Burnout and Human-First Leadership

Burnout and Human-First Leadership

Mar 10, 2021

by: Dianne Dickerson

When I was first asked to write something on burnout, it felt like a recipe for adding to my burnout. “Here is some source material, would you please write a piece in the next two days?” My heart rate increased, I felt trapped and frustrated. So, I said no. I can’t do a thoughtful job in that amount of time. I could do it for a later issue, but not this one.


Because I’m fortunate enough to work at a place where my colleagues make requests, not demands, there is room for me to say no. And yet… I worried about who would have to burn the midnight oil if I don’t? Am I still a team player if I don’t say yes? These are people, issues, and work I care for deeply and I didn’t want to let them down.


What I came to see was that I didn’t have to write the piece with statistics and source material, they were offered as a helpful starting place. With the time and energy I have, here is what I want to say about burnout.


I’ve actually experienced a full-on, in bed for two weeks burnout. It was awful. I had pushed myself until my body stopped me and said “no” when my mind wouldn’t allow myself to do it. The two weeks were just the start. When I began to recover my energy, I could only think clearly or focus for brief periods and not on demand. It was a long, slow climb to get back to some version of my “normally” effective self. I share that experience so you know that I don’t take this topic lightly.


When I look at the articles and statistics on burnout, I can feel myself starting to go numb. It feels so big, so many people experiencing it, so much pain. When I think about my road back from burnout, it was filled with lots of little steps. Things like paying attention to my energy level, making choices that supported me, or at the very least, didn’t deplete the precious energy reserves I was beginning to rebuild.


With regard to burnout, I’d like to be part of a conversation that begins to unravel it, to notice small things we can do to loosen the tightly wound pieces of ourselves that believe they have to say “yes” every time, even if the personal cost is too high. I’d like to make room in systems for people to have the same choice I have to say “no” when needed, or at least, “not now.” I realize that is a privilege that is not available to many. I’d like it to be available to all.


A colleague recently suggested the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to. In my quick look through the table of contents, it looks like our patriarchal roots get some of the blame. I’m pretty sure the issue is both personal and systemic and at the same time, I imagine you can see that in my case, no small amount of my stress was self-generated. Hopefully you are more evolved. It also has not escaped my attention that you are reading the very post I said “no” to writing.


This tangle we are in won’t unravel itself soon or easily. My hope is in approaching myself and others with compassion, saying “no” when I need to, and being open to hearing “no” from others can be a starting point for seeking ways to adjust our culture. My hope is that we come to value each other too much to ever want anyone to harm themselves to give us a yes answer. As leaders, it’s up to us to make room for ourselves and each other to be human. I’m grateful to work in a company where one of our ideals is Human First. It’s not always easy, but it’s always important.