February 15, 2024

Wellbeing: exhaustion and how wholeheartedness helps

By Ty Francis

Continuing our series on wellbeing, for leaders and teams, we turn to the challenge of burnout of exhaustion. Have you experienced pushing yourself too far? Perhaps a team member has had to be signed off work due to stress or burnout.

To help us consider this issue and why you need more than rest to recover, I am delighted to welcome back guest blogger Dr Ty Francis. Ty is the founder and Director of meus. Through his work as a filmmaker, facilitator, coach and change consultant, he helps people relate with more creativity, commitment and compassion. He’s also a thought leader on systemic coaching & constellations as well as Organisational Gestalt. Regular readers may recall that he has shared with us before on using film-making in change projects, acts of leadership and systemic work in business.

In this post, Ty turns his attention to exhaustion. What causes it and what can help cure or avoid it? His reflections help us dig deeper than surface answers like rest or prioritisation/time management. They help us see the role of wholeheartedness and micro practices to help us live that way.

Death by overwork, dying for a paycheck

The Japanese have a word for it. Karoshi. It means “death by overwork“. The major causes of karoshi are suicides, heart attacks and strokes induced by work-related stress. In his book, “Dying for a Paycheck”, Stanford University organisational behaviour professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that some 150,000 deaths in the USA each year (and up to 1 million in China) can be attributed to overwork.

Increasingly, in my online engagements with senior corporate clients and their teams in Europe, I am seeing the frenzied signs and symptoms of overwhelm and exhaustion. To be honest I am feeling a few of them in myself too. Small wonder when our current context is forcing open the fissures of a workaholic business culture.

The question I am facing, as a consultant to these teams, is what can I do about it? Some bumper-sticker wisdom I came across years ago said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going!” Yes, but… I don’t want to collude with dysfunctional workaholism by ignoring reality.

From Hero’s Journey to Wholeheartedness

For a while, I have been engaging with the increased workloads, anxieties and uncertainties of home-based working by enacting the masculine myth of running against enemy fire… just charging ahead and dealing with all that is being thrown at me. This masculine framing of The Hero’s Journey is wonderful and deeply important – but limited when it’s your only recourse. So, I have also been pondering another myth, of “The Women’s Dance“. This myth symbolises a different form of courageous engagement. One of really getting to know the ‘you’ that you were born into and have become disconnected from.

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, it is wholeheartedness.”

David Whyte

The poet David Whyte told a story at a seminar I attended years ago, of lamenting to a friend of his, about how utterly exhausted he was. His friend’s rejoinder? “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest, it is wholeheartedness”. Anyone who has experienced burn-out will tell you, that rest is not enough. You can’t just recharge your battery and keep going as before, like some demented Duracell bunny. There has to be a deeper process of realignment.

In my own experience of overwhelm, this has to do with the twin disciplines of Cultivating and Letting Go. Cultivating has to do with creating something positive, of bringing something to life. Letting Go has to do with removing encumbrances and opening our clutch from grasping things so that dead weight drops to the ground and our hands can receive something new and renewing.

The meaning of Wholeheartedness

What is wholeheartedness? At one level I see it as engagement without misgivings. A capacity for unconditional commitment, unstinting devotion and unreserved enthusiasm. Yet when I feel into this, there is also something of the Hero’s Journey about it. I could be ego-seduced into striving for commitment, devotion and enthusiasm. Perhaps trying harder to feel things I am not naturally in touch with, is part of the problem.

I like Brené Brown’s reframe, that wholeheartedness is about living our lives with authenticity and openness to our vulnerabilities. It’s about cultivating courage and compassion. Holding courageous conversations with ourselves about who we really are and what we really want. Being willing to move forward without guarantees. After all, we become exhausted not only physically, mentally and emotionally but also when we become disconnected from our values and our sense of purpose.

“Wholeheartedness is an attentional discipline that aligns us with the deeper wellsprings of our flourishing.”

Ty Francis

I don’t think of wholeheartedness as a destination, a point of arrival. For most of us, there will always be some lingering sense of inner fragmentation that gets in the way of our peace and wholeness. Wholeheartedness is more like an attentional discipline. One we get better at over time. We can become more increasingly and steadily more aligned with the deeper wellsprings of our flourishing.

Micro-practices to help you be wholehearted

What are some of the micro-practices – the transformative disciplines – that might help us experience more wholeheartedness? By the way, they have to be intentional practices. We don’t just wake up one morning and hear the angels singing!

  • Connect with the “you” that is not your ‘strategist’ self. This could be as simple as leaving your To-do list alone and carving out a space of silence and solitude each day.
  • Have a more honest conversation with yourself about what you love and long for in your life and work.
  • Explore how to feel more connected to yourself and those around you. For connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen – really seen. This involves embracing our vulnerability. This will bring up fear, but it is also the birthplace of our belonging, joy and creativity. When we connect and belong, we come alive.
  • Face what scares us if we stop and do things differently. There’s no shortcut to the discomfort and consternation of not knowing what will happen when we lean into the unknown. 
  • Try something new and different. Open up a space when we are not there in our usual ways. Without the experience of novelty, we cannot feel revitalised!
  • Have boundaries – they keep us safe. Especially important are the boundaries of our values, and finding out where our ‘No!’ is.

These are some micro-practices I’ve engaged with, but there are many more. What do you do, to keep close to yourself and your wholeheartedness?

Wellbeing continued

Thanks to Ty for sharing those reflections that certainly get me musing and at times felt like therapy. I hope they help you and that you can find a way to better connect with yourself and your values.

For those wanting to think further about this topic and reconnection with your inner person & values. You might also find these past posts are helpful: