Sarah is an ILM-qualified and accredited executive and management coach who has worked in people development for over 30 years. Her career has spanned 25 years with AstraZeneca in various global learning and development roles across the business driving large projects to enact change. She left AZ to work at The University of Manchester, where she focused on academic staff development and partnered with the Faculty of Science and Engineering to drive strategy through people development. In 2021, she set up her own business to follow her passion of coaching and now coaches Higher Education leaders who reach out for help and as part of programmes for a number of Universities as part of their leadership development initiatives. Sarah is accredited by the EMCC at the Senior Practitioner level and is an accredited member of the CIPD with a master’s level qualification in learning and development. Sarah also trains learning and development professionals in consultancy skills and uses her AZ experience of implementing change in global projects in her coaching.
In my mid 30’s I worked as a Learning and Development Partner in a large corporate. By taking advantage of a continual series of reorganizations I moved quickly up the career ladder. After a while, the stress of the reorganizations and the new roles meant I found myself near to burnout. I was working harder and longer hours as I felt the need to prove myself, to please everyone at work, and all this with a young family at home who I also wanted to please. Things were just not working for me and I felt tired and overwhelmed.
Two things saved me from complete burnout; firstly, I attended a course that highlighted how I needed to make changes to sustain working in the environment I was in and have a good family life. The second was a two-week family holiday in Cuba where, upon stopping, I realized I was exhausted; I felt unable even to read a book on the beach. This gave me time to think, recharge, and reflect on the course and the changes I needed to make when I returned home. Twenty years later I can still close my eyes and picture the scene from that sunbed as I spent so much time there feeling hardly able to move!
In the constantly changing environment both within organizations and outside, it is no wonder that many people feel overwhelmed. As a coach in Higher Education, I routinely hear about the constant need to manage emails, apply for research grants, solve problems, comply with new bureaucracy, develop and enact strategy, have difficult conversations, embed unpopular changes, and much more. You would need to have superpowers and a 100-hour day to do it all – the simple fact is we can’t do it all and trying to do so can cause you to resent and lose the passion for your role. Therefore, compromises must be made to enable you to enjoy the role you have worked so hard for and we need to actively manage our lives.
I have observed in my coaching that everyone has a lot to do, but some seem to handle the pressure better than others. So what are their superpowers? In the rest of the article, I have highlighted just a few of the traits and behaviors that I see that contribute to a feeling of overwhelm and some ideas on how to overcome it. The great thing is that if you work on it you can overcome it.
I have observed many people do not consciously think about what they do and don’t want and they don’t plan how to get there with purpose and determination. Effective people make time to regularly establish their goals and decide on actions to achieve them. They review their goals and how effectively they are achieving them, adapting, and learning along the way.
I see some coachees who secretly like being busy and yet complain about it; it is worn as a badge of honor and is almost addictive. Why is this? There are many reasons but often people can feel valued if they are busy. They race to answer emails quickly to feel worthy. This dials up the pressure and they set themselves up as the ‘go too’ person to solve all problems. This makes them busier. By reframing what you consider makes you worthy you can free yourself of this pressure – recognizing that you are so much more than the work you deliver.
Ingrained and unconscious belief systems are not helping. Beliefs are formed in childhood, developing over a lifetime, and influenced by those around us. If left unchallenged they cause overwhelm as well as other negative feelings like low self-confidence. Beliefs are created to help us survive in this world, but they may no longer work well for us and by going unchallenged they can contribute to feelings of anxiety. For example, believing that to be successful in your career you need to please people or that you must work long hours. These need to be challenged to get a better life balance and ultimately a happier life.
Then there are more practical things. There are those who don’t delegate enough. Delegation frees up time and gives others the ability to develop and learn new skills, take control, and make decisions. A virtuous circle can happen as people feel more empowered, they feel they are developing and have more autonomy in their roles which in turn increases their motivation. There are many reasons for a fear of delegating. I often see an underlying ‘perfectionist’ streak as the reason. If you can let go of doing things ‘perfectly’ this can be liberating not only for you but for those who work for you. So think, “What is really stopping me from delegating?” Work on that.
Another key skill is effective diary management. You need to set your boundaries so you can get to the important but not urgent work. For example, 9-10 is for emails, Friday morning is for strategy review, and Wednesday is a 3:30 finish to pick the children up – whatever works for you and your goals. Then, the harder part, sticking to them! Do not allow others to stop you from being focused on your priorities.
Once you have made your life choices, learn to accept the ‘trade-offs’ that come with them. Those who manage this well have an appreciation that they can’t ‘have it all’ They accept the advantages as well as the downsides. In other words, they decide what is acceptable to them and work to that. They establish what is ‘good enough.’ For example, if you want to be a senior leader you may need to recognize you will not be able to be there for your family all the time. This can help reduce negative emotions and lessen the temptation to stray from your goals by accepting the consequences.
Often, I see people sacrificing their personal interests which once gave them relaxation to balance the stress of their career. This results in fewer activities that bring them joy and are used to revitalize them. Resentment can also increase over the large amount of time they spend working in the career that they once felt passionate about. Balance is needed to maintain any passion. Linked to this is the need to maintain your physical and mental health. Regular exercise and good sleep management alongside getting outside each day and moving do wonders for mental health and stress relief and can give perspective to the worries created for the rest of your life.
Arguably the most important is where people stop investing time in their personal relationships – we need balance in all areas of life, it is our family and friends who support us and make life worthwhile. We all know the quotes about how quickly we can be replaced in our roles compared with our family roles.
If you need to justify any of the balancing activities, I suggest you consider what is the alternative, how much use are you to anyone in your life if you are burned out? As I’ve written, there are many other things that cause overwhelm and help prevent it, it can be very specific to you, the key is to identify the route cause and work on it, ideally before they have too much of a negative impact and you can start to balance and achieve the sustainable life you want.