Photo of Betty Hart

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about resilience. But in order to understand the importance of resilience, we have to talk about the opposite: burnout.

Defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, burnout has become ubiquitous in the modern workplace. According to a survey from Asana of more than 10,000 workers, 70 percent have experienced or are currently experiencing burnout. A recent Deloitte survey found that 77% of folks report experiencing professional burnout.

What contributes to burnout? Employees have said that what drives burnout for them is a lack of support or recognition from leadership, unrealistic expectations or results, consistently having to work long hours, and feeling like they can’t take time off or use all of their vacation days.

The Brain’s Response to Stress

In times of stress, we move from using our learning brain to our survival brain. A fight, flight, or freeze response can be helpful in times of danger, but is only necessary for life-or-death moments. Staying in a heightened state of survival mode for long periods of time is not only toxic to our system, we also aren’t able to take in information or learn anything.

Resilience only occurs when we’re in our learning brain. It allows us to access our best selves and have an awareness of not only ourselves, but of others. We want to find a way even in a time of trauma to consciously return to our learning brain.

The Problem with Perfectionism

To introduce the concept of perfectionism, Hart walked the audience through her own resilience journey and how she came to be speaking on the topic of self-compassion. “When I was in school, I would score a 98 on a test, and my mom’s response would be ‘why wasn’t it 100?’ I’d receive four Bs and 2 As on my report card, and my father would say ‘why wasn’t this better?’ Somehow this became internalized. In addition, as a person of color, I was also taught that I had to work twice as hard to succeed. This idea that I had to be perfect rooted itself inside of me and I became a perfectionist.”

It wasn’t until she was an adult that she began to realize that she wasn’t able to take joy in her accomplishments. “I also became a leader who applied my perfectionism to those that I led—and even though we were doing great things, rather than celebrating the wins, we only focused on those things that had even a small amount of error. Perfectionism is something we could be doing to others and not even recognize it.”

Perfectionism is tied to burnout culture. If you’re working so hard that you don’t have time to celebrate your hard work, people get burnt out. You may be doing a job with meaning and purpose, but if there is no sense of appreciation, there’s less meaning. This is especially true if you’re sacrificing other parts of your life for those work accomplishments.

“I didn’t realize the high standards I set for myself. Perfectionism is rooted in white supremacy culture, so it’s dangerous in addition to being tied to burnout culture. I had to discover ways I could become more resilient.”

Hart discovered the work of Dr. Dan Siegel and his “name it to tame it” form of self-compassion. When you’re experiencing something stressful, taking the time to speak it out loud will reduce the level of stress you’re feeling. Articulating it causes the brain to release chemicals to help calm us and minimize the threat we had been experiencing.

Communities of Care

As leaders, you get to set the tone for what happens around you. You can’t change or control anyone per se, but your presence influences everyone. Hart explained, “You may never have told your direct reports that they need to be up at 5:00 AM to respond to emails, but yet if you do that, it sends a message.” Creating communities of care— resilient environments for those we work alongside—is crucial for leaders. Burnout decreases and productivity increases. Three things to bear in mind:

1. Learn from and celebrate failure.

When you have a culture where someone can own a mistake freely and no one is going to condemn them first, something changes. Suddenly we’re able to be our authentic selves and have authentic interactions at work. Our success grows because we have less fear.

2. Spaces of acceptance and belonging.

We can all remember a moment when we didn’t feel like we belonged. It takes a toll. In a time of stress and trauma, it’s a tremendous challenge to continuously feel like you don’t belong. When we create spaces where diverse points of view are welcome, problems get solved twice as fast.

3. People over process.

We live in a country that most values what you produce or your level of success. But people matter simply because they’re people. And when people feel valued, they’ll work harder and longer than when you focus solely on the process, project, or product. Something begins to shift when we allow people to be their authentic selves.

Self-compassion

Self-compassion is choosing to love yourself radically so that you have the capability to love others. The original Greek definition of the word compassion is to suffer with or alongside someone. It’s choosing to do something for someone else because they matter so much. Hart listed a few acts of self-compassion:

  • Having a deep genuine love for self.
  • Acknowledging your humanity—our weaknesses and strengths.
  • Affirming oneself—silencing your inner critic.
  • Perpetually refilling your cup—taking the time out of your busy schedule for you.

If you do these things for yourself, you can do them for others.

Compassion Fatigue

Anyone who serves others continuously can eventually wind up with compassion fatigue. Hart discussed three evidence-based ways to prevent compassion fatigue:

  1. Team support. Talking to your team about what you’re going through. Finding someone you trust at work and confiding with them.
  2. Self-care. When you’re refilling yourself on a regular basis, it’s much harder to grow weary of helping others. When you love yourself, you take time to care for others.
  3. Remembering your “why.” It’s easier to get up in the morning when you’re on your way to doing something meaningful, a job that’s purposeful. Remind yourself why you got into local government—and why you stay.
  4. Recognizing the power of “we.” So many leaders think that it’s all on them and they carry that weight with them. But there’s power in “us”—we can do more as a team than we can ever do alone.

Conclusion

Give yourself grace. We are human. You, your employees, and your residents are all people first.

When we talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion, all of that is rooted in this idea of communities of care. When you care genuinely, you want people to be paid fairly for what they do, you welcome diverse points of view, you want everyone in the room to be heard, and you want folks to have their needs met.

All of the things that Hart discussed relate back to how self-compassion can change the game when it comes to resilience. “It starts with you and your relationship with yourself. The reality is that the world isn’t going to become any easier in the next few months or years. But what you can do is be able to face these things differently because daily you’re taking the time to be more resilient.”  

 

2022 ICMA Annual Conference Content Available On-demand Through December 31!

In-person and digital attendees were emailed credentials for the conference online platform on 9/12/2022. New users can still register for on-demand access.

Watch Now

Advertisement

JOIN ICMA TODAY!

ICMA provides the tools, resources and connections to help you become part of the international network of 13,000+ local government management professionals.

BECOME A MEMBER