HR, Thought Leaders

What Is Mental Conditioning in the Workplace?

October 21, 2021

by Michael Le

Sr Content Editor at Clutch.co

Mental conditioning in an introspective process that can help leaders prime themselves for success by identifying harmful behaviors. Katarina Haddad talks about how she tackled her struggles with burnout symptoms.

Development Dimensions International recently released their 2021 Global Leadership Forecast, reporting that nearly 60% of surveyed leaders felt “used up” at the end of the workday — this suggested that they were experiencing symptoms of burnout.

Katarina Haddad of Axellite Leadership experienced it herself before she started her own leadership development consultancy. Learn how she helps professionals reexamine their behaviors as well as the ways in which they might perpetuate unhealthy work culture.

What Is Mental Conditioning in the Workplace?

  • Rethink how you relate to personal achievement
  • Address the bias around leadership burnout
  • Develop a clarity of mind around emotions
  • Understand your performance anxiety at work
  • Challenge unhealthy organizational norms

Rethink How You Relate to Personal Achievement

After transitioning successfully between sales culture development, business development, and consulting roles, Katarina decided to start her own business. However, the story beneath all of her achievements reveals a harsher reality about overwork.

Katarina Haddad: What led me here is kind of an unconventional story that we don't often hear about. Not a lot of people knew that while on the forefront, I looked really successful, I had my act together, and I was doing really well. But behind the scenes, I was actually suffering silently from was insomnia, anxiety, memory loss, digestive issues and chronic pain for over a year.

What pushed me to stay silent about that was this fear that if people knew how I actually felt inside, they would either think I was weak or I wasn't cut out to handle the pressure. I  was mortified if they would think less of me. That's why I pushed through and ignored how I was feeling and what I was experiencing.

You can only ignore that for so long — it landed me in the hospital. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking I was having a heart attack. The short story of that is I wasn't — my heart was fine. But what I later understood is that I was experiencing burnout symptoms over all of that time. 

Yes, I did a bunch of things to get myself better, but I didn’t want to return to this place. I needed to first understand what brought me here. It was a combination of many things, but if I can summarize it in one sentence, it would be that all strengths overused eventually can become a liability. 

And for me, this one strength I really relied on my whole life is hard work. I was not the most gifted student. I didn't have a particular talent, but I did learn early on that, if you put in the work, you can pull it off. That further anchored as the years went by because, whether it was high school math or even high school basketball, I just really worked super hard. 

When I was in the corporate world, it was the same thing. I was promoted. And every time I was promoted, I would never want to disappoint whoever promoted me or make them think that they had made the wrong decision. So I would work super hard.
 
Over and over that mechanism really further anchored itself, which led me to a point where I didn't know how to set boundaries for myself. I didn't know how to even listen to myself because I was so focused on the goal of pushing through and achieving, and the mechanism driving that was overwork.

Hard work is admirable until it becomes overwork, which can lead to burnout symptoms. When the process is self-fulfilling, it can be difficult to draw boundaries to prioritize your health. To avoid that, it’s important to be aware of your relationship with personal achievement.

Address Biases Around Leadership Burnout

The symptoms of burnout can manifest in both physical and mental ways. Katarina argues that an equally difficult challenge to overcome is the stigma around asking for help and self-care.

KH: It’s my experience and observation that, in our society, we're very much defined by how much we get done — our titles or accomplishments, our nominations, the boards we sit on, or the money we make.

While I was experiencing all of these symptoms, which that in itself was a red flag, I was still chasing the things that would further define my worth. I just wasn't able to stop myself from moving and pushing forward because I was really stuck in that wheel. 

What I do now with leaders is help them really explore their beliefs and the underlying causes of them being in a place where they “can't stop.”

For example, for all the symptoms, I was like, “I don't have time to get help.” The chronic pain is a pain, but I didn't have time to seek out a professional. But it was all a belief — this was not true. 

It was this belief that I had that, if I would stop or take time for myself, I would look selfish. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help or take time for yourself in a culture that deems doing that as being selfish, and the word selfish has such a negative connotation. 

There are all these streams that are stigmatized, and we're swimming up against them. That current is the real challenge because it's easy enough to make an appointment to go see someone to help you. But it runs deeper than that. 

That's what I'm supporting leaders and deconstructing. It's not as easy as just this 1-2-3 hack. “You need to sleep nine hours. Drink 1.5 liters of water. Watch your sugar intake.” All these things are easy. But what gets in the way of us applying the things we all know are the underlying beliefs and how we define our worth.

Dismantling the underlying biases around mental health in the workplace isn’t always a step-by-step process, nor is progress linear. Try starting with deep introspection to help set the foundation.

Develop a Clarity of Mind Around Emotions

Katarina notes that emotions are another form of language — they’re a way for your body to give you key information, and there’s a place for them in a business environment.

Michael Le: As I'm going through my career and reassessing how I handle certain situations, I started to realize that a lot of the tools that made me successful in the first place no longer applied in these new situations and needed to be recontextualized. How did you find the tools that worked for you?

KH: I went on a discovery journey, so I and that journey just had me explore everything from within and request and everything. So I really started with observing why do I think the way that I think to realize that a lot of those thoughts were conditioned from all kinds of different sources also started exploring how I feel. 

That was a large piece of work that I'm still really passionate about. There's so much taboo around honoring our emotions, especially in the corporate world. You're not supposed to feel; you're supposed to act. And feelings or emotions are considered “weak,” or at least there are only some acceptable emotions. But the fuller spectrum of those — that's not to be talked about nor experienced. You need to “power through/push through” whatever language you want to use there. 

