Hires often works with emerging leaders, mid-level management, and senior executives. A leader in burnout, she tells Inverse, “will subconsciously put the rest of the organization in burnout.”
“A leader in burnout is a leader without boundaries; it’s a leader with a reduced level of self-awareness. If you don’t have boundaries or self-awareness, then you’re not going to be able to support your team.”
In the conversation below, Hires and Inverse talk boundaries, high achievers, and why now is the time to delete email off your phone.
You say burnout is your brain in survival mode. Can you expand on what that is and why it is important?
The stress response is meant to be a limited process. We're not supposed to walk around in a hyper-stressed state for extended periods of time. The body can compensate for quite a while, but it can only compensate so much before the stress really begins to do harm. So burnout is caused by unmanaged stress directly related to work.
When the stress response does not stop, the brain can go into what I call survival mode. People will become internally focused. They’ll become hypersensitive to simple things. It changes the way we process information.
The analogy I like to give is to think about how you operate when you’re afraid. You might get a little louder; you might speak rapidly. You’re focused on not failing in your role, so much so that it is very hard to process other things and incorporate an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to engage in emotional intelligence and higher-level thinking.
The same behaviors happen with someone who is in burnout. Your brain is in survival mode. And just because you dress it up and bring it to work every day doesn’t mean you come out of that.
How do you assess you’re experiencing burnout? How can you tell the difference between feeling stress and tiredness and actual burnout?
The key is that it is unrelenting. It’s when taking time off doesn’t help. You become more fearful of failure. People in burnout almost get paralyzed from a lack of confidence in their ability to do their work, and in turn, they start dropping the ball on simple projects they should be able to execute.
You also start to notice shifts in your personal relationships. You start to notice work-life balance just goes out the window. You're at capacity and you have nothing left for the people who matter most to you.
What sort of tools do you use to assess burnout?
I'm a scientist first and foremost, so I like objective data. It’s not just me sitting here and saying, Well what do you think? So I use the Maslach Burnout Inventory in the Areas of Work Life Survey. Those are the gold standards for measuring burnout and identifying where someone is with their burnout profile.
For example, if someone is deemed to be having trouble negotiating their workload and may feel overwhelmed, the way we could approach that in coaching is by saying, “Let’s identify your current time management practices.” How can we improve those? What are some ways you can negotiate a different workload, one that is more manageable and more practical? You see this a lot with emerging leaders and middle management because they are fearful of negotiating a different workload. But it’s actually an important skill that prepares you for senior leadership.
How can you manage burnout if you feel like you don’t have the power to change elements of your job? Could it be as simple as adjusting time management?
In my coaching practice, I would say about 100 percent of my clients are high achievers. They are so used to being able to do so much at one time that, as life evolves and things change, they never actually learned how to say no to opportunities.
Empowering them with the tools to have important conversations that advocate for their needs is a critical component of the coaching because in their minds it’s: “If I can’t do everything, then I’m failing.” No, you were just doing a lot before and life has changed, and the things you are working on carry a little bit more weight. So you need to learn how to negotiate and to be more selective with your time.
Is there a foundational step for dealing with burnout regardless of whether you’re a leader or an employee down the line? You’ve recognized you’re experiencing burnout — what should you do immediately next?
I always advocate getting some objective data — that’s the scientist in me. It’s good to know exactly where you fall because that is going to tell you what specific areas of work are frustrating. If you’re not careful and you don’t have some clarity on what exactly is going on, what will often happen is people will immediately change jobs. They’ll jump ship. And then within six months, they’re right back to feeling burned out again.
That’s not getting to the root of what is driving your burnout. The first thing I always encourage clients to do is to get a burnout evaluation so they can step back and try to identify a pattern. Have you evaluated your schedule? Do you know how to use your support system? There’s always a pattern if we take a step back and really look at what’s going on.
If it falls on the employee to figure out a work-life balance, but they have a hard time with self-discipline, what happens next?
This is where you have to flex your boundary muscles. Boundaries can start small — we’re not saying immediately go in and change your entire work schedule. But it can start with simple actions like closing your laptop at 5 p.m. I’ve even had clients go put their laptop in the car to avoid any temptation to open it up after hours.
