Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Get your motivation back and learn how to keep rising in your career, without compromising everything else, with the tips and tools that helped me excel as a corporate executive.
Burnout is becoming a serious problem, you guys. So much so that even the World Health Organization officially classified it as a disease in January 2022. Defined as a form of exhaustion from constantly feeling swamped at work, this no-end-in-sight, doom-and-gloom feeling of emotional, physical, and mental anguish feels like it is affecting all of us to some degree, especially after the last few years we’ve had. Other workplace burnout symptoms might include:
Inability to relax
Changes in sleep patterns
Getting sick more frequently
Lack of motivation
Does burnout play a part in the unprecedented amount of resignations taking place every day in corporate America? The answer is likely a resounding yes.
If you find yourself suffering through burnout and aren’t in the position of the millions who up and decided to walk away from their companies, there are steps you can take to overcome burnout that is crippling you professionally and personally.
Here’s what worked for me....
How to Rise Above Without Burning Out or Selling Out: My Story
It was a Friday afternoon, and I was working from home. I was in that glide-into-the-weekend mode, decidedly not working on anything that would hurt my brain too much, when my boss texted me: “Can we talk?”
[inhale … exhale]
Then he called. “This is pretty heavy for a Friday, but I’ve decided to leave the company. I want to know if it’s okay for me to recommend you as our next COO.”
I paused. “Uh, no thank you.”
While I always had ambition, this role felt like the tipping point — it would tip my career-life teeter-totter in the wrong direction. I quickly whipped out my Compromise Calculator and thought, nope. If I go for this bigger job, I’ll have to compromise my family, my health, maybe even my soul. That’s the way it’s always been. I’m good where I’m at.
But it was Friday, and although I did say no, I asked to think about it over the weekend. I sought friends and family members’ feedback, which overall was mixed.
But I distinctly recall telling the dad of one of my daughter’s friends about it when he brought his daughter over for a playdate. “Oh, yeah, you’d have to give up so much time with your family. It’d be a lot of stress…blah blah blah…” Not one hint of, “You should go for it.”
I gave myself time to sit with my own thoughts. After talking to a bazillion people for their opinions, I realized no one had the answer but me.
Here’s what hit me: I realized my hesitation wasn’t tied to the typical things most women are coached to overcome - imposter syndrome, confidence, work-life balance.
Instead, I was worried about becoming the executives who came before me. I was worried I’d have to enter this sort of club, and in this club…
…my ego would grow.
…my calendar would overflow.
...my homelife would become a shit show.
…and my personality might even start to blow.
And I didn’t want that. But then it hit me like a freight-train to my oversized forehead: You shouldn’t not do something because you hate the way it was done before.
On Monday I said “yes” to the job. But now I had to figure out just how to avoid the “club” and do the job my own way.
5 Ways I Avoided the Burnout (And How You Can Too)
1. I fiercely protected my time.
One of the scariest parts of the “club” for me, and for many women, was the concern that I would have to travel nonstop. And no, my biggest fear wasn’t being away from my kids too much; my biggest fear was the pressure it might cause between my husband and me. People talk often about working moms and then tension between juggling our motherly duties and our work duties. The truth is that many of us have a greater fear: we might end up divorced if our work creates too much of a strain between us and our partner – even those of us with supportive husbands.
As I stepped up the corporate ladder, I decided I didn’t have to also step up the airline rewards ladder. Although I traveled to see employees at our other offices and visited customers (including those dreaded mea culpa trips), I was very picky about my travel and ultimately, my time. I would space visits out so that I wasn’t on the road too much in one month. I also had a few people on my leadership team that didn’t mind being road warriors. I often sent them out, when others would have expected the CEO to be the one to handle. Oftentimes, this strategy also helped them grow in their career as well.
What you can do: Burnout strikes when color blocks on the calendar overlap and form new colors, leaving no time for you or your own priority list.
