In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Charlène Gisèle, a high-performance coach, to discuss how attorneys and other professionals can avoid burnout, achieve their goals, and maintain their well-being. Charlène is an award-winning keynote speaker and has built an international reputation as a burnout prevention advisor, which has earned her global invitations to speak at the most prestigious stages, law firms, and financial services institutions. Charlène is known for her ability to inspire, engage, entertain, and leave her audiences with strategies to maximize and sustain high performance. She is a master NLP coach/Burnout Advisor to the leading organization that founded a unique Burnout Blueprint method. She specializes in empowering individuals and businesses to maximize their sustainable potential by optimizing wellness, building resilience, and optimizing performance. Charlène was featured in many publications and has also appeared on various podcast shows where she has shared valuable insights and strategies on topics such as biohacking, high performance, burnout prevention, and recovery.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Charlène, welcome to the show. I know that you are a former practicing attorney, who has now transitioned to helping attorneys and other high-performing professionals on their well-being.
Charlène Gisele: Absolutely. I find that when we pursue a high-achieving career, well-being is often the one thing that we neglect. I can say that I’m guilty of that, and I know a lot of my peers have found themselves guilty of that. My mission statement was to bridge the gap between low and high performance, and well-being and wellness.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I’m so happy to hear that because I started in the legal profession almost 15 years ago. It’s historically known for high demand, long working hours, and intense pressure, all of which contribute to mental health challenges. For many years, that wasn’t addressed.
I’ve seen since I started years ago, that there has been a positive shift in growing acknowledgment of these issues, and also more open conversations about how we can focus on something that is often put on the back burner.
What is the difference between burnout and stress?
Stress is a component of burnout, but it’s a part of the equation. First of all, can I take a step back and go even further in the definition, and maybe start off with what is stress? Then, we can distinguish between stress and burnout.
We overuse the word stress. When we say, “I’m super stressed right now,” that’s relatable. What we mean is we have a lot of stressors, but of course, no one really says that, and it’s important to distinguish between stressors and stress.
Stressors are the workload. It’s your deadline. It’s your cat or your dog being sick. It’s your children coughing at night. It’s all the things that you have to do at work. Your billing targets, your KPIs, it’s all the things that are happening in your ecosystem in life and at work.
They can be neutral events, or they can be very triggering events. Your interpretation of that event is going to cause a reaction within your body, within your stress level, and that is stress. It’s the reaction to the stressors that would create a physiological response.
For some of us, it might be feeling a headache when we get stressed. For some of us, maybe we get sweaty palms, or our hearts are beating fast. For some of my clients, they feel they have anxiety, and they can’t breathe anymore. That’s your physiological response. Then you get a choice as to how you’re going to respond or deal with that stress.
99% of the time, we think that if we tend to the stress, that will resolve the stress. Actually, that’s bypassing, because the stress is our body expressing a need. It’s a physiological response.
Even if you complete your deadline, even if you do your workload, you might still feel that anxiety within your body. If you don’t resolve that anxiety for one year, two years, three years, and it piles up and becomes chronic, that’s when you get chronic stress or chronic anxiety. You have an increasing amount of workload, but a decreasing amount of resources to cope with that stress. That’s when you burn out.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s such a fascinating description of how stressors impact, because as you were describing the results of the stress, I was thinking, “That happens to me.” My heart starts to beat quickly, and my hands are sweaty. There are things that we can be looking for that can give us an indication that the stress is starting to build up.
Charlène Gisèle: You’re spot on. Often, we just ignore that, right? We ignore the signs and symptoms. As you just shared something personal, I feel like I should disclose a bit of personal information as well.
For me, stress in my body was a lack of sleep. At the height of my anxiety, I was diagnosed with chronic insomnia, and I couldn’t attribute it to anything in particular. I just thought, “Well, I have a lot of stress, I have a lot of work, and I don’t have a lot of time to sleep.” The truth is that for years I neglected any kind of physiological rhythm. I thought, “Ah, sleep. Well, who has time for that? I better be making sure that I nail my KPIs and my billing target instead.”
The problem with these strategies of course is they may work in one year, two years, three years, maybe 20 years if you’re lucky. Eventually, the body keeps the score and you’re going to pay the price.
