Suzi McAlpine was a senior executive, mother of three, her husband busy with his first CEO role, when she first realised she was experiencing burnout.
It's a phenomenon on the rise: a 2019 Gallup study of seven and a half thousand full time employees internationally found that nearly a quarter reported feeling burned out at work very often or always.
Suzi McAlpine's experience back in 2008 opened her eyes to the prevalence of burnout.
Now a leadership coach, author and speaker, she says there's a plethora of books around for individuals who feel the signs of burnout, but nothing pitched at executives and business leaders about how to reduce burnout within organisations.
Her new book Beyond Burnout is published by Penguin Random House.
She tells Kathryn Ryan that her life looked “pretty rosy” from the outside.
“My life was awash with professional pinnacles and shining badges of success.”
McAlpine returned from paternal leave early, when her daughter was 5 months old, to go back to her HR firm and lead it through the global financial crisis.
“On a particular Tuesday morning that’s seared in my memory in late 2008. My then-7 year old son clambered out of that 7-seater car and, as he did, he turned to me and he said ‘mummy can I please have a hug’.
“This was quite a big deal for Nicholas, he wasn’t a particularly physically affectionate kid, and so for him to reach out and ask for a hug was quite a big deal.”
She says Nicholas had been having a bit of trouble at school but she saw it as just another thing on her to-do list.
“In that moment, I replied in a stressed-out tone ‘no, I don’t have time’. I slammed the door in his dear little face and drove off. To this day, the look in his eyes in the rear vision mirror really haunt me.”
A few minutes later, she was sobbing so hard she had to pull over.
“What had struck was that I had become so numb and emotionally distant that I couldn’t even connect with one of the most important people in my life. That was a bit of a wake-up call, a bucket of cold icy water on my face saying things weren’t quite as rosy on the inside.”
McAlpine says she was lucky to have a supportive boss that helped her go through what she could ditch, delay, and delegate to decrease her workload.
“The sad thing was that, if we had recognised those signs earlier, we would have prevented my no-hug moment with Nicholas.”
She says it makes sense for burnout to be addressed in the workplace because it leads to grumpiness and difficulty performing tasks on the job.
“One person I interviewed said it was like running a marathon through molasses and I think that’s a really good metaphor. It’s that helpless and hopeless state and it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Normally the things you can do, you can’t and that reduces your professional efficacy and it becomes this downward spiral.”
Stress in and of itself is not a bad thing, McAlpine says, but the chronic exhaustion from burnout is paralysing.
“A certain amount of stress is really good for our performance. It’s when that stress becomes chronic, unrelenting, and unremitting over a period of time that the batteries won’t recharge and you’re feeling completely fatigued.”
The five causes of burnout
McAlpine says overwork is an obvious cause of burnout, but there are four other causes people need to be aware of. One is insufficient reward, such as being valued around the workplace or financial stress.
The third cause is isolation, things like feeling ostracised, microaggressions, bullying and lack of psychological safety.
The fourth is an absence of fairness, for instance inequity when it comes to pay or treatment or being heard in meetings.
The fifth, and the big one, McAlpine says, is a lack of control.
“This is when people feel they have little or no control over the work, how they do the work, or not being able to work from a strength.”