenging perhaps, in terms of what we want to talk about. So Caroline, you want to talk a bit to us today about burnout and the whole concept of physical, emotional, mental wellbeing. So do you want to tell us a bit about what is the difference between being a workaholic and somebody who’s just suffering from burnout?
Caroline: Yeah. Good question. Good question. I guess maybe to say, first of all, it was my experience of, and my interest in burnout is more through my direct experience than through academic study, but, as with anything that happens with a significant event in our lives, I have taken to researching it. And what’s really interesting is I found it’s not just the workaholics that might be prone to burn out. In fact one of my doctors said to me last year, lazy people don’t get burnt out.
It’s the trusted Lieutenant. It’s the person you turn to for one more thing, one more thing. And so this kind of categorization of susceptible individuals,
The workaholic, the driving heart, a focused results oriented person, I will get it done, come what may!.
Then you have the people pleaser, this particular high people pleaser who will jump through hoops for you because they escape their world, their loyalty and their own image is kind of wound up in pleasing the master as is the term commonly used in psychology.
And then the third is people with high perfectionistic tendencies. And particularly when they’re in very big jobs of quite large breadth and scale where no matter how much time is available, the same attention to detail needs to be given to absolutely everything. And you can understand how that would start to cause stress over time.
And the fourth, which I think is a bit misnamed, but it’s called the duck. And I prefer to think of it as a swan, but there you go. Where it’s like, when you look at a duck above water, it’s quite a serene looking character, gliding along on the lake. And of course under the waterline, the feet are flapping away and going like crazy. So this anxiety that tends to arise as work starts to become overwhelming, but the presentation of the individual is nope, all is fine here, I’m fine. And so when you think of burnout through that lens, I suppose it could happen to quite a number of people, but more often it’s probably the person that gets consistently turned to for that one more thing. One more thing.
Tony: And Caroline is it quite prevalent in the workplace?
Caroline: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, certainly the conversation during the pandemic, I suppose, has focused more on physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, as we’ve talked about before, but what’s been interesting is there was a survey done in the UK earlier this year where 61% of executives surveyed had reported that they have developed some type of burnout over the previous 12 months. And that one’s been put down to kind of a number of factors.
Caroline: The first was of course the ongoing COVID crisis, thinking you’re there for one short sprint in the month of March and finding ourselves still there 18 months later, and operating at that pace, that crisis management pace for so long.
The second was actually the blurring of the boundaries between home life and work life. And that had, I suppose, varying degrees of success depending on personal circumstances.
And the third was actually particularly prevalent during the last 12 months where due to so many lockdowns people simply didn’t take holidays because there was nowhere to go, so they might as well work! So actually the prevalence of burnout has increased, but I think also more importantly talking about burnout has increased and I think slowly removing the shame and the blame of suffering burnout and knowing that you can recover and return and bounce back quite well.
Tony: And would there be a gender difference? as a man, I would never admit to ever burning out.
Caroline: Yeah. They say women are more likely to burnout, particularly where you have imposter syndrome, woman in a man’s world. The pressures particularly of home versus career where women tend to but not exclusively take a more dominant role or where that expectation is there. But it’s not exclusive. And certainly, if I look at my own client base, actually my own client base are mostly men because they’re looking for somewhere to go for that safe haven so that they can pull back from the breaking point and do very practical things before it gets to the point of having to press the red button.
Tony: Another thought or question that comes to mind Caroline is, for the employer, for the leader, for the manager. So what? Isn’t it great that I have somebody who seeks to please? Who is always available to do the next thing, will answer emails at midnight. So what’s in it for the employer to manage the workforce so that there isn’t a high degree of burnout.
Caroline: Yeah. It’s tempting, isn’t it? It’s tempting to continue along that line where if I ask, you answer, absolutely. But the world of work has really changed. Hasn’t it been particularly so in the last 18 months where people’s expectations of work are beginning to change. And some of these old mindsets around ‘please the master’ or ‘I am the boss therefore you do’, even though that’s been chipped away at quite a lot recently, but that’s where you’ve got to be worried about your reputation in the market. Have you got a reputation for being a very tough place to work? Do you have very high attrition rates? Do you have a lot of employee complaints building up or even court cases against you around, not necessarily burnout per se, but the culture and the environment. The research from Gallup would show that where you have a high prevalence of burnout, there is a 50% correlation between the work environment, the culture that’s created, and then the individual’s ability to put good boundaries in place.
