How to reduce your emotional overdraft as a leader

The concept of an “emotional overdraft” is used to describe the toll on leaders when they subsidise their business success at the cost of their own physical or mental wellbeing.

If you’ve ever found yourself consistently working late, anxious, picking up tasks not meant for you to save time or money, deprioritising your physical wellness or missing out on social occasions with family or friends then you’ve likely been dipping into your emotional overdraft. Whilst it’s normal to occasionally dip into your emotional overdraft, being permanently overdrawn is the road to reduced resilience and burnout.

Everyone has an emotional overdraft, and the reasons they dip into it differ from leader to leader, but my research shows that female leaders often share some common behaviours where it shows up most frequently. For female leaders, who are often also juggling the brunt of the mental load – the invisible labour that takes up hundreds of hours – and childcare, there is a tendency to score highly on several drivers including JFDI, Duty and Empathy.  In my book, I talk about the ten drivers of an emotional overdraft being:

  1. Trust: I only trust myself; I don’t trust others; I want to retain control
  2. Urgency: I’m short of time; I’m acting on reflex; I’m not thinking
  3. Expectation: it’s normal to feel stressed; it’s my habit
  4. Duty: it’s my job; there’s no alternative; the buck stops with me
  5. Just Flipping Do It (JFDI: I get stuff done; I’m a doer
  6. Cost: we’re short of money or resources; I can’t justify the expense
  7. At a loss: I’m out of ideas; I’ve no other solution
  8. Load-balancing: I have a short-term need; I’m stepping in to fill a gap
  9. Empathy: I’m part of the team; I’m showing care and commitment; I feel guilty if I don’t
  10. Self-worth: it makes me feel needed; my work is important to me

If you want to know which drivers show up most for you, complete the Emotional Overdraft Self-Assessment – a free tool devised to get you thinking about the specifics of what’s causing your emotional overdraft.

So how can you reduce your emotional overdraft and run a successful business without sacrificing your physical and mental wellbeing? Here are five ideas that might help…

Build awareness of what’s triggering your emotional overdraft

Awareness of emotional overdraft, even if initially it’s just the term, helps leaders to understand themselves better. It enables them to acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and ultimately make better choices to return to a healthy work/life equilibrium.

Get familiar with your key drivers, and list the situations or times they tend to crop up. Is it at a specific time of year? Or with a specific person on your team? Simple awareness will allow you to plan ahead or mitigate times you know you’re likely to start dipping into your emotional overdraft.

Be empathetic, but NOT at all costs. 

There’s nothing wrong with being empathetic, and leaders should definitely be kind. But when empathy springs from a need to be liked or a yearning to belong, that’s when it starts to be at your own expense. Misapplying empathy stops you from being an effective leader. When you do something because you feel you should do it, such as work late because other people are still at their desks and you want to be supportive, you’re not helping them. Ironically, they may be desperate to go home but don’t think they can because you’re still there. What they want is direction. People can handle all sorts of pressure if they know that it’s taking them towards an important goal; your primary responsibility is to make clear what that goal is.

Reject the idea that running a business is inherently stressful and that it’s ‘supposed to be hard’

A particularly harmful myth about leadership is the prevailing belief that founders and leaders must always be struggling. And yet, I know business leaders who aren’t constantly in an emotionally overdrawn state. They sleep well at night and are brilliantly high-achieving. These individuals have understood productivity Ninja Graham Allcott’s view that when you can’t get everything done (which you never can), there are three options available to you: 1. Worry and beat yourself up with stress. 2. Identify a ‘route through’ – work like a horse until you get to the end, keeping sane in the knowledge that you’re moving as productively as you can. 3. Get some help. Hire someone. Call in some favours. Delegate. After all, many hands make light work.

Try the ‘20% of Your Time’ exercise:

Many leaders spend their time like this:

  •       20% on work that currently only they can do in the organisation.
  •       20% on tasks that are skilled but that other people, if they had the right experience, could also carry out.
  •       20% on work that’s complex but doesn’t require specialist expertise.
  •       20% on work that takes a certain amount of ability but could be handled by lots of their team
  •       20% on stuff that anyone could do but that, for some reason, they seem to pick up anyway.

Imagine that you could stop doing that final 20%. Just think – you could double the percentage of time spent on the tasks that only you can do. That’s 40% of precious time and energy now devoted to core leadership responsibilities, achieved by eliminating the things that anyone could handle and that you shouldn’t be involved with anyway.

Be vulnerable. Be authentic.

The best leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable, in fact, leaders who create the space for true vulnerability build psychologically safe work environments in which people feel welcome to be themselves. We’ve learned that when people are willing to be authentic at work, they’re also more willing to take creative risks, share their perspectives without fear of a consequence, and make valuable contributions that can only be expressed within a culture that values trust and inclusion. All of which leads to better business.

Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is impossible to ignore. It’s about showing up and being seen, even when it feels tough or when we’re worried about what people might see or think.

If your key driver is  ‘Duty’, which shows up as ‘It’s my job’ ‘There’s no alternative’ ‘The buck stops with me’ then the likelihood is you’ll suck it up, say nothing and show zero vulnerability. For example, one leader I spoke to had three children – one youngster and two teenagers – a wife he adored and (as you would expect with an estate agent) a beautiful house. So, what was the problem?

‘Most of us in the company have school-aged children, ’he replied. ‘So, at half-term, there’s always a debate about who gets to take the week off. I always insist that my team members go on holiday so they can spend time with their kids, leaving me to cover the office. Every year I promise I’ll take a half-term off, and every year it’s the same. I’d love, just once, to have a whole week to do something fun with my family. It would mean the world to me.’

This is a trap that so many leaders fall into, which is to assume that they always have to be the one who takes the hit. As Greg McKeown says in his book Essentialism, ‘If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.’ When you’re in constant duty mode, the people you work with will suck everything they can out of you, not because they’re vampires but because you’ve made it easy for them to let you take the hit. Not only that, but they don’t have the chance to develop a full sense of responsibility for their own work. You’re disempowering them and making life difficult for yourself at the same time.

Leaders can achieve business success without sacrificing their mental and physical health – and I’ve seen first-hand how distinguishing between dissatisfaction stemming from the job itself and the dissatisfaction arising from ingrained behaviours can reignite their passion for their roles and lead them to redress the balance they so desperately crave.

About the author

Andy Brown’s book The Emotional Overdraft: 10 simple changes for balancing business success and wellbeing is available to purchase on Amazon. Follow Andy on LinkedIn.

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