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How to promote an anti-burnout workplace culture

I was recently asked to give a presentation on ‘The skills needed to stay healthy in a new world of work’ and thought I’d share my thoughts here.

Firstly, let’s clarify that burnout is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘poorly managed workplace stress’, which firmly levels responsibility at both employers and employees - both parties have a role in managing individual stress. So, the first component to promoting an anti-burnout workplace culture, is having leadership that truly value workplace wellbeing, who are also aware that it is cheaper to invest in evidence-based strategies to support existing staff so they can thrive, than it is to run staff into the ground and then replace them. I have seen this happen time and time again, particularly in academia, but this burnout and bust dynamic is growing across all sectors and it is time to stop. In the world of ESG metrics, workplace wellbeing as part of the ‘Social’ strand of organisational sustainability is vital.

Although leadership support for staff wellbeing is needed, it is even more important for leaders to value their own wellbeing, to walk the walk, to ensure that they themselves do not burn out. This for me is central to Courageous and Rebellious Leadership models.

You are role models to all you work with, regardless of their rank relative to you. You are also role models to your family and friends; think for a moment what message you are sending. Consider who is watching. Make sure it is an example that is authentically you, one that you can be proud of.

But what can you do to help yourself lead in this way? What skills may need to be developed? Here is my 10 pennies worth:

1. Self-awareness: Notice how you are feeling in different circumstances, how your thinking changes in different circumstances, how your behaviour changes in response. What situations provoke stress, negative self-talk and counter-productive behaviours? Monitor your stress levels for a week to see what is going on.

2. Self-compassion: Do not judge yourself for feeling stress, this is not a personal failing. You may feel as though you ‘should’ be able to cope, but that is just historic programming picked up from other people’s stories. Accept that stress is a normal chemical reaction. Once you have clarity on the stress provoking situations you can determine whether the stress you are feeling is justified. Maybe it is when you realise all that you are dealing with. Maybe it is not. In which case it might be how you are perceiving your responsibilities rather than their nature that needs to change. If you have perfectionist tendencies, try to reassure yourself that done is better than perfect.

3. Unhook yourself from emotions by ‘distancing’ (I notice I am feeling…. Instead of ‘I am stressed). Engage in micro-mindfulness techniques to break the cycle between emotions, thoughts and behaviours and to give yourself time to breathe.

4. Breathe: I mean really breathe. Breathing techniques such as box breathing (in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4) or recovery breathing (deep inhale through the nose, long exhale for slow count of 10 guided by counting on your fingers) will boost DHEA which is a natural steroid. It will engage your parasympathetic nervous system and have a calming effect.

5. Create clear boundaries: get clear on how you want and need to work to thrive, communicate your needs directly and clearly to those around you, review how your new boundaries are working for you and change them if needed.

6-9. R.E.S.T: Make sure that you Retreat from time to time – do mindless activities (they foster creativity), turn off social media notifications, take time to yourself, regularly. Eat healthily – a balanced nutritional diet can help influence feelings of stress and sustain all bodily systems. Sleep – probably THE most important habit to get nailed down due to its restorative and regulatory effects. Treat yourself more often than you do. Notice when things are going well, when you are coping, when you are achieving what you need to, and then plan rewards that are appropriate.

10. Connect: Often when we are stressed, we retreat from other people when actually connecting is better for us as it boosts our levels of oxytocin (the love chemical) which makes us feel connected. Choose wisely though – make sure you are connecting with the right people that you know support and love you and don’t need you to be anyone other than your fabulous, amazing self.


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