James Louttit: There is life after burnout

Podcast Ep 175: Project management expert James Louttit talks about burnout, how it can be avoided and how he drew inspiration from his own burnout experience.

Award-winning project management expert James Louttit from Impactful Project Managementv was at the top of his game in Irish blue chip businesses when he suffered from burnout.

This experience led him to seek out a better way to work and live and has inspired his career ever since.

“The only person whose behaviour you can actually change is yours”

In the latest ThinkBusiness Podcast, the Impactful PM founder talks about leadership and creating a positive work culture.

There is a better way


Most of us operate at full tilt and often our friends counsel us to be careful to avoid burnout. So much so that we don’t really get the importance of what they mean. Indeed it is quite possible that many people have burned out without realising it while others avoid the warning signs but only recognise the wall when they hit it squarely.

For James Louttit the warning signs were abundantly evident but he ignored them.

A former chief information officer at international recruitment agency CPL as well as holding senior roles at Accenture, Louttit suffered from burnout a few years ago that resulted in him becoming quite ill and being hospitalised.

This experience led to him seeking out a better way to work and live and has inspired his career ever since.

He willingly shares his personal experience of burnout and hopes to inspire positive action in the workplaces of the future.

He recalls: “I was running bigger projects and programmes and my career was going really well. But then around 2016 I started taking on probably too much stuff.”

This combined with a hectic family life with three young children under the age of five, meant he had a lot going on.

“I woke up one Monday morning with a really bad headache but just brushed it off and went to work. By Tuesday it had gotten so bad I actually did take the day off.”

Louttit returned to work and went to an off-site meeting with colleagues where he had a bit of a meltdown and wanted to discuss his mental health. His colleagues were concerned and urged him to take some time off.

By Sunday the headache was still there and his anxiety levels were through the roof.

“And something kind of snapped inside my brain and I ran outside. And I ran around started running around the little area where I live sort of shouting and behaving very, very kind of oddly, and I was very concerned. So the ambulance was called. And I was rushed to hospital. And it turns out that I had a very severe by that stage case of viral meningitis. So the meninges is the fluid around the brain. And it became inflamed. And that’s where the pressure was coming from. So that’s kind of what caused the behavior and the headaches and everything else. So a very intense, intense experience for all involved.”

Looking back, Louttit points out how the mind and body are interwoven. “I was very rundown, probably a little more overweight than was usual. I was just not looking after myself.”

The swelling in the brain correlated with the pressures he had been putting himself under. It was classic burnout.

After two months’ rest Louttit returned to work but had agreed with his employer that instead of trying to drive massive projects he would instead become a kind of competency lead where he would help other people to become better at what they were doing.

“I became a sounding board for people who were having similar challenges and I was running project management and delivery training courses.”

Stop trying to boil the ocean

It became Louttit’s purpose to help people to get better with the challenges they’re facing every day.

“What has changed significantly in the last five years is the corporate messaging around mental health and work-life balance. So at the very top level from HR departments there is a positive message around how we need to look after people, care for each other and keep an eye out.”

The entire experience taught Louttit that people can very easily and quickly find themselves in stressful positions. It fundamentally boils down to communication. “If you have got a stressful situation and you’re not being listened to or don’t have opportunities to have personal conversations, then you can get yourself into a really tricky situation like I did.”

While Louttit was in hospital his brother arrived in and sang some lines from the Jungle Book around not picking the prickly pears that resonated with him. “It is about making decisions about how you spend your time and effort. You can spend it on low value, high effort things. When you do that, it is hard.

“You need to see if you can get help from someone else, can you delegate something, can you escalate something? How can you make that hard thing a bit easier. The question that should be in the back of everybody’s mind all the time is ‘what I’m looking at now in front of me, is it high value and low effort or is it a prickly pear with low value and high effort? Where can I spend my time in such a way that it’s going to give me the juicy fruit and happiness in my life and my career. Let’s get rid of some of those prickly pears.”

What this boils down to in the workplace, Louttit maintains, is clear and honest communication between workers and their line managers. This involves negotiation around where and how time and effort are spent. Clear communication around prioritisation.

“Look at your priorities, look at your efforts. The question is have you got your prioritisation right?”

In a nutshell, he says burnout can be best avoided if managers and staff have honest conversations about prioritisation.

“Make a list, put the high priority tasks above the line and the low priority ones below the line. Agree what is not going to be done, because anything that is below the line is clearly not going to get done. And that becomes your boss’s problem, not yours.”

No man or woman is an island

The genesis of Louttit’s thinking on this was his careful re-introduction to the world of work following burnout. He worked with his boss to apply lean processes and delegate tasks across the team as part of a full agile transformation of the team, hiring new people, training new scrum masters and product owners.

Realising that you can’t or shouldn’t try to do everything yourself and delegate instead, taught Louttit a lot about leadership.

“I had some great people on my team. And if you trust your team, and give them the things to do that you should be sure you ought to be doing at the moment, then they’re going to come up to the level. I firmly believe that there is a huge amount of creativity and capability in the people below you. So if you give them the things to do and then support them and help them to make sure that they can do those things, then then that brings them up.

“And what I found was, as I did that, over a period of time, I got less and less busy. And people got opportunities in their careers. We had a guy called Tom who was there as a kind of project manager. And within two years he was running quite a lot of projects and teams. And what I found was I got less and less busy. Because I was needed to be there to help make decisions and to manage stakeholders and all that kind of thing and to get involved if things were going wrong.”

Fundamentally, even if you wanted to as a manager, you cannot control everything. The honest conversations that Louttit advises you have with your boss, you must also have with yourself.

“The only person whose behaviour you can actually change is yours. You might be able to train people, guide them in a different direction. But in terms of large scale change, the only person whose behaviour you can change is your own.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.