Nowhere in your employee handbook does it say 95% of your day must be occupied with video calls. Prioritize your mental health and your schedule by throwing time up on your calendar for – gasp – you.
Pro tip: in addition to setting aside specific time for exercise or eating, on Wednesday each week, take a look at your schedule for the following week. Anywhere there is an open slot, close it in with a hold. Anything that comes up after that that’s not hair-on-fire urgent, can wait till the following week.
Also, be sure to use the “out-of-office” color (vs. the “I’m-just-kinda-booked” color) for anything critical. Now you’ll have the time to soak up the morning sunshine and get a brisk walk in, or accomplish those deadline-driven tasks you keep pushing off because you can’t find the time.
2. I wrote my own emails.
This was a pet peeve I had of the “club”, likely dating back to my intern days. We would get so many emails, but most of them all had the same business buzzwords, all nestled under a picture of the big-wig sending it (we knew what they looked like - they were the big-wig!). The emails made the executive seem less approachable and always left me feeling like not only must they have the personality of a wet mop, but they likely haven’t got a clue about the day-to-day struggles of their employees.
Instead, I saw the emails I sent, not as a check-the-box exercise or a place where I would start my descent into the club and ultimately selling out, but as an opportunity to inspire my team and show that I’m a real human being! I often wrote a story in my emails (my kids were probably in half of them) and resolved to leaving out the buzzword BS – instead communicating authentically and for impact; not for “looking” like a big-wig!
What you can do: Burnout is a spectrum of exhaustion, and many of us are flat-out exhausted by all the corporate buzzword bingo and BS! What does it take to get people to act like real humans around here?!
Be a rebel and revel in your authenticity! Write emails that show the recipient you’re an actual human being. You can even start by crafting a professional but refreshingly honest out-of-office message that will inspire your network to embrace their own humanity. It might put a smile on someone’s face (who is also white-knuckling through their own burnout) to see, “I’m sorry I missed your email, but I’m not sorry for sitting on the beach with a cold drink in my hand. Getting away from the craziness for a while, but will respond as soon as I return.”
PS - If you actually put up a creative out-of-office away message, comment below or shoot me a message! I’d love to see it and feature it in an upcoming post!
3. My version of work/life balance meant including my children in my work.
Ok, yes, I admit that these little people mattered a lot too. I’m the mother of two, and when I was CEO of my former company, they were in elementary school. And while we talk a lot about work-life balance in terms of things like setting boundaries and managing our time, I took the path less traveled – totally integrating the two – and am so glad I did.
I decided early on that me becoming the CEO of a legit company was an opportunity to inspire and include my children - not put them on the back burner. You might call it work-life integration, but I simply saw it as bringing them onto the team whenever possible. Sometimes that was literal. I brought them into the office on occasion (my son still can’t believe I retired from there because in his words, “The salad bar was SO good.”).
I also brought my daughter to the last evening of our client conference because it was her 10th birthday and the scheduling conflict slipped my mind (whoops). Annual client event or daughter’s birthday celebration? Well, both! What started as creative problem solving (fulfilling my commitment while making sure my daughter felt celebrated on her big day) ended with a surge of inspiration for many of the women in attendance to find creative ways to balance the many hats they wear. To this day, I include my children in my work as often as possible. Not only do each of them get to attend one conference I speak at each year, I pull them into my office on the regular to provide feedback, feature them in a video I’m doing, or just give them an exciting update on a business win.
What you can do: Ask for your kid(s)’ advice on a project you’re working on. When you have to take a phone call on the road, after you hang up, explain to them what you were talking about and how it impacts you/your work. If you get to travel, consider bringing them with you from time to time. I know a single working mom who had a work colleague in town one evening. She brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend as well. They each got their own tables near each other. She and her colleague got to catch up on all the things, while her daughter and her friend had their own big-girl “meeting!”
Also, consider suggesting bigger ideas to leadership related to work-life integration. For example, volunteer to coordinate family-friendly community events for your office or enact a bring-your-children to work day once a quarter or once a month. This is an area where everyone needs help, so don’t be afraid to lead and spark new ideas for everyone!
