With the number of long-term employee absences due to burnout on the rise, it’s clear that there’s a culture shift needed to protect the wellbeing of our employees. During an interview with Annastiina Hintsa, the CEO of Hintsa Performance explained to us why investing in employee wellbeing isn’t just a “nice to have”: it’s essential for success.
A crash and burn
Annastiina Hintsa heads the international coaching firm founded by her late father, Dr. Aki Hintsa, a surgeon to high-level athletes. The company has worked with Olympians, F1 drivers (Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, …) and corporate executives, as well as their employees, from global organisations to achieve sustainable high performance based on optimal wellbeing. Annastiina joined the company after having worked in corporate consulting, where she had her own experience with burnout early in her career.
”“I had fainted on a staircase, and woke up at the bottom with blood in my hair. And my first reaction was, is my laptop okay?”
“The most surprising thing was how long it took me to call it a burnout,” she said. “I had fainted on a staircase, and woke up at the bottom with blood in my hair. And my first reaction was, is my laptop okay? So this was a proper crash and burn. I knew something had to change.”
Does this mean she saw the light and quit her job to pursue pottery making or goat breeding? Not quite. “Many people think that was the point when I joined Hintsa and gave up everything and moved away from the corporate career and joined a life of wellbeing and balance and happiness,” she told McKinsey Quarterly. “No – one of the biggest revelations for me was realizing that being well is looking after myself: it’s not something that I earn the right to only after working really hard for a long time. It’s completely the other way around. It’s a prerequisite to be able to perform.” Annastiina decided to stay at her job, thriving at the company for years before joining Hintsa Performance.
Small changes add up
Annastiina realized that in order to stay and succeed in the job she loved, she would have to make some changes. She started with little things: “It’s the accumulation of small choices you make in your day to day. I made small changes, like setting a bedtime for myself, going to bed an hour earlier each day. I became really strict about having lunch away from my desk without my cell and computer. If I skip lunch more than twice a week, I know it’s a warning sign for me.”
Aside from these small changes, Annastiina experienced a big mindset shift that took her years: “When it comes to burnout and mental health, we still have a stigma. Especially in jobs where we’re faced with high demands, leadership decisions and pressure. I used to think of burnout as the disease of the ‘weak’. So for me, it was about getting over that mindset, and recognizing the severity and seriousness of the disease.”
Overusing our strengths
Realizing how prevalent burnout is and that ignoring the symptoms puts us at a higher risk made Annastiina view burnout not as weakness, but rather “an overuse of our strengths.”
”“Resilience and being able to cope with stress are great things, but if we overuse them and don’t listen to our bodies, they become a weakness.”
“There’s quite a bit of research about how the skills of high-performers that helped them climb to the top also contribute to burnout,” Annastiina explains. “Resilience and being able to cope with stress are great things, but if we overuse them and don’t listen to our bodies, they become a weakness.”
That weakness expresses itself in warning signs, says Annastiina: “Our bodies do have a unique set of signals that they try to flag before we crash. They could be physical, or behavioral changes. When these become chronic, it could be your body trying to tell you that you’re going too fast for too long. My cognitive capacity became depleted, I couldn’t even choose which shirt to wear.
Annastiina recommends looking at previous periods of chronic stress to identify personal red flags. “Think of how you felt, how you behaved, physical pains, cognitive behavioral changes. Try to use them as a cue for yourself next time you’re stressed.”
Rewriting the playbook post-pandemic
So what impact has COVID-19 had on wellbeing? “In the beginning, people were in fight mode, but it’s been taking its toll,” says Annastiina. “Teleworking during the pandemic has disrupted work-life balance, with almost one in five Belgian employees on the verge of burnout.”
”“This is a quite exciting time for organizations - a huge opportunity to improve wellbeing”
With this challenge comes opportunity. “Despite the impact the pandemic has had on mental health, it’s actually a quite exciting time for organizations, a huge opportunity to improve wellbeing,” Annastiina observes. “For example, by giving flexibility for employees to work their own preferred hours a few times a week. Organizations need to create their own ‘playbook’ over time, and it’s different for each company. It’ll take some time to get it right.”
Leading the way on wellbeing
The first step is making wellbeing a company priority. “Wellbeing is hard to quantify. It often ends up in a bucket of initiatives and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Maybe it’s something your company does once a year, but it’s not embedded in structures and processes or considered fundamental to value creation, strategy, or put on the CEO’s agenda: which is where it belongs.” The fallout of overlooking employee mental health is very quantifiable, after all: 36.87% of those on long-term disability in Belgium are out due to mental disorders such as burnout and depression.
”“Employee wellbeing is linked to value creation”
Annastiina explained to us that wellbeing must be treated as a strategic topic. “Look at how your employee wellbeing actually links to how you create value as an organization, not just for HR,” she says. “It’s something that’s linked to value creation, like talent or safety.”
It’s also important for leaders to walk the talk: “Companies and leaders have a huge role to play. Leaders need to lead by example: show vulnerability and talk about it.” As she told McKinsey, “There’s stigma around these topics. That’s where leadership can have a massive impact. I went through a burnout, and it took me five, six years to call it a burnout because I was ashamed. But what if we reframed this? Over time, that could make a big difference.”