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The Hidden Bias that leads to Burnout by Chantal Burns

Recently, there’s been a huge rise in organisational wellbeing initiatives, in order to address the mental health of staff.  But there’s an unconscious bias which is silently stifling this noble intention. I’m naming it the ‘At Any Cost’ bias. 

We all know people who are ultra competitive, driven, conscientious or ambitious and who often feel insecure about themselves. They may even believe this is what gives them the edge in their work and life. Can you relate?

They are often the same people who will always go the extra mile (or ten) to get the job done. They work late most nights. They often work on the weekends even when they’ve promised themselves or others that this time will be different. They open emails from clients or bosses even if it arrives at midnight. They often have feelings of guilt that they aren’t doing enough or they worry about their people taking on too much so they do it themselves.

Perhaps you love these doers. You can always give them more work than everyone else because they never say no. These are the people you can rely on to do whatever it takes but the problem is that it’s often at any cost.  So why does this happen?

Insecure thoughts and feelings lead us to push ourselves at the expense of our health and wellbeing. We give up family time, rest time, social time, hobbies ….we do whatever it takes to make the grade. Those thoughts might be old beliefs based on past experiences. For example, I wasn’t academically gifted at school, so I had to work way harder than some of my friends. Early on, I had the thought ‘I’m not smart enough’ and this became a belief which remained with me for a very long time. It still rears it’s head now and again, except now I know that it’s simply a thought that doesn’t need my attention!  Dan is a senior manager who entered the world of work believing that ‘working long hours = working well’ and ‘leaving on time = not really committed’.  When a colleague called him on it, he realised he had taken on some of his father’s beliefs and behaviour. On seeing these were thoughts not facts, it no longer made sense to think that way anymore.

As leaders and managers, what if we are fanning those insecurity fires, rather than putting them out? What if we’re inadvertently helping to ignite a potential inferno that for some, may lead to burnout.  Too many organisations lose fantastic people because they think they’re not cut out for the work, when all they needed was a different relationship to their work…a different psychological perspective.

From At any cost to.. What’s the real cost here?

If you believe that it’s possible for people to be brilliant at their job and go the extra mile, without sabotaging their health, wellbeing and personal life, then as leaders, we have to be really honest with ourselves. 

In what ways are you encouraging an ‘at any cost’ way of thinking in terms of how you lead and work?

Are you prioritising productivity and profit over presence and perspective?

Are your reward systems, targets or KPI’s, set up to drive ‘at any cost’ attitudes?

What kind of visible example are you or your fellow leaders setting for your team / people?

In what ways are you prioritising your own wellbeing?

If we bring attention to this bias, we can continue to be brilliant without burning out. So how do we get that done?

1. Get insight into the psychological system: It begins with a recognition that all emotions and behaviour (decisions, responses, actions) are a direct reflection of our moment to moment thinking. And much of our thinking is invisible as well as habitual – and this includes our biases. Just like the dashboard in a car is indicating what’s happening inside the engine, our emotional state is always indicating what’s happening inside our thought system. When feelings of anxiety, insecurity or stress arise, they are a direct result of thought in the moment. Instead of responding to a circumstance, we are always seeing, feeling and responding to the projections of our own thinking. But our innocent confusion between cause and effect creates a mountain of mental interference which compromises our clarity and drives unhealthy behaviour.

2. Speak up:  We need to encourage honest conversations that reflect reality, and create a culture where people feel free and safe to speak their mind and where appropriate, say no. If you’re not doing that, you can’t expect others to feel safe to do it either. 

Achieving world class results may look like it comes from the attitude of ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘at any cost’ but it doesn’t. World class work comes from a free mind …a mind thinking clearly, where actions are taken and decisions are made from a place of wisdom, clarity and perspective, not fear and insecurity.

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to encourage and uncover people’s natural wisdom and clarity because this is the true foundation for healthy. resilient and sustainable success.


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