Catherine Osaigbovo Page Executive - Conscious Leadership

Following a series of successful client webinars on burnout, I was delighted to speak with Ngozi Weller from Aurora – a UK-based workplace wellbeing consultancy – to further explore what burnout means from a conscious leadership perspective and delve deeper into her story. 

By Catherine Osaigbovo, Partner UK


Stress is a fact of professional life, but extreme and unrelenting pressures can lead to the debilitating state we call burnout. There are two very distinct states, and learning how to manage them is at the forefront of leadership coaching and development amidst these challenging times.

According to Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023,

●    Leaders are still facing high rates of burnout, with nearly 10% more leaders saying they feel more burned out now compared to the previous peak in May 2020 

●    Only 15% of leaders feel prepared to prevent employee burnout

It’s clear that overworking leads to high turnover among leaders and the side-effects are critical. Aside from the costs and time invested in regular leadership changes, the knowledge gaps caused by each resignation take a long time to fill.

As a manager for a leading oil and gas company, Ngozi was no stranger to hard work and stressful situations. Having spent over a decade climbing the career ladder and forging a reputation as a hard-working and effective leader in the business, she was not expecting to find herself burnt out before 40. 

But years of overwork, compounded with the continuous racial marginalisation she endured resulted in a diagnosis of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2016. Subsequently, she was signed off work for over a year and never returned to the organisation she had dedicated 15 years of her life to. Not only was this a waste of money, talent and unique knowledge for the company, but it also marked a premature termination of a flourishing career. 

The origin of Aurora 

Ngozi is an “accidental business owner”. Her personal burnout experience spurred her to set up a business with the mission to foster good mental health for everybody in the workplace. Nobody should come home feeling soul-destroyed, unseen, undervalued or unappreciated, much less harbour suicidal thoughts due to pressure in the workplace. 

Organisations have a responsibility to keep employees healthy just as employees make companies richer. As we navigate the tech revolution with prevalent issues of overwork, illness, and burnout, Ngozi draws a parallel with the industrial revolution. Just as employers were then obliged to implement health and safety measures to protect their employees from physical harm, today's leaders must similarly safeguard their employees' mental health.

Why leaders are keeping quiet about burning out

Ngozi points out the substantial burdens leaders carry: pressures from their superiors, from the teams they manage, and from the expectations of shareholders and board members for returns. In addition, they have to shield their employees from the burden of external pressures.

They are expected to handle wellbeing and engagement issues, even though many are promoted based on technical expertise rather than people-management skills. Consequently, leaders struggle, often bearing the burden of leadership heavily and privately. They need to be strong while rarely feeling psychological safety. Ngozi warns that leaders can only keep quiet for so long before their performance is affected — both at work and at home.

The three dimensions of burnout

In 2019, burnout was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon”. It is defined as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout is characterized by severe fatigue, feelings of dread and negativity, and reduced effectiveness in the workplace as a result of overworking. It is the logical conclusion of a work/life balance that is dramatically tilted in favour of working at the expense of quality of life.

The syndrome is characterised by three dimensions:

As a leader, you need to be able to recognise these symptoms, both in yourself and just as importantly in your team. 

Tackling personal burnout 

The first step is recognition and acceptance. Admitting to yourself that you need and deserve help is crucial. If you start to notice symptoms like exhaustion, lack of motivation, irritability, anxiety, reduced performance, headaches or trouble sleeping, you may need to take action to prevent burnout.

As an example, Ngozi is a black woman who was an overachiever, very hard working and never once thought she was experiencing burnout. She simply thought she was ineffective at her job or not working hard enough.

The second step is to confide in someone and heed their advice. As Ngozi shares, her husband frogmarched her to the doctor and held her hand to keep her in the room. When we are struggling or feel overwhelmed, it can help to talk to someone and get an outside perspective on the challenges we are facing. Sometimes just saying things out loud can make a big difference to our mindset.

How leaders can address burnout in their teams

As a leader, you need to identify signs of burnout and address it early. Engaging in open and vulnerable conversations with individuals and addressing specific changes you’ve noticed can foster dialogue and stop them from avoiding the question. Persistence is key, but only when you know you and your organisation have genuinely provided workplace support. This may also involve taking work off their to-do list and delegating it to the wider team, but without making them feel they are failing. People who suffer from burnout are often incapable of thinking logically or reasonably about themselves.

Practical ways you can support your team:

●    Clarify roles and expectations: This is especially critical with remote working.
●    Schedule one-to-one time: A lack of leadership support is seen as the number one reason for burnout in team members.
●    Create manageable workloads: Unrealistic deadlines are the second most common driver for burnout.
●    Foster an open culture: Leaders must create a psychologically safe environment without fear of being judged or overlooked for promotions.
●    Lead by example: Leaders have a large influence over the team so they need to take time off and look after themselves as well.

Recent shifts in attitude towards burnout and wellbeing in the workplace

Ngozi has noticed a clear shift. Companies and leaders are recognising burnout as a fact and that it is more common than we think. However, we still have a long way to go. Companies must really understand how pervasive burnout is in the workplace. It is a business issue, not just a personal issue.

The business cost of burnout 

●    Workplace burnout around the world reached a record high in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. From over 100 countries, 43% of people claimed to have experienced workplace burnout, rising from 39% in 2019 (Gallup Global Workplace Report).
●    Women are more likely than men to suffer from burnout. 42% of women said they were consistently burned out at work, while 35% of men report feeling burned out (McKinsey and Co).
●    Millennials (59%), Gen Z (58%) and Gen X (54%) shared similar burnout rates, whereas baby boomers (31%) had significantly lower rates (Business Health Institute).
●    Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job (Gallup).
●    83% of employees say burnout can negatively impact personal relationships (Deloitte).
●    57% of people in the UK, 50% in the United States, 37% in Spain and 30% in Germany and France said they had experienced workplace burnout (World Economic Forum).
●    4 out of 10 people who worked 50+ hours didn’t have a burnout program in their companies (Clockify).
●    Burnout is a growing threat to the productivity and engagement of today's workforce. Those who struggle with balancing home and work are 4.4 times more likely to show signs of burnout (LinkedIn).
●    38% of employees suffer remote work burnout because they feel pressured by management to work more hours (Indeed).

If you wish to discover more about strategies for reducing burnout, reach out to Aurora directly. To discuss your organisation’s leadership talent needs, please get in touch with our Page Executive Partners

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