5 Strategies for Getting Off the Treadmill of Overwork, Overwhelm and Burnout

In my first management job, years ago, I reported to a director who used to call me at 5:30 p.m. and say, “This is your job, not your life, go home now!” That was abnormal, even back then. As Brigid Schulte, in HBR article, You Can Be a Great Leader And Also Have a Life, tells us “…right now, so many of us are stuck in the workplace overworking because that’s all we see in our leaders.”

It has become a culture, a way of being. I sometimes find myself falling into the trap of working on weekends, just because old habits die hard. The result of this overwork and overwhelm culture we have created is an epidemic of stress, burnout, depression, and other mental health issues, according to the World Health Organization and other surveys.

What if there was another way to be productive, engaged and get ahead without succumbing to this lack of balance? Schulte says it begins with imagining something different. She shares stories of executives who have excelled at disconnecting during vacations to come back refreshed, creating quiet time at work to focus on priorities, and other ways they have learned to work differently.

Learning how to be mindful is another way to lead differently that many executives are finding useful. Studies show that mindfulness increases judgement accuracy, job performance and problem solving according to Rich Fernandez, in another HBR article, 5 Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work. It also allows you to do better work in less time.

Learning to lead mindfully (being present and mindful of the impact of your words and behaviour have on those who work with you) begins to develop a culture of mindfulness. If you’re thinking this is all pie in the sky, think again. Fernandez cites a study by PwC that showed that “initiatives and programs that fostered a resilient and mentally healthy workplace returned $2.30 for every dollar spent—with the return coming in the form of lower health care costs, higher productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased turnover.”

Those leaders who lead in a compassionate way (defined as having an emotional response to someone else’s struggles that involves an authentic desire to help), thereby creating a compassionate culture, also see lower absenteeism and emotional exhaustion (one of the symptoms of burnout) in their employees. Why? A 2023 HBR article, Leading with Compassion Has Research-Backed Benefits, outlines that “People’s brains respond more positively to leaders who show compassion, as demonstrated by neuroimaging research.”

Not only are there organizational benefits to mindful and compassionate leadership, but many studies show that people with prosocial motivation (those who are kinder and more generous, which are traits that are developed through compassion training) tend to have higher incomes and are more likely to get promoted.

Here are a few ideas from the literature on getting off the treadmill of overwork, overwhelm and burnout, and adopting sustainable work practices.

1. Break it Down

Does finding a new way to work seem too overwhelming? Just start with one small step.

For example:

  • Take 5 minutes at the beginning of your meetings to check in with people – how are they doing? What wins have they had this week? Challenges? Maybe do a round of gratitude. Many studies show that people get sick less often, learn faster and perform better at work when social connections are high.
  • Give 40 seconds of compassion to someone. A study by Johns Hopkins University found that giving someone else just 40 seconds of compassion helped to decrease their anxiety.
  • Find a 5 minute guided mindfulness meditation that you like and schedule a quiet time once/day to listen to it.

2. Compartmentalize

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that we can only process 40 bits of information per second, yet we receive 11 million bits of information in that time. Although we can’t control the amount of information we are hit with, we can control what we pay attention to. We process and perform better if we compartmentalize tasks. (E.g. set aside time to answer emails, separate from time we work on projects, have meetings, etc.) When we switch back and forth between tasks, such as checking email every few minutes, it reduces our productivity by about 40 percent, according to the American Psychological Association. If our productivity is down, it takes longer to do the same amount of work, leading us to end up working late or on weekends, and becomes a vicious cycle.

To break this cycle:

  • Monotask: Set a dedicated time, perhaps three times per day, and a designated amount of time, to check and respond to emails. Then turn off your email (and notifications) and move to another project, with a dedicated amount of time to focus on it.
  • Be sure to set short breaks in between projects to rest and refresh before the next task.

3. Model the Culture You Want to See

With very few role models of balanced, mindful leadership, it is difficult for people to go against the grain of cultural expectations. But if you want a culture of resilience, where people can be creative, innovative and contribute their best, they need to see this behaviour in their leaders. Here are a few good questions to ask yourself:

  • Does my team see me setting boundaries?
  • Do they see me putting family first?
  • Am I modeling the need to take down-time to recharge?
  • Are people on my team rewarded for performance, versus time in the office?

4. Focus on Sleep

I’m going through an excessively busy time right now, and based on past experience, know that staying out of my vicious cycle means making sleep my highest priority. I’ve made a goal to get 8 hours of sleep each night. Although I can’t control how good my sleep will be, I can control my practices before sleep (e.g. putting away electronics) and getting to bed in enough time to allow for a long sleep. I know that being rested is what allows me to start each day renewed and refreshed, and to show up to be my best.

5. Learn Mindfulness

Learning how to be mindful helps you to switch neural pathways to be able to respond versus react to events according to Fernandez, who suggests integrating mindfulness training into process such as onboarding, management training and performance reviews. From a recent Inc. article, Here’s the 1 Thing Leaders Need to Be Mindful of in the New Year: Mindfulness, mindfulness helps leaders to focus on what their priorities are and be clear about why. The author says “Mindfulness is at the heart of well-being—individually, organizationally and for the well-being of the business itself.”

There are many opportunities to learn mindfulness, both online and in-person. I want to make you aware of a few that are coming up over the next few weeks:

  • Tuesday, October 24thCompassion to Action in the Workplace – Free 1-hour webinar led by Barbara Piper, senior leadership facilitator specializing in bringing human leadership, workplace wellness and compassion to corporate global communities. Register for Compassion to Action in the Workplace
  • November 9-10/23 – BCalm Mindfulness Conference: How to Create A Mindful Workplace (and why you should!) – Barbara Piper , Martin Shain, Mary Ann Baynton and others will be speaking in-person at the Victoria Conference Centre. Register for the BCalm Mindfulness Conference.
  • See www.bcalm.ca (BC Association for Living Mindfully) for more opportunities to learn to live mindfully.

Every work experience will have its ups and downs in terms of workload, stress and busyness. Finding ways to work differently, imagine a different work-life, and put these practices in place will help you avoid the vicious cycle of overwork, overwhelm and burnout.

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

Share This