The sad reality of female leadership fatigue

Our Voice from South Africa dives into the common mistakes we make about dealing with fatigue—and how to prevent them.

Voice

11.11.2021

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Phumza Dyani

I have this morning, gleefully, accessed my organization’s HR system. The joy on my face, like a kid in a candy store, as I took charge of my life and applied for leave.

This is quite a significant shift as I am normally, the last one to think about leave. Almost all of the time, I am beaten to it by many of my colleagues. The truth of the matter is that it has been a gruesome 2 years and Leadership fatigue is a reality.

Leadership can be draining

Long-term cycles, especially in toxic work environments, can lead directly to fatigue.

As Leaders, we often think we are invincible and underestimate the levels of stress we get exposed to as we steer the ships of both our professional and personal lives. The mental and emotional effort involved in leadership can be exhausting, yet, very few of the leaders talk about it.

It is almost counter-intuitive that when things go wrong, we tend to press harder, and strive to find solutions to problems. Leadership fatigue can actually reach a dangerous point and be crippling to organizations.

Women are burned out 

Having gone through the past two years, one would have expected many leaders to have taken some much-needed time out to recharge.

Female leaders, especially, have gone through overwhelming periods of excessive stress with dual roles of care-taking family whilst attending to work priorities.

The Mckinsey Report: Women in the Workplace 2021, states that the pandemic continues to take its toll. Women are now significantly more burned out and increasingly more so than men. Instead of recharging, most of these leaders are instead trying to control measures they cannot control and frantically driving for recovery.

We often overdo our concept of resilience to our detriment. This reminds me of a colleague who each time, had to be admitted to hospital to realize that she was burnt out. This happened on three occasions. 

We know her signs

The surprising part is that her signs of fatigue, on each of these occasions, were obvious to everyone but to her.

We all knew her signs, the excessive complaining about trivial issues, which she under normal circumstances would practically and logically solve. Next would be ailments that should have been red flags for her like back pain, the persistent flu, often followed by bronchitis.

This seemed to follow the same sequence.

Now I can understand that these are not scientific symptoms of fatigue, when they followed a similar sequence and for prolonged moments, they could have been useful alerts that something was wrong.

Difficulties to focus

For me, personally, I realize that I am exhausted when the coffee is more of a crutch to get me through the day.

When the body is suddenly aching despite my best effort at exercise and good nutrition. When I find it difficult to focus and complete a task at a time.

These moments can be challenging as they can creep in right in the middle of particularly intense periods which require our attention. Even at these periods, rest and recovery strategies are of utmost importance.

Recognizing early symptoms and being alert to them as well as the triggers is a gift as it offers a red flag that something essential needs your attention.

If you act sooner, you have more chances of intercepting what could be a disaster.

What are the common mistakes we make about dealing with fatigue:

1. Denial about the fatigue 

You may feel exhausted but not admit this to yourself because at the top of your mind, you try to compare this time to past years.

The other aspect is pressure of social media, where everyone seems to appear to have it all together. The truth of the matter is that the aggregate stress we have endured in this period is compounded.

It even is more magnified by the fact that we could not take time out for periodic rests and adventures we have been used to like travel and bonding with friends. 

2. Prolonged periods of work

One of the risks we fall into is to try to time periods of rest with specific events like for example, the school holidays.

Although the intentions at the center of this one are normally good and help us to bond with our children.

Sometimes, we return back to work more tired than when we left as the focus changes from work to attending to other matters, like children. Planning these is incredible, as long as we learn to replenish our own selves in the midst of everything.

3. It is almost never the right time to take leave

I cannot recount how many times I have said: ‘This is the most crucial time of the year and I cannot afford to be out of the office.’ I have repeated this sentence over the past year.

Every month seemed to have a more important milestone to chase.

The most interesting part is that Mental Health and self-care have been at the center of many leadership discussions, yet we consider them as they relate to our employees. We hardly consider them when it comes to leaders and expect leaders to always have it together, being the perpetual beacons of hope.

That is not realistic.

4. Fear of missing out

I remember a time when I was developing my Thought Leadership talking engagements. I took on engagements that I thought were important even when I could see I was exhausted.

Whilst that helped in growing the networks and the experience, the fatigue that came thereafter was a price I could have avoided. I realized that committing when exhausted is counterproductive.

I could see that when watching the recordings of these engagements, anyone who knows me could pick up how exhausted I was. Two things I have learned here: I have learned to gracefully say ‘No’, and to honor my commitment to myself for time out.

5. Abandoning helpful activities like exercise

Exercise re-energizes us but often, it is the first activity we forfeit when we are exhausted.

6. Postponing asking for help

Fatigue is so elusive, it almost makes us believe that if we push a little longer and just hang in there, we will be just fine.

The wisdom is in knowing when the ‘little longer’ stretches a bit further than we planned and how to deal with it. As leaders, we must always aim to do better to manage ourselves, our energy, and our boundaries.

Investing in ourselves and our health is good practice and pays off in the long term. Here are some helpful tips I have learned to apply to remain energized:

a) Stop and Re-prioritize

When you hit a snag and realize fatigue setting in, plan ahead for a downtime, where you can take time out to rest and re-energize.

In fact, it is even better to plan the rest periods at the beginning of each cycle, realizing the most important periods within your work cycle and planning ahead for breaks after intense periods.

At this time, evaluate what you absolutely cannot do without and what can be delegated. Delegation allows for the development of others. Remember, there are no awards for the most exhausted Leader. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all-consuming and they never end.

Take time out.

b) Always pencil in ‘You Time’

As a Leader, finding time to think deeply and introspect about what you are doing is priceless.

Reflection on what you are doing as well as whether it is working is valuable and can make a phenomenal difference. Wherever possible, eliminate the omnipresent devices that disturb reflection time.

My escape is journaling and writing down insights on topics of my interest.

c) Feed your soul

Find an outlet for what feeds your soul. We burn out when we work ourselves hard without incorporating moments of joy inducing activities.

Reading is what i often turn to to switch off and take my mind off stressors. This is very much needed from time to time and add to your capability as a leader.

d) Manage your Energy

There are conversations you do not necessarily need to be part of or can postpone for when you are more energetic.

The taxing ‘thesis writers’ of emails that mean nothing can be postponed for later. Learn to know your energy and use it to your best advantage. I have seen many leaders who know when to pull back in long meetings only to observe.

When they come back, they are more energized and have found time to assess the situation from a distance, and can have better impact.

e) The Secret is in implementation

Now, non of these tips are new. The secret is to know when to apply them. •