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Staleness at Work


A workshop I ran on Resilient Leadership required me to review the organisation’s staff satisfaction data and interview members of the Institute Leadership Team as preparation. Data revealed a clear message … people felt that there were heavy workloads, increased demands, lots of administrivia to be completed with reduced staff numbers and a frequency of knee jerk reactions to put out spot fires. Sound familiar? Burnout was often mentioned in our conversations in the context of these work experiences.

There is no doubt that burnout has it’s origins in people based professions, like education, but remedial solutions are not always easy to find. As leaders, dealing with issues as complex as burnout, it is best to seek advice from HR and other professionals … seek help. In the context of a workshop, it was certainly something I could not deal with appropriately or professionally! It did, however, lead me to explore literature on burnout as contemporary phenomenon.

Background reading revealed the concept of staleness which is regarded as a pre-cursor to burnout. Staleness, as a human issue, seems to fall more comfortably in the realm of leadership and resilience. There are tangible strategies leaders can employ to minimise staleness and therefore the potential onset of burnout. Staleness essentially results from people losing interest in their work or life because they are doing too much of the same thing over and over with excessive time demands. This lack of stimuli or excitement at work are then compounded by our thinking. Our mind creates a story about our repetitive, unfulfilled experiences. We tell ourselves this mundane story over and over again. Things start to feel bleak.

As pictures are worth a thousand words, the street art pictured above, seemed to provide a useful descriptive image of staleness. When life feels grey and dull – that’s staleness  … I suspect if life felt black, that would be burnout. When we are doing new and innovative things, our life is vibrant and colourful as depicted at the Transform end of the artwork or continuum. Leaders need to be aware where people are on that continuum in their environment.

Because the leaders at the workshop were from an educational background, an excerpt from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off  served as a humourous personification of staleness.

So what’s the solution? Some anecdotes to staleness include:

  • minimising repetition through novelty
  • doing different things
  • having a splash of innovation in our work or life.

As much as the brain loves making our thoughts automatic (e.g. we tie our shoelaces without even thinking) it also craves novelty. Often when the brain encounters new things, it creates a sense of energy and enthusiasm within us. The challenge for us as leaders is to encourage people, or provide them the opportunity, to take on new or innovative tasks or projects. Supporting people who take on new things is the next critical step to ensure people maintain their enthusiasm when things get difficult or as roadblocks appear. Remember our brain will revert to old ways of thinking if change becomes difficult.

Of course enabling time out for fun and reflection is a great way to combat staleness. How do you combat staleness with your team or organisation?