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How to stay human and not burnout during rapid change

By Ciara Lancaster

One is the loneliest number

The CFO. The truth-teller, the axe-wielder and the unsung hero of the pandemic. Without you, many businesses would have been liquidated. With you, many businesses have been given a life-line thanks to your business acumen, wisdom and judgement.

You have risen above and beyond the call of duty. For some, this will have involved stress testing cash flow analysis, cost cutting efforts and keeping up to date with the government’s crisis responses. For others, this will have involved a more strategic role in business transformation, benchmarking and budgets.

However, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Behind closed doors, the weight of responsibility stabilising the business has been significant.

Behind closed doors, the reporting has been relentless.

Behind closed doors, the emotional toll has been exhausting.

For this reason, let’s now focus on regenerating the human being beneath the brave face.

Assessing the risks

Fatigue is one of the key factors that could take you down to the depths of burnout. Right now, these are the three types of fatigue that may be directly impacting you.

Compassion Fatigue – If you are a people-first leader, you may be grappling with compassion fatigue. We often forget that behind every tough conversation, every tough decision and every tough call is a sentient human being. You have the right to feel. Although you may not feel you have the right to openly display this.

The downside here is that when you internalise emotions such as empathy and compassion, they can compound and result in compassion fatigue. This is an example of where leading with heart can weaken your emotional energy reserves if done to excess.

Change Fatigue – If you are feeling depleted due to endless organisational change efforts, you aren’t alone. Constantly unlearning and relearning behaviour change is exhausting and will burn you out unless you evolve and prioritise identity change.

For example: Many of you may be allowing negative historical change efforts to taint your perspective and beliefs about future change efforts. In turn, this may result in withdrawal, sabotage or resistance. The alternative is to choose to evolve your identity. When you identify as ‘change capable’ rather than ‘change fatigued’, you will more easily prioritise resilience, real optimism and relationships.

Cumulative Fatigue – If you are finding falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up feeling rested are all issues, this is a sign that cumulative fatigue is present. Cumulative fatigue is a result of insufficient recovery, both mentally and physically.

Beyond the blurred lines of remote works, is being a slave to your inbox, your zoom calls and your analytics dashboards. This constant bombardment of information results in cognitive overload. And what’s worse is that you know you are exhausted but feel as though you simply can’t catch up on the deficit.

Take a moment to acknowledge if you relate to any of these fatigue examples?

This is important because beyond fatigue lies burnout. Burnout is the point of no return where you will transition from presenteeism, to absenteeism, to exiting your industry. And what an incredible loss of your brilliance that would be.

Running a pre-mortem

Let’s now look at the three signals that indicate you are in the red and burning out:

  • You are drowning – You are experiencing exhaustion beyond chronic stress, sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment to judgement and decision making.
  • You are disengaged – You are feeling underchallenged yet overloaded, you lack care and concern for your work and you have a tendency to default to cynicism or apathy.
  • You are discouraged – You are experiencing a lack of professional efficacy, low autonomy or low recognition and isolation as a result of low social connection or out-grouping.

Sending in the auditors

It’s time to take your regeneration seriously.

Energy reserves –Whatever you “pay” attention to causes you to dip into your energy reserves. Be sure to replenish your reserves by scheduling in recharge time. Take a wholistic approach beyond diet and exercise and prioritise sleep hygiene, fear management and drama diffusion. When in doubt audit what de-energises you and prioritise what energises you. During your peak energy state, which for many is between 8am-10am, turn-off distractions and uni-task. Self-care may sound soft, optimal brain health may sound easy, but both require energy, intentional action and consistently to yield the expected returns.

Resilience reserves – You may have experienced stretch to the point of snap in order to meet struggles, demands and challenges. If you favour stability over bouncing then the best advice for you is to guard your resilience by installing better personal boundaries and build your resilience by focusing on personal development. Healthy boundaries include saying ‘no’ more than you say ‘yes’. This all hinges on opportunity cost. Remember that for each ‘yes’ you are saying ‘no’ to something else. Personal development doesn’t need to be complex and time consuming. A great wealth of knowledge can be found by reading biographies of those you admire and seeking out genres beyond your area of expertise.

Laughter reserves – This year has been no laughing matter but that doesn’t mean you should banish laughter from your life. In fact, laughter is a great antidote to stress. Happy hormones flood your brain and reduce stress-related hormones like cortisol. So, take a break from news consumption and watch your favourite comedian, play your favourite childhood game with your kids, and remember to welcome back playfulness with your loved one too. It’s amazing how a well-timed practical joke or humour in general can diffuse any residual tension. And when you are back at the office, be sure to share stories and encourage others to do the same. This will build the sense of belonging amongst the team. Something, we all crave during chronic uncertainty.

As Descartes said: ‘Perfect numbers like perfect men are very rare.’

To become more human, it’s important to work on replenishing your reserves that are running low. From there, you can work on reconnecting with your perfectly, imperfect self at a deeper, more intuitive level. It all starts with the practice of self-leadership.


Ciara Lancaster is a change fatigue and resilience specialist at Reimagine Change. Her focus is to help leaders at all levels to manage uncertainty, mitigate stress and modernise their mindset. She is also the author of the new book Reimagine Change: Escape change fatigue, build resilience and awaken your creative brilliance. For more information on Ciara’s work visit www.reimaginechange.com

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