Sustainability and the never-ending battle against burnout
Chris Gaither
Mon, 07/20/2020 – 01:04

I felt sure I’d put burnout in the past. I’d quit my high-stress job at Apple, started my own executive-coaching business and found balance in my life.

Then, with shame burning my face, I had to cancel a GreenBiz workshop I was leading about how to take care of yourself. Why? Because I hadn’t taken care of myself.

That’s the thing about burnout: It creeps back in as soon as you stop paying attention.

I began discussing burnout with GreenBiz leaders in early 2019. Yes, my own, which came at the end of four years helping Apple become a model of environmental sustainability. But also the debilitating exhaustion of so many sustainability professionals who wear themselves down in service of this crucial work.

“Sustainability is a challenging field,” an attendee of the GreenBiz 19 forum wrote in a post-event survey. “Many think we’re crazy, the news about the environment is typically negative, and all major ecosystems are still in decline. It can be depressing and sticking with the fight can be hard. How can we keep ourselves energized?”

I eagerly agreed to lead a session called ‘Human Sustainability: Maintain Your Energy to Pursue What Matters.’ I’d failed to do that plenty of times in my life.

I eagerly agreed to lead a session about this at GreenBiz 20 in Phoenix. We called it, “Human Sustainability: Maintain Your Energy to Pursue What Matters.”

I’d failed to do that plenty of times in my life.

As I recounted in the first article in this series, my 20-year career had left me with a desperate case of burnout. My tank was empty. Depression, fatigue and physical pain overtook me.

So, I took a mid-career break to recuperate. I slept. Underwent chronic-pain counseling. Got in shape. Drove my son’s soccer carpools. Volunteered at my local food bank and in underserved schools. Read more than 120 books. Took creative writing classes. Walked in the woods. Reflected.

Slowly, I began to diagnose what had gone wrong. My life was badly misaligned.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I was proud of being a director on Apple’s Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives team (and very grateful for the Apple shares that accompanied the title). I loved learning from my incredible boss, Lisa Jackson, leading huge projects with talented colleagues and championing our environmental stewardship. I’d gotten what I thought I wanted.

But I realized that, in my early 40s, my values were coming into much sharper focus. Family, community, health, creativity — those are the things that light me up, give me meaning.

When I examined where I actually focused my time, attention and physical energy, though, there was a huge disconnect.

I was working nonstop, missing important family moments. I commuted three to four hours a day between my Oakland home and One Infinite Loop in Cupertino, Apple’s headquarters. I made little time for exercise or personal creative projects. And as I moved up the corporate ladder, I delegated much of the hands-on work that had brought me joy.

In the huge gap between my values and my activities, pain and misery grew like a weed. My body and spirit were trying so hard to tell me that I was off the rails.

I vowed to find alignment. I trained as a coach and started my own leadership practice. I’ve landed clients at big companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, Levi Strauss, Airbnb and Mars, as well as startups and nonprofits. I help them lead with purpose while not sacrificing their own human sustainability.

The work lights me up with meaning, joy and energy, and constantly reminds me to rejuvenate myself.

I was excited to help GreenBiz 20 attendees explore how they, too, could maintain their own sustainability. I’d booked my flight. I’d thought hard about the impact I wanted to have: to help these sustainability professionals avoid, or recognize and repair, the kind of burnout I’d faced. I’d spent weeks designing the workshop.

Then I got overwhelmed. And sick. I overlooked the signs that I was out of alignment again.

It began with a mild cold, just before Christmas. It stuck around and flared up hard after I made a 24-hour work trip, between San Francisco and Orlando, to please a new corporate partner. I felt awful. Hard coughing. Nasal congestion. Achy sinuses, ears and muscles.

This was before COVID-19 swept the globe, so I tried to ignore my symptoms. I kept moving ahead: negotiating the legal aspects of my divorce, co-parenting our adolescent son, running leadership development workshops, coaching almost 20 clients.

My symptoms, especially my cough, got worse. In late January, just a few days before GreenBiz 20, I found myself in radiology. The chest X-ray came back clean for pneumonia, but my doctor diagnosed me with a respiratory infection.

What will help me make the long-term difference I want to bring to the world? It became crystal clear: I would honor my health.

I told him I needed to travel to Phoenix to run a workshop. Environmentalists struggling with burnout were counting on me.

He gave me antibiotics. They didn’t help.

The Phoenix trip was drawing closer and closer.

I couldn’t imagine suffering through a flight and energizing a roomful of people while feeling so crummy.

I also couldn’t imagine canceling. I’d have to admit — to the organizers, to myself — that I’d failed to live up to the rejuvenation message I planned to deliver. I’d taken on too much, plowed past the warning signs my body was trying to send me and put the needs of other people above my own wellbeing.

I panicked. I fretted. I asked friends for advice, hoping someone would decide for me.

Then, I slowed down and coached myself. I asked, What’s most important right now? How do I want to be? What will help me make the long-term difference I want to bring to the world?

And it became crystal clear: I would honor my health. To authentically deliver this message of human sustainability, I needed to live it. I had to take care of myself so I could take care of others.

I canceled my session, stayed home and replenished the energy I need to do the work I love. GreenBiz 20 went just fine without me.

The relapse was a painful and important reminder that finding balance isn’t something you do once. You do it each day, by aligning your values with your activities.

And when you get it wrong, like I did, your body and spirit will tell you, unequivocally.

Pull Quote
I eagerly agreed to lead a session called ‘Human Sustainability: Maintain Your Energy to Pursue What Matters.’ I’d failed to do that plenty of times in my life.
What will help me make the long-term difference I want to bring to the world? It became crystal clear: I would honor my health.
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