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Mental health in sales: how to stop burnout and foster resilience

Picture of Corinne Thomas

Corinne Thomas

Founder & Managing Director

Here’s a statistic that may shock you: 70% of salespeople are struggling with their mental health, according to the Sales Health Alliance’s latest report.  And this is increasing rapidly, up from 40% in 2020.

While mental health struggles are something we all deal with, being in sales does bring a unique set of challenges that can exacerbate emotional wellbeing. We’re dealing daily with the emotional lows of pressure, rejection and failure, as well as the emotional highs when we close a deal. This rollercoaster of feelings can be very draining, and it’s easy to see why poor mental health and burnout are on the rise in our community.

So how can we manage this as salespeople? And how do we get comfortable in sharing our experiences with our peers and colleagues to make sure they’re aware of the challenges we’re facing?

Read on for some expert insights into the phenomenon of burnout in salespeople, including what it is; how it can manifest in the workplace and how you can foster resilience in the face of daily pressures in your role.

Expert perspectives on burnout

Bilal Nasim and Lee Trueman delivered a masterclass for the Ethical Sales Academy on how to stop burnout and foster resilience for salespeople. Bilal is Head of Partnerships at Mycelium, an organisation that delivers services to solve the problems that arise from poor mental health in the workplace. Lee is the Co-Founder and Commercial Director of Health Automated – a pioneering force in the realm of AI-based care management SaaS platforms. He’s also a passionate advocate for mental health, having experienced several periods of burnout in his life.

If you’d like to access the full 1-hour masterclass plus many more hours of sales training, please register your interest to join the Ethical Sales Academy, our membership community for like-minded salespeople.

What is burnout?

To understand burnout we first have to understand the nervous system. When we feel threatened, we go into one of four states: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. While threats to our modern lifestyle are very different to those faced by our ancestors, the response is still the same. So whenever we feel challenged in a workplace setting, we react in one of these four ways. 

This in turn can impact workplace behaviours. The fight response may cause over-working or over-compensation. Flight can lead to aggressive or frustrated behaviour. Freeze may result in withdrawal and disengagement, while fawn may cause people to acquiesce and aim to please. None of these behaviours are particularly healthy over the long term and if you are at the receiving end of these in the workplace, they can be very unpleasant.

Being in ‘burnout’ mode leads to a dysregulated nervous system. And if you’re constantly operating in this mode, your body never gets the chance to recover, leading to burnout. Common symptoms of burnout, according to Mental Health UK, include: 

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed

If this sounds like you – you are not alone. These are very typical, normal and understandable responses to extreme conditions and a direct result of how humans have evolved to deal with threats and anxiety.

Of course, there is a difference between short-term stress and actual burnout. We all inevitably have ‘off’ days where everything feels hard. 

However, you may be experiencing chronic burnout if you regularly experience any of the above symptoms regularly. This in turn can impact your physical and mental health long-term.

“If you’re constantly experiencing negative feelings such as distraction, irritability and procrastination, it’s a canary in the coalmine."

These are markers that something is not right in your working world, and it needs to change. Because the impact of burnout cannot be underestimated. A member of our community shared that the physical and mental fallout from his periods of burnout impacted him far more than his cancer diagnosis.

Burnout in workplace

The behaviours resulting from being a threatened state can often worm their way into workplace culture. An organisation can pay lip service to being concerned about employees’ wellbeing, but extreme workplace behaviours can get rewarded. 

For example, someone who’s in fight mode all the time and becomes a workaholic can be incentivised by promotion. This behaviour is then role-modelled as acceptable – and, in fact, preferable.  So something that’s an unhealthy response to a dysregulated nervous system is rewarded and thus leads to a workplace normalising extreme behaviours.  

Systems form around these behaviours, which recreate and reinforce these patterns. While organisations have their ‘formal curriculum’ – the values and guidelines set out in a company’s handbook – there’s also the ‘informal curriculum’ and ‘hidden curriculum’. The former is the information you glean from chats around the water cooler, while the latter is where most of the unhealthy practices exist. No one talks about them, or challenges them – but everyone knows they’re there. 

On top of this, we’re often taught implicitly, if not explicitly, to wear a workplace ‘mask’ and hide our true feelings. On the inside we may feel pathetic, or an imposter who’s waiting to be found out. But we’re not invited to share this, or feel we can’t for fear of being overlooked or thought less of. 

Combine these with an always-on culture where it’s hard to turn off work worries, and it’s no wonder that poor mental health and burnout are on the rise.

Addressing burnout and fostering resilience 

The first thing is to not blame yourself. But what you can do is take responsibility to change.

Our workplace wellbeing expert Bilal Nasim suggests that part of Mycelium’s work with companies on how to address burnout in the workplace is to focus on the individual and what they can do to restore balance. 

For example, we can aim to shift our thinking from ‘endurance’ mode to ‘resilience’ mode. Endurance mode is when we deal reactively to work, rather than having ownership over our work patterns. In this mode, there’s no time to focus on important things, no time for self-care, and we don’t tell people we’re struggling. We just get on and stay busy.

Resilience mode is when we can design our days to prioritise tasks. There are opportunities to build activities to reset the nervous system, as well as asking for support as needed.  

While it may feel as if you can’t change anything, it’s almost always true that you have more agency than you initially believe you do.

Small steps for improved mental health

Workplace culture can imply we need to work harder but this just isn’t true. Simply put, you will perform better as a salesperson if you look after yourself – you’ll be more enthusiastic on calls and meetings, able to take on new information quickly, and be more empathetic. 

To be able to stop, pause and become better at feeling – not just feeling better – is one of the most important things you can do.

As salespeople, our role is to sell products or services that solve other people’s problems. These problems are causing stress for them, so you need to be someone they can trust to make their life easier. When you’re meeting with a prospect, they can pick up on your feelings. If you’re fidgety, distracted and stressed, this could lead to them feeling you’re not the person to find a solution to their problems. But if you’re calm and nurturing, you become a person buyers can trust and build a long-term relationship with. In short, someone they’re far more likely to buy from. 

Our expert suggest some practical steps you can implement today to improve your mental health in the workplace:

  • Knowing when to say no and setting up boundaries
  • Creating weekly, monthly and annual self-care practices
  • Capping the number of back-to-back meetings for increased thinking space
  • Planning time off, such as an afternoon each week or month 
  • Not being afraid to share how you’re feeling with peers and colleagues

 

If you’d like support for your mental health, this is a list of useful numbers for organisations that can help. 

Reach out if you need help, and don’t suffer in silence. Talking about how you’re feeling is the first step. And you’ll be surprised by how many people feel the same as you, as the discussion within our Ethical Sales Academy testified. 

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