Time to Stop Celebrating Burnout


A room like this was exactly what I thought it would be. Dark, velvet, reds and browns- a rich scene befitting the private screening room at Sky Walker Ranch. I wondered, what movies had played in this room? Who had sat in these seats? As I scanned the room, I saw more than 75 people from different ages and walks of life. All here to talk about one need, a change in the way we work.

I was one of 6 people sitting on the afternoon panel to share our narratives on the need for change in the way we work today. For me, it was a very personal story. This was the first time I shared my shame as a first-time manager, the cost of my drive to constantly improve, and the health issues that resulted from years of chronic stress and poor self-care. This story I now freely share to demonstrate the cost of the 50+ hour work week, the frame of mind and habits that support it.

Like many in the bay area at my age, there was a spell cast. The excitement of working at the biggest names in Tech, or taking a risk and working at the no-name startup. Whatever job I choose, I was dedicated. I wanted to learn, add value and do well. Often feeling like an impostor or not quite good enough, I worked hard and long hours. Under the drive, was a burning desire to prove I belonged here.

It was a badge of honor to say I worked 50-60 hours a week and commuted 3-4 hours a day. Anything else felt like I wasn’t working hard enough. I was on top of my work and got shit done. I was running on adrenaline, stress, and the joy of checking something off my to-do list. You don't realize how intoxicating adrenaline is until you run out of it. I was so focused on work, that I didn't see the cost until it was too late.

The chronic stress, lack of sleep, poor food choices, and hours sitting wore on me. I didn’t have balance in my life. I worked, slept and saw friends Friday night to Sunday morning. Caffeine to wake up and wine to unwind. I ignored the pain in my body, tried to work through headaches, and kept working even when my mind felt foggy and tired. There were yellow flags, that I ignored. There were red flags, that I ignored. Then I had 6 weeks of chronic insomnia only sleeping 2-3 hours a night. That was my wake up call.

I started to question. As I became the poster child for burnout, I questioned my priorities and definitions of success.

The gift. I learned what self-care really looks like and how to practice it. I learned boundaries, to say no, and time management for thriving and not effectiveness. I came to appreciate the delicacy and tenacity of my bodies nervous system, digestive system, and immune system. How they all must work together in harmony.

Now I'm able to bring this knowledge into my coaching and leadership development to support leaders in making healthier choices for themselves and their teams to create workplaces where people can thrive.

As I’ve shared my story, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to women like me who are steps away from burnout. Recently, one woman told me that her boss said if she wasn’t burnt out she wasn’t working hard enough. Work doesn’t have to be this way. It's time to stop celebrating burn out.

Burnout is Now a Legitimate Diagnosis

Burnout has now been recognized by the World Health Organization as an official workplace syndrome. The International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-11, the World Health Organization’s handbook that helps medical providers diagnose diseases, classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms of burnout include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

For some burnout is complete exhaustion; running on caffeine, sugar and other stimulants to get through the day. For others, it's brain fog, simple forgetting, increased number of mistakes, insomnia and more.

Burnout doesn't have to be just physical exhaustion it can result from being under a constant state of stress. Not feeling safe at work, the feeling of always being behind, and rumination are just some of the other ways burn out begins. Our nervous systems never have a chance to relax. Instead, we are constantly stuck in flight/fight which can cause a cascade of problems, that over years can impact your long term health, vitality, and finances.

What Can You Do?

Change starts with you! Decide to create a culture, team, and company that values wellbeing and profit. As leaders, we are culture carriers. Our decisions inform work and create standards that we expect of our teams to perform and belong.

How do you set the example for your team?

  1. Model healthy goals and boundaries. Turn off your email on the weekend, take vacations and encourage your team to do the same.  
  2. Vow to take make your wellbeing a priority.  Here's a vow from the Easy Bay Meditation Center: “Aware of suffering and injustice, I, _________, am working to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. I promise, for the benefit of all, to practice self-care, mindfulness, healing, and joy. I vow to not burn out.”
  3. Learn the art of an undefended no. When your plate is full and you don't have time, say no or look at what can be traded off to say yes.
  4. Ask for help. You don't have to do it alone.
  5. Create holistic goals that take into account your team's work, professional, and personal goals to support balance and wellbeing. Make thriving a work goal. Come together as a team and make a goal to not work on the weekend, be off email by 7 pm each day, or to work from home one day a week. Find something that supports the whole team's ability to thrive at work.
  6. Watch for burnout on your team. Are they sending emails at late hours, working on the weekends, never taking vacations? Help your team say no and find smarter ways to work. In 1-1's ask them how many hours they are typically working and if they are able to get their work done.
  7. Look at the decisions you and your teams are making. Do processes support wellbeing or lead to burnout?
  8. Create trust and safety for your team by making it safe for feedback and risk.
  9. Stop celebrating heroic effort. When someone speaks of 50 to 60 hour weeks, working the weekend, or working late see that as a sign of burnout and not accomplishment.

Burning out ourselves and our teams isn't the answer. Energy, vitality, and innovation are needed for our best work over the long run.

Further Resources


About the Author

Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

Kim-ElishaLead Smarter, Well-being