If you Google “workplace stress”, a plethora of data appears at your fingertips. The American Institute of Stress notes that job stress is the largest source of anxiety for Americans, and that it is escalating. In fact, job stress and burnout have become so common that the World Health Organization recognized it as an occupational syndrome in 2019! So if you’re feeling stressed and burned out, you certainly are not alone.
What studies show again and again is that stress and burnout aren’t about the individual or about the job itself. So what can leaders do to ensure their organizations are healthy, happy places to work? Natasha Wallace, author of The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing, is an expert on training leaders to transform their workplaces.
Listen in to hear lessons learned from her own burnout story and get actionable tips to help you create a healthier, less stressful workplace.
Listen to the Episode Here!
Website: Conscious Works
The Book: The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing
Stop Feeling Overwhelmed Webinar
(4:21) Natasha’s burnout story
(10:18) 3 common breaks in the system
(14:06) The importance of strong leadership
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. Burnout is frequently discussed on this podcast and in the nonprofit world. And that is because it is a real problem. I think I’ve shared this before on the podcast, but I seriously burned out myself. When I did, I became a toxic human being. I was a terrible person to work with. I was a terrible spouse. My burnout impacted every area of my life. And so I know that burnout carries real physical and mental health risks. And it’s one of the reasons, again, that we talk about it a lot on this podcast.
Dolph Goldenburg (00:39):
And I also know that there are a lot of executive directors and future executive directors who listen to this podcast. And please believe me when I say that your burnout carries an even greater risk for your organization. It can lead to alienated staff and constituencies, low productivity, high turnover, and ultimately ruin a lot of people’s lives along with yours. When you are the leader and you burn out, you impact a lot of other people. So the big question is: what can we do about it? And here to answer that age old question and inspire us all to create a healthy work environment is Natasha Wallace, founder and chief coach of Conscious Works. Natasha is familiar with the effects of burnout. She left a great job as an HR director after realizing that she was beyond burned out. Her experience inspired her to help others avoid that same fate. She is doing that through her company, Conscious Works, and also through her book, The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing. I have really enjoyed reading her book over the past couple of weeks and have dog eared and tabbed many pages.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:55):
To say the least, I think that Natasha and I will have plenty of fodder for a great conversation. But before I formally introduce her, I want to just share a quick story with you. So we typically schedule about an hour for each podcast recording session, even though most episodes are only 30 to 35 minutes long. And in every recording day, we typically have technical issues with at least one of the recording sessions that we scheduled. Maybe it’s with a mic, maybe it’s because there’s some weird background noise going on outside like a landscaper, or something else. We never know what it’s going to be. But I can always guarantee that with at least one session we’ll have some issues.
Dolph Goldenburg (02:36):
And so when Natasha and I first got on Skype, we had a number of issues we had to work through. I often see guests start to have a meltdown when that happens because things are not working perfectly like they expected. And you can just tell that they were already on the edge when they got on Skype and this has just pushed them over the edge. I was so impressed because I saw Natasha model the behavior that she talks about in her book, The Conscious Effect. She was super amenable. She was calm the entire time. We were still smiling and laughing and honestly still connecting as human beings even though we were trying to work through this technical issue. I always love it when there’s someone who comes on to talk about the importance of setting boundaries and the importance of being healthy at work and then exhibits that while we’re actually talking. So please, with that really long intro, join me in welcoming author, speaker, coach, and burnout expert, Natasha Wallace to the podcast. Hey, Natasha, welcome to the podcast.
Natasha Wallace (03:44):
Hello. Thank you for having me. You’ve inspired me already. Can you just hang around with me a lot? I’m sure you’d make my days much brighter.
Dolph Goldenburg (03:56):
Listeners, we’re on video on Skype. I showed you your book and I showed you how I’ve tabbed your book. It’s really just such an incredible book. And I thought maybe a great place for us to start would be for you to share with our Listeners your own story of burnout. I just think there’s so much value in us starting there so people understand that we’ve all been there.
Natasha Wallace (04:21):
Yeah. It is interesting because of course I wouldn’t be doing any of the work that I do now without having gone through that burnout experience. It was transformational, terrible and transformational, the two Ts. I’ve always been very hard working and dedicated to my job and very passionate about what I do. I’ve got a background in HR and I always very much enjoyed my work. It wasn’t as if my whole career was full of stress and trials and tribulations. For the most part, I really loved working and I loved what I did. And then about three years ago now, I burnt out. Which was a massive shock to my system because I didn’t anticipate it. It was really, really tough.
