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It's the bounce that counts

March 1, 2008
by Debra Neal, LPC
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Resilient people make effective leaders

“Unfortunately, many executives in the business world have also got their foot to the floor, unaware that burnout lies just around the corner. The consequences can be disastrous and costly, not only for the individual but also for the company.”

—Peter Downey, BEd, MA, EdD1

Managers and executives in the behavioral healthcare field increasingly are at risk of falling prey to burnout. Stakeholders must wake up to what has been an invisible but rapacious threat to our leaders and the security of the field, as opting for a leadership career now holds less promise of job fulfillment and more promise of risk to personal and professional sustainability. This article brightens the light on this problem and provides provocative and imaginative self-directed strategies to nurture emotional resiliency at a core level for better on- and off-the-job effectiveness.

The Importance of Resiliency

Resilient managers are essential to the long-term viability of the behavioral healthcare field. Felicia Mayer, CEO of Family Counseling Services in Miami, Florida, acknowledges the stress she experiences as the top executive:

I have certainly experienced symptoms of burnout at different times in my career. As I moved into administration I had feelings of frustration at not having enough time to improve the quality of services to a level that I knew they could be…. At one point, I was not feeling inspired. Through my personal development work, I created new possibilities. Now I would say that I still feel frustrated that I feel that I don't have time to do all I want to do, and I especially feel frustrated for my staff, as I can't give them everything they need (yet) to not burn out and to provide the best-quality service.

The affective and psychological costs of serving in a leadership position are enormously high. The formal research is scant, yet recent studies show that burnout prevalence rates of managers and executives are steadily climbing. Leaders who lose their “snap, crackle, and pep” leave an employer or change careers prematurely.

From the top of the leadership chain downward, management is about delivering hard-hitting outcomes. Funding shortfalls, comparatively low salaries, little or no administrative and operational budgets, and managing stressed-out employees are among behavioral healthcare executives' unrelenting stressors. Competition for grant dollars, working around girdle-tight budgets, and rising operational expenses pitted against funding challenges make daily jobs even more difficult. Naomi Benyowitz, executive director of Harbel Prevention and Recovery in Baltimore says her top two stressors are “fund-raising and more fund-raising,” adding, “There is virtually no grant money available to support operational expenses such as lightbulbs, computers, and the rising costs…of keeping the heat on.”

What Leads to Burnout

Personality, temperament, lifestyle, societal influences—all equally fan the risk for what I call the “burnout syndrome.” Among the symptoms that lead to full-scale burnout are the following.

Feeling invincible and buying into the message that “good leaders are tough and strong-minded to handle whatever.” But leaders can't be Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego. According to Scott W. Spreier and colleagues, “A leader's hunger to achieve—to continually be the best—is a major source of strength for any organization. It fuels innovation, productivity, and a competitive edge: companies would be lost without it. But taken to an extreme, the drive to achieve can damage an enterprise.”2

Taking work home and misaligning priorities, thereby smearing the line between work and personal/family life. Putting family needs before a job is hard for some executives to do.

Neglecting one's self and family as job demands pile up. Do the following sound familiar?

  • “I don't have time to exercise.”

  • “I haven't had time for a vacation in three years.”

  • “I don't have that kind of time.”

I once overheard a mid-level manager say that she had been so busy that she missed her doctor appointment.

The shepherd is more likely to take care of the sheep than to safeguard himself. Managers and clinicians I've polled admit that they don't practice the self-concern that they recommend to others.

Feeling personally vulnerable to high-level change and pressures around “moving targets” for outcome measures, evidence-based outcomes, and documentation standards. Executives need to recognize that accommodating rapid-fire change is a challenge even for the fittest of leaders.

Building Resiliency

It makes good business sense to employ resiliency-building interventions, especially education and training, as a means to making the management career path more attractive, satisfying, and viable for the long haul. In The Resiliency Advantage, Dr. Al Siebert prescribes five levels of resiliency:

  • Maintain your emotional stability, health, and well-being. This is essential to sustaining your health and your energy.

  • Focus outward: good problem-solving skills. Problem-focused coping leads to resiliency better than emotion-focused coping.

  • Focus inward: strong inner “self.” The roots of resiliency are strong self-esteem, self-confidence, and a positive self-concept.

  • Well-developed resiliency skills. These are found in highly resilient people.

  • The talent for serendipity: what is possible at the highest level of resiliency. This is the ability to convert misfortune into good fortune.3