I can’t do this anymore.
It doesn’t matter how hard I work … I’ll never catch up.
I wish I could retire tomorrow, and move to a remote island.
Sound familiar? As a leader, you may be even more vulnerable to burnout, a condition that lives at the intersection of overwhelm and sheer exhaustion. We are living and working in a fast-paced culture that rewards busyness. Companies are under-resourced, forced to do more with less. Our goals — both professional and personal — are higher. We want to achieve more, to have it all — in essence, to become better jugglers. While, in some respects, we’re living up to the challenge, it can come at a significant cost to our well-being. Our adrenaline systems are under continuous attack, with little capacity to recover.
Overwhelm is a chronic, prevalent problem — and, over time, it becomes unsustainable. We become tired … exhausted … burned out. Is burnout avoidable? The answer is a resounding yes! Our executive coaches share their time-tested thoughts on the topic, including what to do to keep stress, overwhelm and burnout at bay.
What signs point to leadership burnout?
“When your energy levels are so low that you feel like you need the entire weekend (or more!) to recover, it’s a clear warning sign that you’re headed for — or experiencing — burnout. While putting aside self-care because you ‘don’t have the time’ may seem heroic or selfless, it’s actually the opposite. Taking good care of yourself actually serves you, and those around you, because it allows you to perform at your best.
When you’re in burnout mode, you lose that perspective and do whatever it takes to power through your days. Exhausted, you rob yourself of the opportunity to relax, recharge and rejuvenate, and the downward spiral continues. Fantasizing about leaving your job — especially one that you used to find fulfilling — or losing interest in activities you used to enjoy could be other signs that you’re overwhelmed and on the fast track to burnout. Don’t ignore or underestimate them!”
– Jody Michael
“You know you’re headed for burnout when you see any of these three things, and especially when you see all three:
1) You’re having trouble motivating to go to work in the morning when you wake up and/or it’s starting to feel like groundhog’s day where each day blends into the next and nothing seems very interesting or inspiring to you anymore.
2) You are incredibly exhausted and bone tired. This could be because you’re working too hard to get everything done and going to bed too late, this could also be because even once you’re in bed, you can’t fall — or stay — asleep due to the worries and anxieties about work that pervade your thoughts.
3) You can’t seem to control your moods, and maybe even your temper, at work anymore. Even if you logically know you need to ‘act professionally’ and keep your emotions in check, it starts to feel like all your negative emotions are leaking into your work and work relationships on an almost daily basis.”
– Jo Ilfeld
“One sign is that a leader will find themselves struggling to muster their internal enthusiasm, energy or motivation for aspects of their work that they previously enjoyed a great deal. Because they are committed, achievement-oriented hard workers, it simply does not occur to them that burnout could be the cause of this internal change. They are more likely to worry that there is something more generally wrong with them or with their career progression.”
– Nancy Scheel
What causes burnout, particularly among leaders?
“One of the more obvious causes of burnout is when a leader works a schedule that lacks consistent and adequate opportunity for physiological rest and recovery. Burning the candle at both ends, the leader treats herself like a machine that never needs maintenance. This practice is not sustainable over the long haul.
Related: Do You Live to Work or Work to Live?
Perhaps a less obvious cause of burnout is when a leader is strongly motivated to drive for results but consistently encounters strong resistance within the organization. The pushback could be at the top, or it could be in the cultural DNA, or it could be localized to one department. But when a capable, driven leader feels that their hands are tied — that they’ve efforted over and over, with multiple approaches, to no avail — that leader will likely experience burnout.”
– Nancy Scheel
“A multitude of factors can contribute to burnout for anyone — and especially leaders. The primary cause of burnout is poor mental hygiene. Worrying, ruminating, overthinking are all unnecessary energy drains. Coupled with a lack of resilience, these unhealthy mental habits can lead to overwhelm and, ultimately, burnout. As a culture, our focus is inherently negative. Most individuals, including leaders, tend to focus on what went wrong, what could go wrong, and what’s wrong with them. The average American spends 70-80 percent of their day focused on negative thoughts, perpetuating a catabolic state. This steady stream of adrenaline and cortisol tax the mind — and the body.
Given that only 33 percent of the US workforce is engaged, per the most recent Gallup statistics, it’s no wonder that people are exhausted. Contrary to what you might expect, leaders aren’t immune to the engagement dilemma. If you’re not doing what you love, you have to work harder, expend more energy and power through your workdays.
Of course, other factors also come into play, including ‘digital overwhelm.’ More and more incoming information is vying for our attention – at a faster pace than ever. Because it’s highly addictive and hard to shut off, we’re left with little time to rest and recover — physiologically and mentally.”
