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Balance vs Burnout - What is balance?

Out of balance

Frustrated, he couldn’t believe that he’s made that mistake. How did he miss it? He flicked open his diary and scanned the week looking for a slot to remedy it. A sea of filled coloured booking slots jumped out at him. He refocused his eyes to look for an elusive grey free slot. His eyes were tired from too many late night ‘burning the candle at both ends’ work sessions. He rubbed them, as if it would work like rubbing the genie lamp. Nope. Something would have to give.

Sound familiar? Countless leaders find themselves in this position. It comes not that long before burnout. A sure-fire indicator that balance is not in place. Mistakes being missed, diary too full, too many late-night work sessions as the norm rather than the exception. Before long, the words do indeed come true, ‘something will have to give’. Sometimes it is physical health and sometimes mental health. This month we will be exploring in the blogs and in the Leadership Lounge Podcast, the whole topic of ‘Balance vs Burnout’. Today it is the turn of ‘what is balance?

What is balance?

A set of balance scales perfectly weighted either side. A ballet dancer poised ‘en-pointe’. A suspended building counterbalanced. All of them perfectly depict the concept of balance. We tend to think that work as a leader should be like that. Everything logged in place almost like a recipe for the day

  • 8 hours of work

  • 8 hours of sleep

  • 1 hour of exercise

  • 1.5 hours of eating

  • 3 hours with family or friends

  • 0.5 hours of personal reflection

  • 2 hours recreation

There you go. Bake that cake and it will rise perfectly and eat that every day and you will have balance.

But there is a problem. For we know that life is not as robotic as that. Work as a leader very rarely stays in its 8-hour box. We feel under pressure to complete work issues and it invades other areas. So, does that mean that balance as a leader is not possible?

One of the problems that not having balance is that things can consume us. For example, if we are spending very little time with friends and family, personal interests or personal reflection. Our whole life then becomes consumed with work. When problems happen at work, complaints or initiatives failing, it can feel like our whole life is full of plop. When in reality it is just that work is full of plop. I often describe it to people as the metaphor, that ‘if we spend all our time in the garden digging manure, that is all we smell. We need to give some time to smelling the roses too’.

Creating space for a balance of things in our life as leaders is important. I would suggest that we aim to have the following things (in no particular order) in our life to help us live well and perform well as a leader:

  • Sleep

  • Good diet

  • Exercise

  • Friends & family

  • Spiritual reflection

  • Personal hobby/interest

  • Productive work

Maybe you have more things. Each one of us have things that we need to give life meaning and purpose and when they are present, they empower us as people and as leaders. What are yours? Make a list. RAG rate them (Red, Amber, Green). Where have you got balance? What needs to be invested in?

Dynamic balance

We need to recognise though that balance is not a static thing, like the set of scales perfectly counterbalanced. Balance can be more dynamic. Sometimes it needs to be more like the tree in the wind that bends and flexes with the wind. In the Leadership Lounge Podcast, Trevor Waldock describes balance as something much more dynamic. He says it is noting where an area that energises you is out of balance and needs some time spent on it. This requires us knowing ourselves, knowing what gives us balance and then injecting time and energy into this when we notice we have not given it the time we need. For example, if you know going running clears your head, gives you thinking time and you find yourself having missed some runs and finding your head somewhat fuzzy, then you need to flex, lean into the area that you need: go for a run. If you know that you need sleep and you find yourself getting tired and irritable and you then think about the run of 6 late night and early mornings that you have had, then flex, lean into the area that you need: have a run of early nights.

Sometimes we are slow to spot things out of balance. My wife has been brilliant at saying to me the loving words of, “darling you look knackered.” She spots it and has permission to be a guardrail, a safety net to ensure that the imbalance doesn’t go too far. Her loving words are the reminder to get some sleep. Who have you given permission to do that for you? Who is close to you and knows what you need?

Sometimes one of the great lies of leadership whispers in your ear, “but I can’t afford to give time to do that. I have too much work to do.” It is a lie. When we operate like that, we often end up working in a tired state and inefficient. Giving time to recharge moments, means we then work more efficiently. When the lie whispers, “I can’t afford time to do that.” Whisper back, “I can’t afford not to.”


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