Today’s work world is more challenging than ever, with 37% of executives putting in longer hours than pre-pandemic and a whopping 75% reporting job-related physical and mental health issues. They are either already experiencing burnout or are pretty far down the path. A 2021 Gallup survey revealed feelings of depletion and exhaustion were already being felt midway through the pandemic by 66% of senior executives.
In the face of such alarming statistics, what’s a heavy-lifting leader to do when they suspect that someone on their executive team, or even they themselves, is heading toward burnout?
First, Know What Burnout Is, What It Is Not, and What Can Cause It
The topic is nothing new; it has been examined on a scholarly level for decades starting with the Harvard Business Review article “When Executives Burn Out” first published in May/June 1981. Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is not the same as general workplace anxiety, nor is it related to personal or other life factors. Burnout is a clinical condition, one that is categorically connected to the work world. Yet its effects—including chronic tiredness and irritability—can spill over into every area of life.
Underlying causes can include:
- Loneliness at the top. Senior executives already had many people depending on them before the pandemic; author/former Continental Airlines CEO Greg Brenneman shares that CEOs in particular are expected to “absorb fear and exude hope” to keep organizational morale high—no matter what.
- More stakeholders expecting answers. These players are more influential than in the past, as is the global economy with foreign and domestic fluctuations causing greater economic uncertainty.
- Hybrid/Remote Work and leading from a distance are the new normal. Enough said.
- Adding or Improving Diversity Initiatives. The conversation is ongoing, and expectations are high when it comes to improving workplace experience and results for current employees still facing prevalent disadvantages beyond the company doors.
- Continuing supply chain issues, labor shortages, and inflation. Stress, stress, and more stress.
Next, Recognize the Symptoms of Executive Burnout in Yourself and Your Team
The above factors add up to a lot, and it is common and can even be healthy to take a brief mental vacation during a demanding workday, imagining yourself on a sunny beach or snowy slope. Fantasizing about settling for a different and easier type of work while resenting your own, however, is more indicative of burnout, especially since “easier” tends to equal lower pay. Leaving a current position for a work life that looks simpler can not only mean walking away from all that has been gained in your career thus far but resenting those who stick with it and ultimately surpass you.
Another sign that workplace pressure has become overwhelming is wishing to be “just sick enough” to take a few weeks off and rest at home. Other symptoms you might be noticing within yourself include apathy (arriving later, leaving earlier, skipping meetings, letting voicemail pile up), stronger self-criticism, and decision fatigue, which can manifest after long stretches of tough times and decision making and lead to a cognitive approach considered irrational. A lower-quality personal choice such as eating the same thing for dinner all week to avoid making yet another decision—even though it could mean neither getting adequate nutrition nor experiencing as much enjoyment—is one example.
It can be trickier to read the signs of burnout with your C-suite and other executive team members who likely also feel obligated to put on a brave face in turbulent times. That said, you can be on the lookout for the following tendencies in individual employees:
Chronically lower energy
Anger at others’ demands
A decline in job performance
With so many factors this may sound overwhelming, but overcoming and even preventing burnout within yourself and your direct reports is entirely possible. And the sooner, the better.
A Mental Health Strategy for You as a Leader
Clearly, it is best if burnout can be noticed and mitigated early on. As the popular metaphor states, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help another with theirs. Making sure your own needs are met is not a selfish act; it is doing your best on a personal level for the good of all concerned. Positive steps forward can include:
- Establishing daily practices: It is about more than a work-life balance or occasionally squeezing in moments of escape “when there is time”. Self-care can be regularly scheduled in the workplace; brief periods away from screens throughout the day will help you feel revitalized and more prepared to tackle the tasks at hand. Make it clear to your team that these times are sacred.
- Getting real with your people: In the words of serial entrepreneur Paul English, “Secrecy and shame are the (enemies) of healing.” Vulnerability and authenticity may initially feel quite uncomfortable, especially in an arena where you are expected to have all the answers. But once you, as a leader has shared more of your human side with your senior executives, they will feel freer to follow suit, resulting in greater resiliency, and ultimately, retention.
- Meeting offsite with a supportive network of fellow leaders: Those in similar professional positions are the ones who can empathize most with your specific work issues. Not only can they offer meaningful suggestions, but sometimes just blowing off steam with them is enough to leave you feeling refreshed and more able to cope.
- Seeking coaching or therapy: Even leaders with a supportive family, friends, and professional peer groups can benefit from meeting with a coach or counselor who will offer more objective feedback. In these conversations you do not have to worry about burdening those you care about; you are meeting with another business professional to determine your best strategies moving forward.
- Trusting your senior executives: Backing off and letting people do their work without interference, even allowing them to make and learn from mistakes, may feel like one of the hardest things to do as a leader. Yet given that rather than feeling they’ve received the worst customer service, many customers will do even more business with a company after experiencing a positive resolution to a problem, releasing the need to micromanage can lead to the best results all around. Keep in mind that being human is good business.
Prioritizing and Normalizing Self-Care Conversation in the Workplace
Everyone wants to bring their best to the table and enjoy their chosen career. Even with continued uncertainty in the economy, as a leader you can model sustainable self-care practices for your leadership team who can then do so for their own direct reports, resulting in a healthier, happier, and more effective workforce.
On a regular basis, consider cutting meetings short so everyone can spend a little time recharging before returning to their offices. Small steps add up. Don’t simply be self-aware, be forthcoming with your executive team. Become your organization’s chief evangelist for self-care, encouraging communication by sharing with your executive team ways you are dealing with your own symptoms of overwhelm. Then watch their faces light up with admiration . . . and relief.
Happy Holidays from The DiJulius Group