High Octane Women: A book review by Bob Morris

Hugh OctaneHigh Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout
Sherrie Bourg Carter
Prometheus Books (2011)

Why burnout is not an individual problem, it’s an organizational and cultural problem…and what to do about it

I agree with Sherrie Bourg Carter that there are specific approaches that an individual can take to cope with stress in one or more areas of one’s life. I also agree that there is much to be learned from superachievers about how to avoid burnout. So there are two separate but related challenges: How to avoid burnout? and How to recover from it? In both instances, the workplace plays an especially important role, for better or worse.

Those who have seen a performance of David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross, or have seen the film based on it, no doubt recall an early scene when Blake (played by brilliantly Alec Baldwin) delivers a bone-chilling, threat-filled challenge to salesmen in a real estate firm’s branch office. “The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Starting with tonight’s sit. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads. Mitch and Murray paid good money, get their names to sell them. You can’t close the leads you’re given you can’t close s**t. You ARE s**t. Hit the bricks pal, and beat it ’cause you are going OUT.” Miranda Priestly (played so well by Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada would never be called vulgar but she is no less menacing and probably more lethal than Blake.

High octane executives — male as well as female — struggle with severe stress each day and many experience burnout or at least a milder form of combat fatigue and much of the stress is self-imposed. Although Bourg Carter focuses on women, much of the information, insights, and counsel she shares is also relevant to men and can be of substantial value to them, also. What to do?

“The first step in understanding burnout in high-achieving women lies in understanding its insidious nature. Unlike a blowout, which is instant and obvious, burnout is a slow leak, a cumulative process that in most instances takes years, sometimes decades to full materialize.” The results are predictable and probably inevitable: physical and/or emotional exhaustion; feelings of isolation, estrangement, cynicism and despair; and a sense of ineffectiveness, helplessness, and failure. Stress can develop from external and internal sources. To repeat, some (not all) stress is self-imposed.

Presumably Bourg Carter agrees with me that some stress can be desirable, indeed beneficial, as when we care deeply about achieving or helping to achieve an admirable goal, especially against the odds and with time constraints. Sometimes a best effort succeeds, often it doesn’t. However, stress helps to create a sense of urgency that keeps us focused. Stress becomes problematic if and when it weakens us, distracts us, reduces our self-confidence, and perhaps even intimidates us almost to the point of paralysis.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Bourg Carter’s coverage.

o Double-Edged Sword (Pages 28-30)
o Stress in the Workplace Realities (33-39)
o Gender-Based Stressors (41-52)
o Three Common Themes of High-Achieving Women (65-71)
o Blurred Boundaries Between Work and Home (75-76)
o Maybe Not Hopeless (82-87)
o What Makes High-Achieving Women High Achievers?, and, The Psychology of High-Achieving Women (90-101)
o Checking Your Gauges (101-111)
o Warning Lights (123-130)
o Six Signs of Burnout (135-139)
o Basic Maintenance (146-152)
o Regular Unleaded: Traditional Strategies (152-164)
o Overcoming Resistance Alleviating Your Stress (175-177)
o Innovative Workplace Approaches to Burnout (182-191)

Who will derive the greatest benefit from this book? In my opinion, there are two groups: whatever their level of octane, women who are most likely candidates for burnout or are now experiencing it, and, supervisors (both male and female) who need to understand how to prevent burnout and how to respond effectively when it does occur among those for whom they are directly responsible.

When concluding her book, Sherrie Bourg Carter shares especially relevant observations by Amelia Earhart: “Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off. But if you don’t have one, realize it’s your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who follow you.” I certainly agree with Bourg Carter ‘s response: “It is only through your efforts that your efforts that your runway will expand and ultimately pave the way to make the ride smoother for the amazingly talented and passionate women who will follow in your footsteps.”

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