First published on Entrepreneur.com on 8.04.23
Burnout is a pervasive issue affecting leaders and employees; it is industry-agnostic and does not discriminate. While many organizations have implemented strategies to address burnout, such as extended time off, gym stipends, and suggested self-care regimens, it’s vital to understand that those are merely band-aid solutions.
For most of us, burnout is rooted in unresolved trauma, which means that it cannot be prevented through traditional approaches to rest and relaxation. Though individuals have historically been resistant to the deep healing work required to address the past, the only way to truly release the underlying causes of burnout and its repetitive nature is to move through it.
By taking responsibility for our thoughts, maladaptive behaviors, and tendencies to distract or numb ourselves, we can learn to let go of our subconscious attachments to false narratives that may be defining us at present.
In my work with high-achieving leaders, I see (through) the masks they wear in business. There’s so much fear around who they might be, or what they might learn about themselves if their ego isn’t trying to protect them constantly. It’s exhausting to work that hard every single day, all while you’re trying to get things done and lead others as best you can.
The bridge between burnout and unresolved trauma
Research has shown that the exhaustion, stress, trauma and moral injury underlying burnout remain unrelenting for many individuals. Burnout can easily occur due to workplace stress but is also influenced by unresolved trauma from past psychological experiences.
Unresolved trauma can manifest in various ways, including feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, difficulty setting boundaries and self-advocacy and a lack of clarity for one’s life vision.
The importance of healing work
To effectively address burnout at its root, leaders would need to prioritize inner work for themselves. This may include various forms of trauma-informed therapy, mindfulness practices, myriad healing and integrative modalities, plant medicines and other forms of self-exploration that allow individuals to connect with their inner self and gain a deeper understanding of their values, priorities, and commitments.
Undoubtedly, organizations can be positively impacted by a leader’s own trauma integration because when self-awareness is increased, we can begin to see how we are participating in and progressing both unhealthy relationships and whole systems alike.
The role of organizational leaders
By creating a supportive and compassionate work environment, leaders can foster a culture that encourages open communication, provides resources for healing, and promotes life-work integration. Additionally, leaders can invest in trauma-informed training and education for employees, ensuring that they have the tools and support necessary to navigate and evolve from their past trauma.
If it seems strange or hard to comprehend bridging such personal work and business, consider the impact of not supporting people in this way. If employees are not feeling and living their potential, how can we expect them to work or lead at their greatest emotional capacity?
Clearly, keeping personal development separate from professional development hasn’t worked well thus far. When people feel that they need to hide who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how they might struggle, they will continue to operate in dysregulated bodies.
As leaders, if we can not only model but also give the gift of nervous system regulation to our teams, imagine how differently our organizations might operate. Imagine how healthy the bottom line could be if it were tied to the health of our people — mentally, emotionally, physically and even spiritually.
Lighting a new path
The world is changing; old leadership models are crumbling under the weight of organizational dysfunction — even in sectors deemed innovative. Real leaders have an opportunity to light a different path for all, starting with an individual choice point. By prioritizing and modeling self-healing and providing resources for employees, leaders can contribute to the true prevention and mitigation of burnout in the workplace.
The question is: Are you willing to take responsibility for your trauma by doing the work to become a more self-aware, more effective leader—or will your past continue to run the show?