For some of us, we have very resilient bodies. It may be that actually what pays the price is your relationship. Then you’re navigating a divorce, which also happened to me. For some people, it may be another aspect of your life, like a diagnosis, like you might have a chronic condition because of the result of the bottling up of this unresolved stress.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: As we are thinking about goals for 2024 and listeners of our show might be thinking, “Okay, this sounds like something I deal with, and maybe it sounds like something I address.”
Can you share the most common challenges that you hear from top-performing professionals in high intense positions, and how you address that in your coaching for them?
The number one objection is I don’t have time. I have so much work. Probably the number one phrase that I hear most often in my practice is, “But I’m so busy.”
What we do is we go into this loop. When I say we, I very much include myself because before I got coached and before I became a professional coach, I went into this narrative whereby to save time, I sacrificed anything to do with wellbeing, because it’s fluffy, it’s sentimental, it’s not necessary, and I’ll sort it out later. It’s that mindset of pushing everything else to the side.
If our listeners are thinking, “Well, I have goals for 2024,” I’m afraid I might burst a bubble here, but goals are only as good as systems in your life. How many of us have goals, but those goals don’t get completed?
Why is that? It’s not because you don’t have willpower. It’s not because you don’t have motivation. It’s just that these things – goal, motivation, willpower – they don’t stick. It’s like a Teflon pan, right? You get it on the first of the new year, you just get excited. You’ve got your new shiny goals, intentions, and resolutions, but it doesn’t stick, and it doesn’t stick because you don’t have a system. What I would say to our audience is instead of having 10 goals, pick three. For each of those three goals, pick a system that is going to support it.
What is a good example of a system? Scheduling. Again, this is the antidote to the objection of time. If the objection is I don’t have time, I would say, okay, so we’re going to start with an audit. We’re going to audit how you spend your time, because we all have the same amount of time. We all have 24 hours. Are we intentional? How many minutes go wasted?
I get clients that say, “I don’t waste time. No, I’m just super busy.” Then I say, “Well, let me see your data on your social media usage.” We find a staggering amount of minutes at lunchtime. You don’t have time to go for a walk, you don’t have time to do a breathing exercise, you don’t have time to meditate, but you have time to spend X amount of minutes on X amount of platforms. You do have time. You just choose not to spend the time that meets your goal. There you have it, right?
It has to come from a place of brutal honesty, because I genuinely believe that we all have time. We just choose to locate it in different ways.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That is such fantastic advice. I love the word audit – opening yourself up to be honest with what you’re choosing to spend time on. Then be intentional about the next time you have a choice to scroll on social media or take a five-minute walk; choose the walk. I’m already starting to think about ways that I can look at what I’m doing in the evenings or perhaps when I’m making lunch and make some more intentional decisions.
Was there a pivotal moment in your career where you thought there was an opportunity to help lawyers and legal professionals with your experience as a lawyer now with burnout, stress, and mental health?
There was definitely a pivotal moment. I hope it’s not either too sad or too bleak for our audience, but I feel like I have to be candid here. It was the moment when my father, who was my inspiration to become a lawyer, had a burnout-induced heart attack and a stroke. I’m pleased to say that he’s survived it. When it happened, his life was on hold for a moment. We did not know that he would survive it. It was very serious, and I’m so grateful that he had a successful surgery.
Beyond the surgery, what shifted the needle for him and what enabled him to make a full recovery was the lifestyle change that he adopted. He was someone who was really stressed – a workaholic, a type A plus.
He hasn’t stopped working after this heart attack, but he started to shift his mindset. He started to integrate mindfulness into his life. He started to go back to the passions that he had before he sacrificed them all in the name of work.
If I give you a quick example, he’s someone who used to love going for fishing adventures during the weekend. Then when he started his career and he wanted to be the provider, the father, and the amazing professional that he was, he sacrificed a lot of his hobbies. He worked, worked, worked, and didn’t take a lot of care of his mindfulness and his physical health. It was shocking for us as a family to see the impact that unmanaged stress can have on someone to the point where their life becomes at stake.
I’m so grateful that I can tell this story and that the story does have a happy ending, because I did coach him to make sure that he would recover. I see his life now and his life before. We all said that this heart attack was a blessing in a way because it taught us all a lesson about sustainability in the way that we work.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story with us. We try to have candid, open, and intentional conversations. I appreciate you being so candid, and I’m so happy that your father has recovered and that he found a way to bring some of that joy in his passions and mindfulness back into his life.