Natasha Wallace (05:14):
I do hear more and more people talking about burnout these days. And they’ll, “Oh, I’m really burnt out right now.” And I think when somebody says that, or a lot of the time when they say it, they mean they’re just very, very tired or they’re very exhausted or they’re done in or they’ve had enough or they’re feeling a bit low. And all of those things are tough to deal with in their own right. But when I talk about burnout, it was a very, very deep and difficult experience where I lost my confidence. I totally, totally lost my energy. I found it very difficult to get any energy together on a day to day basis. I felt really low. I felt hugely anxious. I found it very difficult to make sense of what was going on around me. I find it difficult to make decisions. So my burnout experience had a significant impact on my ability to be me and be happy.
Natasha Wallace (06:13):
And it took me a really long time to get over it. So that was how I felt. And what contributed to it was a combination of me just working too hard for too long and not taking care of myself. I didn’t pay enough attention to my own needs and what I needed to keep myself at my best. And an inability for me to do what I felt would be more meaningful work and do something that I felt was really purposeful and had the impact that I wanted to have. So it was all of those things that led me to feel like that.
Dolph Goldenburg (06:51):
I’m so grateful that you shared that with our Listeners. You know, people are not alone. We all, at some point in our career, probably are going to experience that burnout even when we love our jobs. And like you, I’ve always loved what I’ve done. But I still burned out. And one of the things that I tabbed in your book and I want to talk about is burnout is really different than other things we experience as humans. And so, for example, you talk about if you have a bruise or a cut, or if you break your leg, you immediately know you have a broken leg. And everyone around you knows that you have a broken leg. And as you’re mending they know that you’re on the mend because your leg is in a cast. Burnout’s really different because it typically happens more slowly and we oftentimes don’t see the red flags for it.
Natasha Wallace (07:38):
Yeah, absolutely. And people say that to me a lot now: how do you know when you’re going to burn out? Almost like they think there’s something not right, but they’re not totally sure whether that’s the track to burnout so they want to know what the signs are. I don’t tell this story, but there was a sort of existential moment that happened to me as well, around that time. I was in London and I was getting into a cab to go home after a long day of running a leadership development event and a chap on a bike came up and asked me for some money for a cab because he needed to get to hospital. And he had a big wound in his arm and it was pretty horrific, this wound, it was bleeding. And I gave him some money and tried to get him into the cab that we were getting into.
Natasha Wallace (08:26):
And the cab driver wouldn’t take him and said he was a con artist, which was all very bizarre. Anyway, we ended up getting in the cab ourselves and the taxi driver was like, “Oh, he’s been doing that for years. He cycles up and down the high street here. And he cons people that have loads of money doing that. And he keeps that wound live.” And I just totally broke down because what suddenly dawned on me was that — I don’t think I can draw this parallel whilst I’m telling the story. It was one of those in-the-moment, very emotive, immersive experiences where I saw something that societally had been normalized. This guy had serious mental ill health. The cab driver didn’t even see him as a person anymore. He just saw him as a real annoyance who was getting in the way of his clients getting into the cab.
Natasha Wallace (09:18):
And I suddenly drew a parallel. I think this was subconscious at the time, but it became apparent over the course of the 48 hours after that. So I drew a parallel between the world of work, where we normalize a lot of things that are just not right. It’s not okay that so many people are suffering with mental ill health as a consequence of workload, pressure, management style, the demands that work puts on them, ineffective operational systems, all that sort of thing. It’s not okay that people feel like that. And yet we all sort of sit around and go with it and say, “That’s just work.” Because that’s exactly like the cab driver going, “Oh, that’s just that guy.” I mean, it just was so stark for me. And that day I thought, I’m not going to bolster a broken system in the wrong way anymore. I’m going to get out there and talk about why it’s broken and try and help people to fix it. That changed everything for me.
Dolph Goldenburg (10:18):
Oh my gosh. I am so glad that you shared that story and that parallel and metaphor. Because it’s just so apt. I know you do a lot of coaching and I know you also work with a lot of organizations that are trying to fix broken systems. And when I say organizations, I believe it’s nonprofits, for-profits, and governmental organizations, too. So what are some of the most common breaks in the system that you’re seeing?