One of the areas that really helped me in terms of finding my way and the tools that I've used —  and there's been so many — was really to start exploring within so that I can know myself better and also deconstruct some of my own beliefs around certain emotions. They're not bad; they're information. 

If I can lean into those emotions, it's a language that my body is wanting to communicate. And, as a result, that's going to help me make better decisions for myself and the people around me. 

Some of the tools that I've used are really the introspective kind of exploring why I think what I think. To use a language you were just using, ask yourself, "Do these thoughts and beliefs still serve me? They might have served me for a good chunk of my life, but where I am today, are they still serving me?" And "Do I still need them moving forward or do I need to reconstruct them?"

Listen critically to your emotions when confronting your beliefs because they can play critical roles in self-assessment. And ask yourself if your coping mechanisms are still serving you or if you need to reassess.

Understand Your Performance Anxiety at Work

As a teenager, Katarina noted that she felt anxious and overwhelmed, but she found solace in diving into her interests. It wasn’t until later did she realize that her hard-work mentality was potentially a crutch.

ML: It can be terrifying when you link your identity with your work. Then when you are forced to confront that aspect, you don't realize it, but you take it as a personal affront. If I am not a hard worker and I'm resting, who am I now? It becomes an existential crisis. 

KH: Yes. What also led me to the point where I became so enmeshed with my work identity was that I had a lot of anxiety in my late teens. I had all kinds of big feelings and I felt really overwhelmed. 

Around 23, I discovered a job that I could do — it was a corporate trainer. I got the job and I was super passionate about it. 

The thing is, I would get so enmeshed because it was a really nice way for me to be busy. And when I was super busy, I wasn't feeling anxious. I wasn't feeling the big emotions. So, I also started feeding into that addiction to be busy so that I wouldn't feel. 

Again, at least at that time in society, there wasn't a lot of education about emotions — that emotions are natural, valid, and all these wonderful things that we have access to today. So, I felt something was wrong with me, and I could drown those by staying really busy. 

It was an escape from the things that I couldn't manage within myself. It was a way for me to numb those feelings by staying really busy, which is another big problem: the inability to manage our emotions or even understand them. 

For me to discover who I was, I needed to go back to the hard feelings, those big emotions that I was experiencing, and learn about them. I needed to learn how to cohabitate with them, accept them, and regulate them. And I needed to learn that that is part of who I am. 

Who I am as a human being is someone that has emotions just like any other human being.

People can develop different coping mechanisms to avoid confronting their emotions. While they may seem productive, they can be detrimental to your health and manifest in other ways. Strong leaders learn to embrace and manage their feelings to make smart decisions.

Challenge Unhealthy Organizational Norms

Organizations focus on optimizing their structures and workflows, which can lead to a “work hard, play hard” mentality. However, Katarina suggests that playing is not the same as resting and that companies should consider what rest cycles look like.

KH: We've got this construct that play is replenishment. Let's say the typical “Play hard on the weekend.” We have parties, go to bed late, eat great food, drink — all those things. Yes, it feels nourishing from maybe a heart perspective, but for the body, you still went to bed at one o'clock in the morning. And maybe you didn't eat the right foods that would help you restore.

What does it actually mean to operate as the best version of ourselves and optimally when the culture is all about the “go go go”? 

I was thinking about where the inception of that could have been brought on us. Just in the industrial era with robotics automation, everything has been about maximizing efficiency so that we can maximize profit. And I think that there's this lost belief that robotics would equate to what a human resource can do. But we are not robots, and we have human needs that we need to consider if we want to operate at our best. That includes massive rest as a very core pillar. 

If you just look at how athletes can really sustain high performance, they'll practice their sport, but they have an equal if not more rigorous rest and recovery practice.

That is counterintuitive in the corporate world. On the contrary, somehow we believe that if you rest, then you’re lazy, you're not productive, and you're not efficient — and that would somehow negatively impact the bottom line. 

That is such a flawed way of thinking, and it was it's been conditioned in us for so many years. If we even just look at TV shows like Chicago Hope or Suits, it's all law firms and doctors. They're working around the clock till late at night, drinking a scotch to kind of unwind. That seems really cool! But you never see them check out early taking a mental health day, going home and having a piece of fish with water, or going to bed early. 

This ideal of success and performance has just been instilled in us at such an early age, and it’s everywhere in the media.

ML: It's bragging rights too.

KH: I surely felt that way as well, back in the day. We would wear it like a badge of honor. I would get high praise for that, and I'm sure I was promoted several times because of my work ethic. I worked really hard late in the evenings and on the weekends. I was very dedicated and devoted. 

But when you look at it from a human, mental health perspective, that's not sustainable. Maybe there are sprints that we can operate that way, but organizations definitely need to rethink work structures with COVID-19. We also should really consider how we can integrate rest cycles into the culture and praise that to help dismantle these flawed beliefs that if I prioritize my rest or honor my needs as a human, then I would be less-than somehow. 

The ways in which society glorifies work culture can condition people into striving for an always-on mentality, but rest is essential for mitigating burnout. Build in time to regenerate, and honor your human needs.

How to Find Katarina

Chat with Katarina at Axellite Leadership to discover more about leadership development. You’ll find several resources to help you get started!

Looking for more business tips from a range of industry leaders? Follow our podcast From the Ground Up to check out our other episodes.

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