It makes me think of something that you said earlier. You used the word busy a few times. In highly demanding professions, and particularly in legal, busy can be the word that people feel puts a value on how well they’re doing or how successful they are. With no ill intent. I feel in conversations oftentimes people will say, “How are you doing?” Or, “How are things going?” And the answer is, “Busy.”
How do you talk to the professionals you coach about the narrative around “busy,” and do you help them identify language that helps them feel they’re successful, valued, and doing great things without having to qualify it with a word like busy?
It’s a really good question, and I was smiling as you were asking it because I thought, “Have you met my clients?”
If you’ll allow me to entertain you with a story, just as you said what you said, I thought, this sounds like you were with me that day just a few weeks ago.
I was coaching one of my clients, who’s a powerhouse in the legal industry, and she was quite famous at the firm for having a reputation of being that person who would say “Busy” every time you ask, “How are you?” It was busy, busy, busy. It became a bit of a thing that people would say about her. Not with disrespect, of course; she was highly respected, but a bit of a trademark.
I did ask her when we started our coaching journey, “How are you?” Of course, she pulled that trick with me – “Busy.” I actually asked her the question five times and she said, “Busy.” I said, “And what else?” So, “Busy.” And it was even busier every time.
Then on the sixth time, she burst into tears. Because you see behind that status, busy, was a lot of pain, struggle, fears, anxiety, not knowing where to go next, overwhelm, worry loops, and “Am I enough? Am I doing enough?” “I could have done it differently. I should have done that differently.”
Then when we opened up this pain and allowed for the reality to be seen, there was a lot to be said, and there was a lot of sadness behind this busyness.
We don’t often have those safe spaces, especially as high-powered professionals who have a reputation to maintain and clients to serve. We want to do it at the highest level, and we are very intentional, and we really are busy. Then when do we have time to reflect on what’s going on inside our minds and bodies? Very often, we don’t.
Yes, you could say that that particular client was perhaps guilty of being accustomed to saying busy, but aren’t we all guilty also of not really wanting to know how the person is doing?
Because truly when somebody is saying busy, we’re used to that. We okay it. We are as responsible when we hear busy and accept that as an answer, as the person who is saying, “I’m busy,” is. It’s a 50-50 relationship. Because if we start to be in a society or in a company where I ask you, “How are you?” and you tell me overwhelmed, that’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it? We can’t quite cope with that.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: It sounds like there’s some ownership on those asking to follow up when they ask questions like that. There is a responsibility maybe as colleagues to say, “But how are you really doing?” Because from the example you gave, it sounds like that’s really a mask for a lot more that someone’s dealing with and maybe suppressing.
Charlène Gisèle: It’s the veneer of performance; it’s the performance mask. It’s only human to put that mask on, because we have to in many ways, right? Because you do have to show up to your peers, to your colleagues, to your client in the best possible professional light, right?
We can’t listen to this conversation today and go into self-blame mode, but perhaps this is more of an invitation to reflect on how we can subtly change our habits around how we lead and receive conversation.
A practical tip and one that I give when I do leadership training at law firms and other organizations is if you are in a leadership position and you have a team member who is due a one-on-one, or a performance review with you, or catch-up, really ask them to define how they are by using feeling terms. Just see if they can share any feelings with you.
I know that can be a bit uncomfortable, because there is still a presumption that emotions don’t live in the office, and we have to get rid of them. We know and science has shown that emotions are with us at all times. If you can have those reflective conversations with your team and normalize the time where people can open up, that means that they can also open up the great stuff.
An example that I like to give to the leaders that I work with is I’m not just saying to be there for the hard times, but actually encourage your team to tell you when they’re super excited or when they’re over the moon because something just happened, and be the leader that encourages this positive language around the office. Sometimes neutral is not good enough. Be that leader that is eliciting excitement and motivation, and start to use that language.