Natasha Wallace (10:40):
So by the nature of a system that is made up of human beings, it will be broken. So if we know that any system that is made from people is going to be dysfunctional in some way because we are dysfunctional as people, that’s pretty negative frame to look through. But I think we just need to recognize that, as people, we’re not perfect. And so the system can never be perfect. So some of the issues that come up in a people system, in a team and a group and an organization, are the inability of people being able to speak up. This exact issue of, “I can see some stuff going on here and I don’t actually think it’s right or it’s not enabling people or it’s not helping people” or “I can’t see that that person is able to do their job effectively” or maybe you might feel annoyed that somebody might be to not be doing their job properly. Often that is just created by the culture and the environment that they’re in. So that ability to be able to speak up and tell the truth and be honest in a system in the environment is so important. But very difficult to achieve because even in the most supportive, empathetic, compassionate working environments that I see, it can be difficult for people to really tell the truth because they don’t want to be disruptive. So that’s one of the issues that I see.
Natasha Wallace (12:03):
Another issue, which is one that most people will see, is that people work very, very hard. We all want to do a good job. We all want to be valued. We all want to be recognized for the contributions that we make to the environment that we’re working in. And there are a ton of people out there working very, very hard, tirelessly working in pursuit of serving the organization or the team that they work in. Which is very, very admirable. But often we’re putting the environment that we work in or the people that we work with or our family ahead of our own needs. And slowly but surely that erodes our energy, our confidence, our ability to think straight, and absolutely our ability to perform well.
Natasha Wallace (12:50):
And the other key issue that I see is managers who are just not trained to do a job that enables people to feel included and to grow. And I think that really often that is not their fault. I think that there’s a systemic problem here where people do a good job based on their professional and technical expertise and then they’re promoted. I was one of them. And then you make a ton of mistakes. And, unfortunately, your mistakes and lack of ability to lead and manage are impacting people. I think that it’s all very well sending a manager or leader on a course and talking about effective teams and effective communications and how to manage change. But realistically, the way that you develop as a manager or a leader is to really, really get a sense of yourself. And this is where the “consciousness” comes in. So we need to be helping people understand who they are, the values that drive them, and what they believe. And understand the fact that people need to grow and develop and feel included and be supported in the workplace to do great work. So I don’t think enough work has been done around that, to date. And we really need to get better at it.
Dolph Goldenburg (14:06):
I love this because you just touched on three things that are near and dear to my heart. And I see this so often in the nonprofit sector, and I’m sure I’ve said this on the podcast before. But individuals get promoted and run the department because they are, for example, really great case managers or really great fundraisers. But we, as leadership, have not given them the coaching, training, mentoring, and support necessary for them to understand themselves and understand their role and do it well. And then we scratch our heads and wonder why this person was a great fundraiser or a great case manager, but why are they such a bad manager? And it’s because we are bad leaders. We are not doing what we’re supposed to do.
Natasha Wallace (14:47):
Absolutely. It happens all the time. I talk leadership all the time. Obviously, that’s my subject matter expertise. But I’ve still got work to do. And I’ve learned a ton about myself in this journey and in this process. It’s almost like my awakening broke me and I’ve had to put myself back together again. And I recognize the areas where I was good as a leader and I recognize the areas that I just wasn’t good enough. But I’ve had to put quite a lot of effort and work into that. And I think that probably a lot of leaders don’t recognize that leadership is an art that you need to master. It’s not something that, for most people, you just turn up and it just happens to work out.
Natasha Wallace (15:37):
You’ve really got to think about it. And it’s hard work. It’s an emotional journey so you have to be able to critique yourself, take feedback, and see that you’re flawed and not perfect. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and to speak up about that to yourself and to the people around you in order to build your leadership confidence. But it’s not easy. None of this is easy. But if we are to, as leaders, enable people to be at their best and contribute in some way to them having some sort of happy life, you’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to do the work.
Dolph Goldenburg (16:16):
And I love that you talk about this so eloquently in your book, The Conscious Effect. And one of the things that really resonated with me, because I know pre-burnout I had reached this point and I hadn’t really moved past it is that so often we think of the first 30 years of our lives as our time to learn. And then the last 40 or 50 years of our lives as the time to be the expert. And really we need to be focusing on learning and growing throughout our lives. Not just, “I’m now a subject matter expert in whatever it is, fundraising leadership, case management, whatever it might be. And so now I’m just going to expound on this and I’m not going to learn anything else after this.” And so I think that’s kind of what you just spoke to. And I know you talk a lot about that in the book.
