From self-direction to exhaustion

Self-direction is the buzz-word of the day. It seems to jump at you whenever you’re browsing through LinkedIn or the news nowadays – even to the point that the term is starting to feel a bit hackneyed.

The way working life has changed has forced companies to adapt their organizational structures and to emphasize entrepreneurial approaches at the workplace. Employees are required to be self-directing, in other words, to manage their own time, work tasks and activities.

In this new situation, everybody is expected to be in control of their own output, and when it comes to people in expert positions, no one is there to tell them how things should be done anymore. It’s as if workplaces are being filled with small entrepreneurs, and if the work has a strong appeal or when a person’s strong work ethics and excitement about their job is added to the mix, self-direction may become a prelude to burnout.

Is self-direction for everyone?

In my opinion, most people can use self-direction to their advantage. No one can be expected to be automatically self-directing, however. Self-direction is something you can learn, but it has to happen in a controlled way so that you won’t be overwhelmed by the workload. If the framework you’re working with and the objectives of the job are not clear, you may experience feelings of inadequacy when there’s too much work but you’re not able to manage it or know how to ask for help. This is when there’s a clear risk of running out of steam.

It should be borne in mind that no one needs to make it on their own. Self-direction doesn’t mean being left to work things out alone without any support from others; what is needed to complement a person’s self-management is group direction.

Group direction is the advanced form of self-direction.

A self-directing organization needs group direction which manifests itself in common rules, objectives and goals. Help is given and support is provided when needed.

Group direction also ensures that a self-directing organization is headed to the right direction strategically speaking.

A group-directing work culture requires a new management model. Micromanagement is not needed, but that doesn’t mean that leadership is a thing of the past. The job of the management is to ensure that the company has a set of crystal clear objectives and that everyone in the organization knows what’s expected of them. Psychologically, this creates a feeling of security, which enables self-direction with less stress.

Here I see a direct link with my job description. I don’t work in HR in any traditional sense, but my job is to keep an eye on how people are doing and help them manage their workloads and schedules. I think this type of coaching or servant leadership is something that supports a company’s growth and helps people to cope despite some inevitable stressful periods.

If there’s someone you can turn to when things become too much to handle, you immediately feel better inside. Knowing that someone is there to listen and ready to give you a hand may be enough to relieve some stress and make you feel better.

With great power comes great responsibility

Even if group direction is seamless and the organization has created a culture of servant leadership, expert work is stressful. And even if the workplace has implemented an amazing framework and the rules you follow couldn’t be any clearer, information intensive work can be encumbering.

People have a tendency to blame outsiders when they start feeling tired even though ultimately everyone is responsible for their own work and wellbeing. Having a good self-knowledge lays the foundation for everything else. When you know yourself and your ways of reacting to various situations, you have the opportunity to take action in time when the first signs of a creeping exhaustion appear.

What are these signs, then?

You become forgetful – you start forgetting names or words.

Sleep doesn’t help you recover – you may have trouble falling asleep or you wake in the early hours of the morning to think about work.

You lose some of your free time – you’re working in your spare time or read emails late at night.

You exceed your overtime cap – you bank too many overtime hours and don’t have time to book them off.

You’re always available – being too excited or having too strong work ethics may result in you saying ‘yes’ to everything.

Neck and head pain – your shoulders are so tense that they cause you to have neck pain and headaches.

Having to go to work makes you anxious – your stomach is in knots and you feel like you never want to leave the bed in the morning.

Feeling unaccomplished – you work long hours but still feel like you’re not getting anything done.

Skipping work breaks – you don’t join the others for coffee or lunch anymore.

Being grumpy and tense – you snap at your friends and family and even the smallest things annoy you.

The things above give you an idea of what to look out for but do bear in mind that every person is always an individual and that not all people react to stress and exhaustion in the same way.

What am I supposed to do if the signs match?

Ask for help – don’t try to solve your problems on your own.

Talk to someone – sometimes being able to verbalize your thoughts can help.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts and wish everyone relaxing and stress-free holidays!