A little homework that I give to a lot of people that I coach is next time somebody asks you, “And how are you feeling about this project?” Say, “Terrific. I’m so excited. I have a very clear vision. I know where we heading,” and use these very positive words, because that will motivate your team. You’re giving them a compass, a north star. I think we can all say that we often don’t do that.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I love that advice. It’s true that our language has such power, and the inflection in our voices has such power. Also, the confidence you build by saying, “I feel terrific about it, but also, I’m really clear on where we’re going” – what kind of confidence must you give your teammates? “Wow, he or she is on a mission, and they know where we’re going next.” I love that. Thank you for sharing that tip.
How can our listeners identify when they are reaching or when they have reached burnout? What tips do you give to the individuals that you coach on what to do when they recognize that experience or those triggers happening?
The first thing I would say is to look at your behaviors. Typically, we can lie to ourselves, but our behaviors don’t lie. What do I mean by that?
Are you someone who used to drink one glass of wine three times a week, and now is drinking half a bottle every night after work as a relaxation tool? Are you someone who used to cook fairly healthy meals, perhaps not every day, but most days, and had fairly healthy lunches? And is now pressing whatever delivery, whatever medium that you have, and is having comfort food, or that pizza, whatever is comfort food to you, depending on your culture and your preferences? Something that we all know or could qualify as not particularly healthy.
Are you someone who used to play the guitar on such day and call your friends for a walk, or an art class, or golfing, or dancing, or whatever it is that you love to do, and now is spending Saturday crashing on your sofa, completely depleted, completely drained out, no energy, and no desire to see anyone, talk to anyone, or do anything? You see the picture that I’m painting here is a shift.
I don’t know exactly where you used to be. Only you know that. What I’m most interested in my coaching practice is where are you now, and how does that compare and contrast to where you used to be?
I want to know what’s the best version of you, and how far off you are today to that version. That’s what I want to know. That can lead to a very interesting conversation. If you’re listening to us today and thinking, “Ooh, that’s a little uncomfortable. I can notice some shift in my behavior,” that’s a telltale sign.
What steps would you advise a professional to take if they realize that they’ve had a significant change in habit, where they’re realizing that they’ve strayed pretty far from the best version of their self, and it’s an indication that they may be burnt out in some way?
I would say the first step is brutal honesty. It can be tempting to go, “Let me not address this, and I will get to it when, and I will get to it if.” Those are very dangerous conversations to have in your head.
I would say address it now. If you have a feeling that you’re heading somewhere you don’t want to go, just catch yourself before you’re fully there. Because it will be easier to course correct than if you’ve already crashed and burned. You can still completely recover. I’m a prime example. I had a pretty major crash-and-burn episode, and I made a full recovery, and so has my father. Still, if you’re listening and you’re thinking, “I’m heading there,” preventative measures are always better than cures. Don’t wait for the massively ugly crash-and-burn episode. Start to see the uncomfortable feelings evolve and do something then.
A tool to help you do that is to accept that we all need support. You might have a wonderful spouse, a wife, a partner, a husband, a friend, a community, whatever your support system looks like.
I would argue that even if you have the most supportive significant others, friends, and colleagues, you need someone who is not emotionally involved with you. That’s why you need counseling, coaching, AA for some people, whatever community, whatever group, whatever advisor.
For me, I’m a burnout coach. I’m a high-performing coach. The reason that helps more sometimes is because I don’t have emotional entanglement with my clients. I’m a completely neutral person who can just listen with no judgment, who doesn’t have any vested interest one way or another, who can just be completely sympathetic and compassionate to the situation at hand and give strategic advice and implementable action plans in the most objective way.
I think that’s invaluable. I attribute a lot of my success and my recovery to the wonderful work that my coaches did for me. Sometimes that can make the difference between thriving and struggling, and meeting the fact that you might need to seek external help.
It doesn’t matter whether you go to a counselor, a therapist, or a coach. Some people go to a priest, and I mean this with all my heart. The whole principle behind confessions was the fact that you were seeking somebody’s external advice, or at least have a way to release the things that you were feeling externally. Whatever it may be in your life – a coach, a priest, a therapist, just have someone neutral and objective who can give you guidance.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s wonderful advice. I’m so grateful that you shared that with me and with our listeners. I am certain that anyone listening to this episode will have taken away some wonderful guidance and practical tips to implement even into their day-to-day lives. I know that I have, and I’m going to be very intentional about looking at my use on my phone now that we’ve had this conversation, because I am thinking of ways that I can integrate some better choices for myself that have maybe been pushed to the side recently.