Natasha Wallace (17:01):
Yeah, absolutely. It’s just the next stage of your development. I think our ego can get in the way as a leader. You can think you’ve made it. But also I think there is a sort of societal expectation of leaders to have the answers. I don’t think this is all our fault as people. I think that historically leaders were seen as being able to command the environment, they would gain respect through having all of the answers, through telling people what to do. And of course leadership has evolved. So leaders don’t have to have all the answers anymore, but they need to be able to facilitate and enable other people to come up with the answers. So they’re almost like the curators of teams. They’re trying to create an environment and enable conversations that help people figure out what’s necessary.
Natasha Wallace (17:56):
But I do think leadership has just changed so much over the years. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach. Because I think that different things are required based on the situation. But I also recognize that leaders are under a tremendous amount of pressure these days and roles just get bigger and bigger and bigger as we try and cut costs or as clients’ and customers’ expectations increase or as we focus more on personalization and not a one size fits all approach to service delivery. It creates more complexity and pressure for leaders. So the only way for leaders to achieve sustained performance is to enable their team to take ownership for coming up with the answers for changing things, for creating, for spotting what’s broken and fixing it themselves without the leader always having to make those decisions. But it requires a level of confidence in yourself and the people around you to allow that to happen.
Dolph Goldenburg (19:02):
I think it’s so important that we talk about communication in organizations and what we as leaders are doing. And one of the other things that you brought up in your book that I think is so important for us to remember is that we, as human beings, are really programmed to repeat patterns. And so if our pattern as a leader is to come into the staff meeting and say or just to project, “I’m always right. People are going to bring me problems. I’m going to tell them what to do. And they’re going to walk out and that’s what they’re going to do.” We’re programmed to repeat that pattern once we get into it. If we program ourselves to check email every night at 9:30 then that becomes our pattern. So every night at 9:30 we’re checking our email even if it’s not an emergency and even though we really should be spending time with our spouse or our family or meditating or whatever it is that we would rather be doing or should be doing for our own wellbeing.
Natasha Wallace (20:01):
Absolutely. One of the patterns that I had when I led a team in my last role was that I would log on to my laptop at night and I would get all my emails answered. Because that’s when I had time to. At one point, my team said that answering emails at night was causing them a lot of stress because they got this flurry of emails. So if they were online for whatever reason or received emails on their phone, they would see email after email after email popping up from me in the evening, which stressed them out. And if they weren’t online and they came in in the morning and they turned their computer on, then had this wave of work all of a sudden hit them.
Natasha Wallace (20:50):
So they asked me to stop it. But it was something I was not conscious about and I didn’t realize the impact it was having. And I can remember when they said it to me at the time, I thought, “Well, don’t look at the emails or don’t feel like you need to respond to them straight away. I’m just getting my work done.” But I recognize that you have like a ripple effect as a leader. As long as I was doing that, I was causing some sort of ripple in the team which was uncomfortable for them. So we set a new rule as a team that there were no emails after seven o’clock at night. Which actually even seems quite late, talking about that now. But that was the rule that we had. And then that seemed to make a difference. I think you have a different expectation than the people who are being impacted by your behavior so you think, “Oh, it’s fine. Just don’t answer.” But for them, they have an emotional response to it.
Dolph Goldenburg (21:49):
Absolutely. And it’s interesting because I do see that so much. We live in this miraculous, modern time. I think I may have shared with you that most Sundays I have a family obligation that lasts about two hours. It’s one that does not require a lot of mindfulness, but it does require my presence. And so it’s not all that unusual for me to take care of some busy work for those two hours. I would notice I would send emails and I would get responses on Sunday and then I would reply back. And it’s Sunday morning! I’m not expecting they’re going to respond and then they do anyway! And then I discovered this neat feature that I really try hard to remember to use, though as you also say in the book, we’re imperfect as humans, so sometimes I forget about it. But you can delay sending emails in Outlook and Gmail. And so if now is just a good time for me to check email, I can schedule to send it Monday morning at 8:30am.
Natasha Wallace (22:46):
Yeah, absolutely. This is what I mean by “consciousness.” Some of this isn’t rocket science, this is just becoming aware of our own patterns and deciding whether they’re helpful or harmful to you or your team. And once you figure that out, you can make some changes that do make a difference. It also helps if you have a team who can be honest with you. My team did turn around and tell me my late night emails weren’t cool. God only knows how long it took them to tell me. But if you aren’t creating an environment where people feel like they can be honest, you actually are just putting more stress into the system.
Dolph Goldenburg (23:20):
Absolutely. And speaking of stress in the system, I don’t want to stress out the flow of this podcast, but I got to ask you an off-map-question. Although it’s not that far off-the-map; I think it probably really relates to what we’re talking about today. I understand that you have a meditation practice and I would love it if you shared a little bit about that.
