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How leaders can avoid burnout in an high-pressure climate

Leaders can avoid burnout in a variety of ways, including getting rest, setting boundaries and creating safe space for others to express their anxiety, Marlene Chism writes.

5 min read


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With the reality of change fatigue, mental health issues, collaboration overload and the demands of leading in a hybrid environment, today’s leader needs strategies to renew energy and avoid burnout. Here are four simple steps with strategies to take immediately.

Marlene Chism

1.  Get your sleep

Before age 61 adults need a minimum of 7 hours sleep each night. Not getting enough sleep has been compared to alcohol impairment, with 24 hours wakefulness to be compared to a blood alcohol level at 0.10%. Poor sleep increases anxiety and raises the risk of suicidal behavior. If you’ve ever been angry, confused or overwhelmed, there’s nothing like sleeping on it to give you a new perspective. 

Two practical strategies

  1. Create a workable schedule for retiring and waking, even if you do shift work. The more often you stay on schedule the better your sleep. 
  2. Create a wind-down routine. One hour before retiring, lower the lights, unplug from electronics, lay out clothing for the next day. Do some light reading, meditation or journaling to signal to yourself it’s time to wind down. 

2.  Strengthen your mental fitness

It’s easy to understand the “use it or lose it” meme when it comes to physical fitness, but the same applies to mental fitness. When we get lazy with our thoughts, our thoughts control us. If you’re always thinking thoughts like, “this is hopeless,” or “No one cares,” you’re unconsciously creating new neuro connections for this kind of negative thinking. 

Two practical strategies

  1. In order to bring your unconscious to light you must notice your unproductive thought patterns that commonly arise during stress, for example, “This always happens to me,” or “They’re out to get me.”  Carl Jung once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Unconsciously we strive to be right about the way we see the world, therefore it’s beneficial to bring to light the negative thought patterns that you sometimes believe to be truth. The key is to notice the thoughts, not to make yourself wrong for discovering them.
  2. Once you’ve noticed the thoughts, it’s time to challenge them. We often think the situation, or another person is the reason for our anxiety or anger, but the story (narrative) is the source of your suffering. Shift the narrative, and your suffering dramatically subsides.  

3.  Seek regulation before resolution

When you’re angry or frustrated you don’t have the capacity for good decision-making. When you’re unregulated (emotionally upset) you don’t have the ability to be coached or the capacity to effectively coach or care for someone else. Something valuable I learned in narrative coaching is this: You can’t coach an unregulated person. This means if your colleague, patient or employee is unregulated (angry, frustrated or grieving) you can’t help them until they become regulated. 

Two practical strategies

  1. Listen first. Whether you’re working with a patient, a colleague or an employee, use radical listening when the other person is unregulated. Radical listening is the ability to listen when every bone in your body would prefer to avoid, advise or admonish.  Seek to neutralize the emotion before coaching, advising or offering feedback. 
  2. Create space. Sometimes it’s beneficial to step into a new environment in times of stress. Notice when you feel a negative “vibe” in the room during a stressful moment.  If so, suggest going to another room to continue a discussion when emotions threaten to overtake you or the other person. A simple, “Let’s go get some air first,” can assist regulation. I call this action “resetting the room.” When you return it’s as if a fresh breeze swept through. 

4. Set appropriate boundaries

When you love your work it’s easy to let work take up every part of your life until you no longer have a life. According to Harvard Business Review online, Mission-focused executives, non-profit employees, teachers, principals, nurses and physicians are some of the people most at risk for burnout. From 300 to 400 US physicians take their own lives every year — “a suicide rate dramatically higher than that of the general public, 40% higher for men and 130% higher for women.”

Two practical strategies

  1. Stop rescuing. There’s a difference between helping and rescuing. Helping is teaching a person to fish and rescuing is continually giving the person a fish. If your door has become a revolving one it means your employees see you as the answer instead of learning to find answers themselves. If you believe that things would fall apart if you didn’t fix everything, it probably means you’re taking on things that don’t belong to you.
  2. Allow others the discomfort of growth. When you care, it’s difficult to allow others the discomfort required to grow. If someone is upset because of your boundary, it’s OK for them to be upset. You don’t need to fix their emotional response. The very reason you needed to set a boundary was because you were being taken advantage of. When it comes to setting and enforcing boundaries, someone is going to be unhappy, but it doesn’t always have to be you. Expect others to resist your boundaries but help them grow by not taking on their discomfort.

Leaders don’t need more data, another whitepaper or a special report to be more effective. The future of work requires leaders to rejuvenate and reset to avoid burnout and handle the demands in a super-charged, high-pressure climate. 


Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker, and the author of   From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedInor at


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