Liz Scully has lived an exciting life in film, working in lighting and post-production effects for movies like Battle: Los Angeles. The hours are long, the pressure intense – and she nearly killed herself twice, she believes, from overwork. Now she is recovering, in Bangalore, India, where she is coaching others to avoid the perils of burnout and preparing for a move with her partner to Pickering, Ont., in June. "I'd like to help people before they go too far and let what happened to me happen to them," she said in an interview.
She was first hospitalized about eight years ago, when she ignored a huge lump in her stomach the size of a mango for many months, figuring at worst it was a hernia. After all, work was more important, until she had to admit to reality. Surgery excised the tumour, fortunately non-cancerous.
She blamed work and therefore should have listened to the surgeon's advice to take two months off to recuperate. But she now had to pay for her hospital bills and so plunged in deeper, working like a demon. At the same time, she also knit into her life yoga and meditation. But the tumour reappeared and three year later she was back for more surgery. "I was working 28 or 29 days in a month. Yes, we were winning awards. But I was working myself to death," she said.
This time, she decided to change her life. But making a decision is one thing. Many people, after all, ponder a new course without making the necessary changes. She says you have to grow a new life for yourself before stepping into it.
Working with entrepreneurs and folks from film who want to change directions, she focuses on their skills, values, and needs so they can find a career that will satisfy them. "If you're well paid, it's difficult to step out of your career. So we work out an exit plan," she said.
Sometimes, of course, people resist reality, as she did. With a friend and colleague who was in a tailspin, unable to string sentences together given fatigue, she suggested taking two days off, but the friend resisted, determined to work through the bad patch.
"Eventually, I brought out the big guns to get her to stop working. There is one thing that will always work with a workaholic. It's not pretty, but if in doubt, press on guilt. Being bad value for money is the worst thing for a workaholic. It makes us feel awful," she wrote recently on the Thoughtleaders LLC blog.
When Ms. Scully pointed out the colleague's copy writing work was no longer worth the cost, the individual relented. After a two-day break, refreshed, the workaholic commented, "What was I thinking?"
She finds that people often have a vague idea of what other career they might switch to. But they hold back because they don't believe they can succeed. That's where coaching helps, as she shows them they can accomplish anything if they break it down into small, manageable bits. The key is to work back from your goal, your dream job, and figure out a logical progression to move from today to tomorrow.
Other people have no idea of an alternative career because they have squashed their dreams for so long, determined to be sensible. One helpful technique is nudging them to remember what they wanted to do in life but rejected because they thought it was too silly. Once it's on the table, it can be evaluated against their values and skill set, to see whether the dream might be resurrected as practical.
Finally, some individuals could do many things in life but are stuck because they are not sure which the best course is. She helps them to decide which to try first. "It's always about a good solid plan, making sure it's viable, and breaking the goal down into small steps," she said.
One woman looking to leave the film industry always seemed to be talking about being outdoors as she pondered the life she would enjoy. "Why she worked on a computer all day, I don't know," Ms. Scully said. The woman made a transition to running a high-end ski resort. It's challenging. She works with a team, which was important to her. And a good portion of the day is spent outdoors.
"Maybe today is a bad day in her job. There will always be bad days. But she knows she's in the right place, as it offers all the things she wants," Ms. Scully said.
While individuals fearful of burnout can break loose, she also believes it's important that managers not let the situation escalate since people who are burning out are no good to themselves or the organization. It starts by demonstrating sensible, non-burnout behaviour. "You need to lead from the front. Don't be the first one in and the last one out. That creates pressure on everyone," she said.
She notes that employees with children often are extremely efficient, knowing they can't waste time at work. They get their work done quickly so they can head home. But others can resent that behaviour, as if the person is not fully committed. Instead, managers should praise subordinates who work effectively and have no need to stay late. "In a supervisory role, it's your responsibility to look after people," she says.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter