Burnout and Interim Leadership During National Mental Health Awareness Month
By Shailushi Ritchie
After the last two years, it’s almost cliché to say that people are suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue.
After all, the emergence of COVID-19 forced us to live through major global upheaval and national and global events, including claims of a stolen election, the attack on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, ongoing supply chain issues, grief related to lost or ill loved ones, concerns about our own health and safety, remote schooling, the war in Ukraine, and ongoing clashes between conservative and liberal political factions.
No wonder everyone is tired and unmotivated. We can only handle so much before we exhaust ourselves.
Leaders of community impact organizations often experience overwhelm in their jobs because of the demands on their time and the need for additional funds for their work. However, there are several unique aspects of interim work that make interim leaders may be more prone to burnout.
First, interim engagements are usually short-term (12 months or less) and often require guiding an organization through a major transition. Interims focus on addressing a handful of pressing issues within a short time. These time constraints can create an overwhelming sense of urgency and pressure unique to interim leadership.
Second, an interim leader is often a “fixer” by nature. Interims find satisfaction in addressing challenges and creating a solid foundation for their successor. They enjoy the intensity, pressure, and fast pace that allows a hard push during an interim engagement balanced with periods of personal time and professional rest.
This drive and (often internal) expectation of high-quality results in a short amount of time can also put interims at higher risk for burnout.
Last, interim leaders work with organizations that are experiencing major transition. Scenarios we see at Third Sector Company include an executive director retiring after 20 years or a founder ready to move on to a new challenge. In some cases, conflict from allegations of fraud or misconduct can lead to a leadership transition.
Regardless of the cause, a major transition is a source of anxiety for staff and board members, who aren’t sure what is going to happen next.
Interim leaders are often a calming influence in their organizations by creating a sense of stability for all stakeholders. But, the work of supporting individuals and managing organizational culture can also be an exhausting undertaking.
So, what can interim leaders do to prevent burnout and cultivate their mental health?
At a recent Third Sector Company roundtable, interim professionals from across North America shared what they do to take care of themselves. One recurring theme was basic self-care.
Self-care has become synonymous with small personal indulgences, such as getting a massage. But this group focused on fundamentals that we all need to stay well.
Getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking enough water, being active, and finding pleasure in hobbies and other activities is key to mental wellness.
Another idea, borrowed from the author Brene Brown, says that Clear is Kind. Interims can protect their mental health by being clear about their role and priorities with staff and board members. This helps to manage expectations and prevent more work from being asked of them. Interim leaders need to be clear with themselves, too, by setting and holding boundaries during their engagements.
Finally, interim leaders can stave off burnout by recognizing and ridding themselves of Savior Syndrome.
It can be easy for an interim to think that they are “saving” an organization which contributes to a sense of urgency coupled with an individualistic mindset. Interim leaders can fail to delegate, ask for assistance, and refuse to engage in collaborate work.
The I, Alone approach inevitably results in exhaustion, burnout, and mental health challenges.
Engaging with other interims—people who really understand the challenges of this work—can provide support and a reality check.
For an interim leader, the reward of leaving an organization in a good place for their successor is worth dealing with the known and unknown challenges they may face. However, it is critical that, as interims, we realize that the desire to do good work does not lead us to sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of our clients.
The next Interim Executives Roundtable will continue to explore ways interims can engage with and guard against burnout. The session on June 1, Managing Burnout in Organizations, will be a great opportunity to add your voice to the discussion and hear from other interims working across sectors and locations. We hope to see you then!
Senior Strategist – Interim Education & Coaching
Third Sector Company, Inc.