Caroline: So as a leader as an owner of an organization, I suppose it is worth paying attention to the culture that you’re creating so that you can meet your customer demands. You can have the productive workforce that you want because you know, happy people do more work fundamentally. And so, by investing in what I would call well-being strategies and conversations rather than well meaning ones, this is the lip service, well you can actually start to see a return in terms of your productivity, but also how you treat people who are on sick leave and giving them space to recover and to return.
Tony: Very good. And Caroline, your own personal experience of burnout. Do you want to talk to us a wee bit about that?
Caroline: Yeah. I’ll try and give you the summary of what was, about an 18 month recovery, I suppose if I think about it in terms of lessons learned, I mean, I was doing big jobs for a very long time, I climbed mountains, kind of for my past-time to de-stress. So everything was in that high octane space. And I used to say to people, if they said, oh, you know, how do you keep going? How are you still doing it? I say, oh, don’t ask me, don’t ask me if I think about it I’m going to fall over. And that is exactly what happened. I collapsed one morning. And that was the start of about an 18 month recovery. And what I would say is that burnout is complicated because everyone’s burnout is different, but it has very clear similarities.
Caroline: So the World Health Organization says that burnout is a workplace phenomenon, which kind of feeds into that 50-50 piece I talked about earlier, but on the personal side, burnout has really three big components.
One is the physical and mental exhaustion of simply having done too much for too long, that withstanding the pressure as it gradually becomes stress. And then strategies to try to cope with that. Because when I reflect, there was a point when all the fun of the game started to become stressful, but certainly an underlying anxiety, putting your head on the pillow and your brain decides to come to life and rewrite the day, that kind of stuff is how it starts because it doesn’t start with the big bang. It started with many signs before.
And then the second part of burnout, its almost a cynicism. I’m just giving up. Maybe I’m good for nothing. I’m useless. It’s a very kind of heavy judgment you place on yourself. And particularly if people are prone to judgment to keep them going the ‘good enough’, that can be a very, very hard component of burnout.
And then the third is that really, what’s wrong with me? I used to be able to do this, why can’t I do this now? Everyone else is doing this. Why do I have to sit in a room and get myself well? and what does it mean to rest and sit still? And I went through all of that. And what I would say is recovery from burnout is not a linear thing that you can say, step one, step two, step three. But in the combination of, looking after the physical and mental exhaustion, looking after the, where are you? where’s your inner voice? and how do you bring yourself back up from this heavy self-judgment into being a fully functioning being in the world?
Caroline: And it’s a bit more like navigating a maze with a dimly lit torch then actually saying, do not pass GO and you pick up your chip and then you go to the next piece and you pass GO again. So I’d say to anyone who’s in this situation, try things that might work. Doesn’t matter how simple it is, if it’s in the garden, mowing the lawn, things like that, that will allow you just to leave the laptop and the phone and the stresses and the demands of life. And just step into something. Either physical or sea swimming is very popular these days.
Caroline: It’s really about developing micro habits that are nearly too small to fail because they’re simple things that you can do without big effort. And I would say that was one of the big keys for me and my recovery that I needed to just surrender and stop trying to project manage my recovery as if it was another deadline that had to be done by X date. Because I realized actually the more I should, the more that should language that came into my head actually it started to prevent my full recovery. It was good for a while, cause it was motivating, but actually it was ultimately what would make it worse.
Tony: That’s been fantastic and I really appreciate you sharing those personal experiences with us. And I’m sure others will benefit from listening to this podcast as a result. I mean, if I was to pick up on a few items that really resonated for me, you talk about boundaries, you’ve mentioned a safe haven. You’ve also, I guess sent a message to employers and organizations that it’s in your best interest to mind your employees watch for the signs and support them.
If you were to, put forward three main points, three main bullets, what would they be?
Caroline: So I would say firstly to employers, if there are people in your team with this, get curious rather than judgmental, first and foremost,
if you find yourself thinking, there is something in this for me, really pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Really get very PRESENT and find somewhere to talk.
Tony: Fantastic, that was incredibly insightful. Caroline really appreciate your time and really appreciate those interesting and very insightful points. If you would like to talk to or meet with people like Caroline Hughes or colleagues in the Grey Matters Network, please contact us here at thegreymattersnetwork.com. Thank you very much for listening.
Caroline: Thank you
Check out our panel of coaches on