4. I purposefully exposed my flaws.
I realized pretty quickly that if you were to pit me against 90%+ of my peers in a game of resume war, I would lose. I didn’t have years of executive experience (I was 41 years-old when I took my first executive role.) My rolodex wouldn’t hold a candle to Jeff Bezos’ back when he was selling books out of his garage. Hell, I spent half my Quarterly Business Review (QBR) prep meetings Googling Investopedia. But what I lacked in traditional experience, I realized I could make up in my ability to build trust organically.
One of the fastest ways to build trust is to use humility, or purposefully exposing something that others don’t expect you to.
With my team, that might mean telling them about how I failed all of my Actuarial exams or didn’t understand a certain piece of our business. With executives, I would purposefully expose some of our problem areas (vs. sweeping them into a yellow status bucket on the 52-page QBR document). What I quickly realized was that by avoiding the propaganda and instead exposing our business flaws without them having to pry it out like a wisdom tooth, I gained incredible trust from my leaders.
What you can do: Many people consider themselves to have a “work personality,” implying that they “shelf” who they really are from the hours of 8-5. Radical idea, but consider being yourself at work. People are desperate for authenticity and connection especially as we emerge from the last two years of remote work and isolation. One root cause of burnout is the exhaustion associated with faking it in a corporate environment. Be yourself, speak up in a meeting you normally wouldn’t, suggest an idea even if you fear it will be rejected or fall on deaf ears, and proudly share about your mistakes. Because trust me – even the big-wigs make them.
5. I focused on winning the culture/talent war (vs. the business strategy war).
It’s so easy to step into an executive position and feel like your primary job is to steer the strategy ship, ensuring the company has the best widget or the best sales story. I saw it differently. As cliché as it might sound, I truly believed that if I focused on our people first - our culture, our leadership - everything else would slide into place.
I saw my role as one big popularity contest. And not with the executives above me (they’d fall in line quickly, once they saw the results coming in) but instead, with the talent. Instead of morphing into some way-too-busy-to-meet-or-talk-or-pee executive, I purposefully used authenticity as my strategy – my secret weapon to success.
I knew that if I could be the most approachable, down-to-earth, but also sharp and powerful leaders, I would not only drive my own success, but the success of the entire company.
And it worked! We recruited and kept top talent and partners and customers appreciated our no-BS approach, fostering a sense of customer loyalty. Creating an authentic culture, on purpose, was the most powerful thing I did to not only skyrocket our business results, but to also ensure I didn’t burn out or sell out.
What you can do: If you’re a leader, there are simple things you can do that create big culture change. For example, add a standing agenda item to the top of your team meetings that’s focused on sharing best practices or inspirational ideas. Also, don’t make culture a side project. Given the immense talent challenges you’re likely facing, I suggest you make culture your top priority. Invest in it like you’d invest in a new product or system.
But also know that culture does not only start from “the top.” I was way more inspired by the people on my team, than those I reported up to. Regardless of your level in the company, take the reins and lead a team-building activity or gather a like-minded group together once every few weeks to talk through issues and help each other solve problems. You don’t have to wait for some HR initiative to create cross-functional collaboration that goes well beyond PowerPoints and project plans.
Work Burnout Solutions to Help You Find Meaning in Your Work Again
Oh! I forgot to mention that one year after saying “yes” to the COO position, I was appointed the CEO of the company.
I was fortunate enough to lead a team of about 1,000 people and we managed over $2 billion in assets. Not only did I largely avoid the “club”, but we had tremendous success in the three years I led the company. My secret? Challenging the status quo, reveling in my own imperfections, not taking work (or life) too seriously, and showing up authentically.
If you’re ready to ditch the burnout and find meaning in your work again, download my free Authenticity Playbook that gives you 10 easy and actionable work “plays” to re-energize you, boost your career, and spark purpose using authenticity as your new secret weapon to success.