"This is where you have to flex your boundary muscles."
It’s learning to put small practices in place. Take email off your phone – take it off right now. Give your laptop to someone in your family and say, “Don’t let me have this until 8 a.m. tomorrow.” If you have to work on the weekends, only give yourself two hours on Saturday and two hours on a Sunday and do this for three weeks. That is the only time frame you are allowed — you can use a timer. Then cut it down to one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday and do that for three weeks. By the time you get to week seven, no more checking emails on weekends.
This trains you in setting boundaries. It also trains your team members. It conditions them to not expect an immediate response from you without creating hostility.
When it comes to creating boundaries, do you advocate for being transparent about burnout to managers when creating a new system for yourself?
I think it’s all about delivery. If it is a toxic work environment and you don’t feel safe, then I understand not being comfortable with that level of vulnerability.
But most of my clients actually really get a good response from their leadership because we work on how to phrase it. So it’s not just “I’m in burnout.” It’s: “I recognize my performance is not where I would like it to be. In order to get me to a point I’m comfortable with, I’m working with a coach to set certain boundaries for myself so I have time to rest, recover, and come back better than I was before.” The boundaries you place will become the new normal.
On TikTok, you discuss “tiny betrayals of purpose,” which I found really fascinating. Could you please expand on this topic — what they are and why are they important?
The term was actually developed by Dr. Richard Gunderman. He developed the term l use to explain how medical students and physicians who are going into medicine for altruistic reasons can realize their expectations don’t align with reality. And when you’re forced to practice in such a way that betrays your own morals and the things that you value, it can begin to feel like you're betraying yourself.
The analogy I give is it becomes like tiny paper cuts. These little betrayals can be very subtle. It doesn't have to be big scandals. In my practice, I see clients across a variety of industries, from tech to healthcare. And they all say the same thing: “I got into this for this reason, but I'm so constrained with how I'm able to do my job that it almost feels like I'm causing more harm than good.” Over time we begin to break down as many of those moments as we can and reshape their perspective of those moments
Is it fair to say tiny betrayals of purpose contribute to burnout?
Absolutely. You feel like you're not being effective. Once you begin the narrative of “I feel like I can't even do my job,” we start moving down the burnout spectrum because now the doubt is creeping in about your ability to do the job.
Then people can go from feeling ineffective to overextended. They're exhausted and they're questioning whether or not their values align with the values of the organization. It’s usually at this point when the majority of my clients seek help or they change jobs.
You can also emotionally check out. And that's when we begin to worry because when you get into survival mode, you start doing your job on autopilot. That’s when we have to start going, Ok, we have to move you to the next phase of burnout. You're not just tired but you're also angry. That anger can become very generalized.
Why did you decide to start sharing your expertise on leadership and burnout on TikTok?
My content manager, who is Gen Z, encouraged it. And at first, you know, I had the typical millennial response: I'm not getting on that.
But when I saw it, I was fascinated by it. The way my team looked at it was "it's an opportunity to get your message to an emerging leadership market." Covid-19 exposed every weakness in every industry and it became blatantly clear we needed more leadership development.
I want to reach the next generation of leaders and say these are the things that are important: valuing people, protecting yourself from burnout. Leaders that are able to build relationships are the ones that will be most effective in the future. And in order to build relationships with your workforce, you have to be a healthy individual.
Now also seems like an interesting time to have the burnout conversation, because so many people are working from home. It’s hard to have boundaries if work is always there.
As a coach, I get excited about conflict because I look at it as there's something to grow here. The whole working from home thing revealed that the average person doesn't have a good handle on work-life boundaries. Covid-19 has exposed that. It's not that remote work is bad; it's that we don't know how to do it effectively.
The other thing that came out of the Covid-19 situation is we didn't realize how much we were disconnecting. We’ve experienced collective trauma — collective trauma from Covid-19, collective trauma related to Black Lives Matter, collective trauma from politics.
It affects you. But if you have an organization that historically told people there is a professional you and a private you, it’s going to be a problem. There is only you. I think we're having to confront a lot of management principles and recognizing a lot of them just doesn't apply.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.