Archive for high achievers and resilience

Are You Burnt Out or Just Needing a Holiday?


You feel tired, you can’t wait for the pressure to reduce but are you really burnt out, or just in need of a break.

The distinction is important because burn-out is recognised by psychologists as a very particular condition, which is the result of the toxic combination of individuals who are driven in their work finding organisations which reward them for that over-commitment. Author of “Learning from Burnout” Tim Casserley ( who owns that he was burnt-out) draws a dramatic analogy between burn out and addiction.  The employee is addicted to work.  They get a high from pushing themselves hard, and from seeing that they are doing more, achieving more, competing harder than those around them.  And, then like all fixes, there is a come down.  Work becomes joyless and only doing more, competing harder will meet the need.

For a time it seems to work, the individual will report being able to work punishing hours, but while they are unaware of the impact on them, their brain is not.  The brain recognises the stress on the system, and kicks in the adrenal glands: the glands sitting on top of the kidneys which secrete the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.  To the adrenal glands, the message is that the individual needs to be prepared for fight or flight, so it releases hormones in order to raise the pulse, increase focus, send blood to the muscles, raise the blood sugar levels and prepare you for escaping or facing off immediate danger.  However, when the brain is sending the same message again and again, the adrenal glands become tired and less effective at secreting hormones.  As the supply of the emergency hormones reduces the individual starts to notice they are getting more and more tired, They may notice they are less resistant to colds and other bugs, they may notice that their blood pressure is low because they get dizzy at times, or that they need to boost their sugar levels regularly, but they do not connect this with how they are working.  The brain and body have lost sight of each other.

What they often do not notice, but others around them will, is that they are becoming less effective at what they are doing.  What they may register but suppress are feelings of low connection with their work .  What they experience but may not admit is that they feel disconnected from people.


Torben Friis

Anyone watching the last series of Borgen will have watched the gradual burn out of Torben Friis, the driven TV news producer, who sees his life fall apart, when the total commitment he has given to his work over his home life, is shown to be faulty when  a new young Head of Programmes challenges his capability.  Suddenly, his total commitment to the news department offers no reward, and he is left visibly shaken and stressed.   While he seeks an immediate fix in a clumsy affair with a member of his team, that affair in itself is an indicator of his disconnection to others. He has no sense of her emotional needs.  For him it is simply respite before going back into the fray again.


Many of us complain of being burnt out at times, but as Ayala  Pines, a researcher on burnout writes,

“In order to burn out, one has first to be on fire”. The Torbin Friis’s of the world continue fuelling the fire until it burns them out.  At that point they are faced by existential choices about how they want to live their lives going forward.  They are asked to confront issues they have avoided about purpose, about what success really means, about whether the price of success is worth it, and about the value which they put on themselves and relationships.

So if you think that you are in danger of burnout ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my identity is tied to the work that I do?
  • How rewarded am I by what I do relative to the time I am giving to my work?
  • How often do I find it difficult to get out of bed because I feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
  • What ways am I using to boost my energy levels, legal or illegal in order to keep going?
  • How connected do I feel to people who are key parts of my life?

Your answers may reveal that you are simply in need of a holiday, but if you find that there is a correlation between how much you are giving to your work, and how much it is depleting you, then it is time to take time out to create a space for personal rehab and renewal.





Stick or Slip: What’s Different When We Keep Our Promises to Ourselves?

What is it that makes us stick at something when the going gets tough, when at another time we may give up on exactly the same thing?  Think diets, smoking, exercise or a career goal.


I ask this questions because it is one I have been asking myself.  25 years ago working in a Business School, I could not have had better conditions for doing a PhD.  My fees were paid, I could study in work time, I had easy access to potential participants – but I gave up.  Roll forward and I have just finished a doctorate.  This time I paid my own fees, I did it whilst working fulltime, I gave up my weekends and holidays, and I had to find my own participants, and yet I got through.


The answer to my question is a simple one – I had purpose.