Natasha Wallace (23:42):
So I tried to get to grips with the head space type of apps where you meditate using a guided meditation. But I just didn’t find that worked for me. So about a year ago I did a transcendental meditation course. It didn’t take very long. It was over the course of three days and it was a couple of hours a day. I learned transcendental meditation, which is a mantra based meditation technique. And that has been a game changer for me because rather than trying to stop the thoughts from coming, it actually embraces the thoughts. So it says that you are going to have tons of thoughts when you’re meditating. So have them and notice them and then let them go. And then another thought will come. I meditate once a day, twice if I can. And it just keeps me so much calmer. And the only way I know that is because if I miss a day of meditation, I definitely know that.
Dolph Goldenburg (24:39):
Wow. And when you say you’re doing it once or twice a day, can you share is it 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 75 minutes? Roughly how long is each session?
Natasha Wallace (24:49):
So transcendental meditation is a formula. They teach you to do two 20 minute meditations a day. Ideally they’re about 12 hours apart. So when I do two, I usually do one around 7am after I’ve had a shower so I’m a bit more awake, otherwise I fall asleep again. And then I might do another one in the late afternoon, early evening. But I always do my morning meditation for 20 minutes.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:18):
I love that. Admittedly, I have not had a meditation practice in years and it’s something I should look into again. I love the fact that you’re doing that.
Natasha Wallace (25:25):
One thing I would like to say is that I think a lot of people think meditation is just something that you do to make you feel calm. But actually so much insight comes through meditation. I all sorts of things pop up in my meditation. It really does bring things that are under the surface, all these subconscious things, to the surface so you can actually deal with it. So it’s quite transformative in that respect.
Dolph Goldenburg (25:56):
It’s interesting. I was a Quaker for about 20 years, which is how I developed my meditation practice, quite frankly, because an unprogrammed Quaker meeting is really meditation. And it’s interesting because I was often surprised after I’d been doing it for a few years, those personal insights that would just strike me. And I’d think, “Wow. I didn’t realize that.”
Natasha Wallace (26:16):
Yeah. They can be amazing and can really open your eyes.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:20):
Absolutely. Well, Natasha, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Listeners, if you’d like to learn more about Natasha, Conscious Works, and how you can optimize workplace wellbeing, then make sure you check out Conscious Works’ website at http://www.conscious-works.com or reach out to Natasha via her LinkedIn profile. And of course we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. I also, as you can imagine, highly recommend taking the time to read Natasha’s book, The Conscious Effect: 50 Lessons for Better Organizational Wellbeing. I just finished reading it myself and I have to say it is a delightful read. I’d also like to offer a quick tip if you do get a copy of her book. I read it in the couple of weeks leading up to our recording session, but I will likely go back and reread just one of the 50 lessons each week. During that week, I’ll be asking myself how I can use her lesson from that week in my own life and in my own workplace. Natasha, thank you again for joining us on the podcast.
Natasha Wallace (27:26):
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure
Dolph Goldenburg (27:29):
If you were too busy adding The Conscious Effect to your reading list and missed those links, have no fear, Dear Listeners. We will have the links to Natasha’s LinkedIn profile, Conscious Works’ website, and The Conscious Effect book available for you on our show notes at http://www.successfulnonprofits.com. While you’re on our website, please take three minutes to answer ten questions on our Listener Survey. By doing that, you help us keep our content and guests relevant and useful for you. So please tell us how we’re doing and what we can be doing even better. Again, you’ll find a link to that Listener Survey at our website at http://www.successfulnonprofits.com. And I have one last ask for you today. If you found today’s episode useful. If this conversation with Natasha Wallace has helped you think about new ways for your workplace and for your life, please do me a favor and do a friend in your life a favor by sharing it.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:31):
Anyone that you think could benefit from this conversation, go ahead and just send it over to them. Not only does this help us grow the show and the listener base, but today’s topic is also so important. And the tips and advice that Natasha shared with us should be spread far and wide. In my own coaching work, I often help nonprofit executives to stop feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I’ve been doing that so much lately as COVID-19 and the recession have taken hold here in the States that I’ve created a four-part blog series by the same name, Stop Feeling Overwhelmed. I’ll also create a free webinar as a companion to the blog series. So head over to http://www.successfulnonprofits.com to check out the blog posts or sign up for the webinar. Listeners, that is our show for the week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (29:25):
I am not an accountant or attorney and neither on or the gold route group provide tax legal or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax legal or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified, licensed professional about such matters.