– Jody Michael
“A number of factors can contribute to leadership overwhelm, including overcommitment, which results in feeling like you’re simply stretched too thin. Overcommitment is often a direct result of the inability to say ‘no,’ or to create — and maintain — healthy boundaries. Leaders who value integrity, quality of work and have a strong work ethic can be particularly susceptible. With perfectionists, the stakes are even higher. Lack of direction or clear expectations about the role can feel overwhelming, and especially so when expectations change midway through delivery, requiring a shift in strategy or adjustments in approach. A gap in communication, whether among colleagues or stakeholders, can exacerbate the feeling because of the amount of time and energy spent trying to figure out and address the situation.
We’re all energized by the things we enjoy and do well. By contrast, being pulled away from a deep work flow to spend time on tangential (possibly administrative) tasks can contribute to overwhelm, especially for leaders. In one respect, all of the above are a result of worry. So, it could be said that worry causes burnout. Worry that you’re not performing well; that you have too much to do (and can’t do everything at the standard you want to); worry that you don’t understand what’s being asked of you; that others you delegate to won’t do the job well; that you don’t have enough time – or that you’re wasting time.”
– Anna Bray
“There are many reasons that leaders can feel burnout at work but among the leaders I’ve worked with, these are the three most common reasons I see:
1) There’s a work sprint that feels endless. Look, it happens to everyone, a big deliverable needs all hands on deck, a new reorg is requiring everyone to work later and longer to take it over the finish line. When a work sprint turns into the new normal, though, is when even previously motivated and energetic leaders can find that they’ve lost their optimism and they don’t see an end in sight.
2) A personal situation starts to take over a leader’s brain. Whether it’s a marital crisis, the illness or death or a loved one, or a personal/family situation that suddenly requires a lot more time and care, leaders are human and only have so much capacity. While sometimes a leader’s capacity can be drained by work, other time’s a leader who is managing a high-pressure job combined with increased personal strain can find themselves heading towards burnout as well.
3) An escalating work conflict. Sometimes the work itself doesn’t need to take more hours of the day for it to feel incredibly draining. This is never more true than if you aren’t getting along with a key stakeholder at work. Whether it’s your boss, a colleague or a direct report, if an important work relationship is consistently strained, that takes a big toll on a leader’s psyche and can start to point a leader down the road towards burnout.”
– Jo Ilfeld
What proactive things can a leader do to avoid burnout?
“The most important thing a leader can do to avoid experiencing burnout is to have a regular routine of self-care. When I say self-care, a lot of leaders think this just means exercising and eating healthfully. And yes, that’s important, but even more important is that a leader have regular ways of rebalancing and reentering themselves so that when you get off-kilter, you can right yourself again.
Many leaders nowadays have found that a regular meditation practice is one ritual that helps them take care of themselves daily and protect against burnout. But that’s not the only way; regular time outdoors, a spiritual practice, or a gratitude journal are all research-proven ways to help leaders prevent a downwards slides towards burnout.
The second thing, in addition to self-care, that I recommend is to regularly unplug from your devices. Once again research has shown us that leaders that completely unplug for one night mid-week (just one, folks!), were much more likely to look forward to going to work in the mornings and feel fulfilled at their jobs. Taking one night off a week is a small price to pay for continued energy and it’s also great modeling and permission for your team so they don’t get burned out as well!”
– Jo Ilfeld
“In some cases, increasing efficiencies — by streamlining processes, delegating tasks — can mitigate overwhelm. That might involve blocking out time for specific activities, such as attending to emails between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.; working on projects that require concentration from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.; scheduling meetings after lunch, when feasible.
Become more discerning about the work you take on (when possible), and learn to clearly communicate what you can and cannot realistically handle. And perhaps the number one way to manage overwhelm and prevent burnout: Get perspective. Notice if your energy is being diverted to quelling the worry or other negative thought patterns — and then take action to adopt a more productive mindset.”
– Anna Bray
“Perhaps the most important thing a leader can do is to become aware of the signs of burnout, especially in terms of its onset and progression. By the time a leader notices and feels burned out, you can bet the burnout level is already acute. It’s like someone who has severe pneumonia thinking they’ve just got a little cold, when they actually need to emergency room care! If a leader learns the signs of burnout and checks in with himself every month or so, he can catch it much earlier. That’s worth it, because the worse the burnout, the more it will take to reverse the damage and recover.”
– Nancy Scheel
“Events, conversations, projects … none of these is inherently “stressful.” By definition, stress is a perception. When you change the thoughts on your mental playlist, you (re)gain control of your mood states and can better maintain your emotional equilibrium. If you’re feeling like you’re battling burnout, accept accountability for it — and find a way to manage it. Developing a higher level of mental fitness is the best way to avoid burnout, recover from burnout — and protect yourself against a relapse.”
– Jody Michael
What’s holding you back from reaching your potential? Learn to recognize the blind spots that sabotage your success, reduce your stress levels and achieve your greatest goals through our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshop series.