In my first attempt, I did not know why I was doing the doctorate – other than it was what my colleagues expected of me.  I was expected to approach it in a way which met with my boss’s approval, but which had little appeal to me.  I was uncertain of my focus, and as a consequence I was easily distracted into doing things which made a plausible case for not working on the research.

This time, I knew why I was doing it. I knew how I needed to do it in order for it to be motivating and valid for me.  I had a personal vision of what I wanted to do with the outcomes.  As a result my energy flowed easily towards the project.  There was no reason to procrastinate, every reason to keep going when the going got tough, and no difficulty in prioritising my activities.


So the learning is – if you want to move from I want to  . . . lose weight, get fitter, get promoted, change my career, be a better leader, then start by defining your purpose.  What is it you want by achieving your goal, because once you own that, the rest will follow.

Once you know why something is important to you, then you have started the process of succeeding.



Are You Thriving?


Beautiful young woman jumping on  a green meadow with a colored tissue


The word resilience has become so ubiquitous that it is like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, who argues that a word can mean whatever he wants it to mean.  So it is with one of the hot words of recent years.

In the last few weeks I have heard the reaction of villagers in Somerset to being flooded described as resilient: by which the reporter meant they were stoic rather than hysterical in the face of seeing their homes ruined.  I have heard a premier league football manager describe his team as resilient: by which he meant they fought back from a seemingly lost game.  I have heard the ability of a bank to quickly restore services after it was unable to process payments as resilient: by which was meant it had a strong back up system within its infrastructure.  So a word which originated as a description of plants which could adapt to changing environmental conditions has become hijacked to mean any numbers of different things:

  • The ability to keep going when things are tough
  • The ability to manage emotions at a time of difficulty
  • The ability to restore normality after disruption

It has now entered organisational life, often as a pseudonym for being able to handle stress.  What if however, rather than using the word resilience we used the word thriving.  Let me explain the difference.  Resilience is linked to the idea of recovering from a setback, of disruption to the norm, of one off events which derail an individual in their personal life, in their health or their career.  That is why many books on resilience talk of ‘bounce back’.  However, many people’s working lives are marked not by one off events, but by continuous demands, by relentless pressures, by never having enough time or enough resource.  The challenge is not how to bounce back, but how to keep going.


Rather than talking about resilience, some writers have suggested that it is more useful to look at how people continue to give a high level of performance regardless of the demands. In other words, how do they thrive?  To answer that question Mustafa Sarker and David Fletchers, researchers into resilience at Loughborough University interviewed 13 individuals at the top of their professions; in areas as diverse as policing, mountain climbing, accountancy, the media and politics to look for the common themes in how they managed to thrive when the demands were as high as the stakes.  They discovered that there were 6 recurring themes:

  • Proactive personalities.  They were hardwired to look at what they could do in the face of difficulty rather than being passive  recipients.
  • Experience and learning:  They actively looked at what they could learn from experiences and many of them engaged in reflective practices such as writing.
  • Control:  Even when the situation seemed outside of their control, they looked for what they could take control of, in particular they prioritised where their energy went.
  • Flexibility: They were able to adapt to situations and be willing to flex around the reality of what was, rather than holding onto what they thought the situation should be.
  • Balance and Perspective: They continued to do things outside of work, even when the pressure was high, because it enabled them to keep a sense of perspective.  Even in the face of difficulty at work, knowing they could still enjoy spending time playing sport, having a laugh with friends, or giving time to charitable causes, provided another lens with which to view their working life.  They did not talk of work life balance in a literal sense, but of finding a point of equilibrium that worked for them.
  • Perceived Social Support: They sought out supporters and mentors within their work setting, so that beyond the emotional support they could get from friends and families they had available to them people who they could talk things through with, who understood their context.

Sarker and Fletcher’s research is important because it is based on people who are ambitious, who seek out challenge, and who have had to find ways of managing themselves in order to deliver the results from which success comes.  They have thrived.

The question for readers of this blog then are:

  • How well are your thriving?
  • What can you take from those that do that would help you ensure you can deliver high performance in the face of high demands?