Burning out - and recovering health
Two individuals about to burn out
I’m coaching two individuals who are on the verge of burning out. Both are hugely committed to their jobs and their organisations, both are talented, and both are high achievers. And both are on the edge of grinding to a halt.
High flyers – but telltale signs
At first sight they both look like they’re flying high, safe in their elevated positions. However, the telltale signs are there: both tell me they are only just managing to deliver (and deliver well) on a demanding agenda. They give the impression of being both fragile and driven, neither sleeps well, their lives are circumscribed and defined by their work, and they both say they spend far too little time with their families and their friends. Neither has any hobbies, and staying fit features nowhere for them.
No-one recognises the risks
One of the most remarkable aspects of working with them both is that no-one in their workplaces has recognised the risks that they are running: no-one has looked beyond their stellar performance or considered what it costs them on a personal basis to deliver that level of performance. No-one has guided them back towards a healthy way of working apart from a general suggestion to one of them – who did articulate to their line manager the condition they felt they were in – that they should take their work less seriously.
A systemic view of the dangerous spiral
The reasons for individuals being caught in the spiral of intensity and drive to deliver at consistently excellent levels of performance can be viewed systemically: they themselves may have a hidden loyalty to that way of working because it has been part of their family’s culture and history; it may be rooted in a rebalancing of agendas that the individual is in some way trying to fulfil; it may be about an agenda which allows them to repay an emotional debt. Or indeed it may be something else entirely.
Combine that with wilful blindness, and you get a dangerous cocktail.
Seeing the workplace as family
We habitually take our family issues to work, perhaps seeing our workplaces as replica families and seeking to work out unresolved family issues at work. These typically remain unresolved because are workplaces are not our families, and cannot resolve what was left without resolution in the family of origin.
The line manager or colleagues of someone who is on the downward slope to burning out may themselves be entangled in living out an agenda from their own history or background, rendering them unequipped to deal appropriately with the issue in front of them, or even to perceive what is happening.
Systemic coaching can help
It may take a systemically-trained coach to enable the illumination of what is actually going on – albeit that the coach’s first responsibility is to manage the ill-health which the client is suffering. As facilitative as I am in terms of coaching style, when a client’s health is at risk, I take a directive approach to encouraging them to prioritise getting well, quite apart from the coaching issues. A first useful step for them is to engage with, and accept, the tricky task of facing the truth of what is happening. And the second step is a visit to the GP or to Occupational Health.