Avoiding Executive Burnout in Interesting Times

Avoiding Executive Burnout in Interesting Times

For those tasked with making decisions impacting so many lives, switching off in turbulent times is becoming increasingly difficult.

Leading in the new normal means winging it for many executives who would previously have made decisions based on what has worked in the past. However, in recent years leaders have faced an extraordinary confluence of unprecedented challenges with the pressure to anticipate the unpredictable.

Pervasive uncertainty has become commonplace as various global sectors struggle to keep up with the business landscape's constant evolution. The pandemic somehow seems years ago; since then we’ve had the great resignation, Brexit legislation and a multitude of crises all while we grapple collectively to adjust to remote and hybrid adoption.

Understanding our personal stress response

While the benefits of remote work are enjoyed by many, executives who are already prone to difficulties in switching off face a heightened risk of burnout. It is not surprising that a 2022 Deloitte survey of over 2,100 employees and C-level executives across the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia revealed that nearly 70% of the C-suite is contemplating leaving their current positions for roles that better prioritise their well-being.

As the world hurtles forward at an unrelenting pace, executives must adopt a proactive approach to mitigate the looming threat of burnout. The ongoing challenges underscore the critical importance of cultivating resilience and well-being strategies.

Learning how we respond under stress in the first place could help leaders to take steps to stop it before it has the chance to mutate into something more complex and challenging. We can do this if we are armed with the appropriate self-awareness, because our mental health and ability to be resilient has a real impact on our day-to-day lives. Being resilient means that you can quickly recover from difficult situations and “bounce back” at home and in the workplace.

It often starts with caring too much and ends with not caring about anything at all. The 12 stages of burnout as defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger (1974) are:

  1. The Compulsion to Prove Oneself: feeling like you constantly have to demonstrate your worth. People who are conscientious or perfectionists and keen to please others are often most at risk of burnout.
  2. Working Harder: difficulty winding down, compulsion to work, unable to switch off.
  3. Neglecting Needs: sleep begins to suffer, not eating well or exercising, withdrawing from social activities.
  4. Displacement of Conflicts: blaming others or your situation for all your problems, including your stress level.
  5. Revision of Values: consistently prioritising work over your friends and family.
  6. Denial of Emerging Problems: intolerance; negative perception of others at work.
  7. Withdrawal: avoiding or dreading social interaction, using drugs, alcohol or food to provide stress relief.
  8. Odd Behavioural Changes: displaying impatience, aggression and snappiness with friends and family.
  9. Depersonalisation: feeling detached – not caring for yourself or seeing the value in loved ones.
  10. Inner Emptiness: feeling empty inside and compensating with activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol or drugs.
  11. Depression: feeling of hopelessness, lost and unsure, completely exhausted.
  12. Burnout Syndrome: the potential for total mental and physical collapse - medical attention advised.

The neuroscience behind stress and burnout

Our bodies have evolved very well to respond to danger and prepare us to run, fight or hide when threatened, but that same response isn't as effective at helping us cope with daily “unprecedented” stressors. The very things we need to do to prevent burnout are often the things that are harder to access the more burnt out we are. The impact is physical, emotional, interpersonal and cognitive.  There are simple and effective things we can do that may seem very basic but can slip down the priority list, especially when we are deeply entrenched.

Sleeping

The stress response floods your body with the flight or fight hormone cortisol. When stress is chronic, our bodies don’t get the chance to return to their optimum state of homeostasis. Cortisol stays in your system and can prevent melatonin from doing the job of ensuring you get a great night’s sleep. Instead, you may find yourself awake at 3 am worried about whether or not you made the right decision about the next impending crisis. A lack of sleep can inhibit cognitive functioning, overall wellbeing and your social support, compounding the stress you are experiencing. 

Eating and exercise

Stress can have a detrimental impact on your ability to look after yourself. You’re not meant to be eating much when you’re running away from predators and so your digestion can shut down when you are flooded with cortisol. Similarly, if you’re exhausted, you’re not going to be in the mood to exercise. Both eating well and exercise can make a huge difference to your ability to resist the onset of burnout but can become harder to fit in when you’re running around like a headless chicken.

Social support

It’s no secret that stress and a lack of sleep will make you quicker to anger and not as pleasant to be around. But, as your friends and family are neglected for the relentless pursuit of the never-ending to-do list, the social support of your tribe falls away leaving you isolated at a time when you need the support of loved ones the most. If you find yourself prioritising work over play consistently, remember that spending time with friends and family isn’t just fun, it’s an essential part of your wellbeing and theirs too.

Try stacking

Sometimes making big changes to your daily routine when you are already overwhelmed can seem impossible and exacerbate feelings of shame.

Stacking is a great way to implement very small changes to your diet or your daily routine that can begin to give your body back the neurotransmitters it needs to recover from stress. It can be something as simple as having a pint of water beside your bed to drink first thing in the morning or a physiological sigh (inhaling twice through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, repeated one to three times). If sleep is stubbornly elusive, look for ways to stimulate the vagus nerve like humming, gargling, or singing. Or you can ask a loved one for a foot massage and get some of the social support you need at the same time.

Prioritising mental health

Every person will respond to and cope differently with stress. If stressful situations continue over a longer period, there is a real risk of a “slow fizzle” (Levinson, 1996) towards complete burnout. Not only does stress impact leaders, but it can also affect those working close to them, causing engagement to plummet and more people to leave their roles (Wiley, 2023). Clearly, finding tactics to overcome stress is essential for individual wellbeing and organisations overall.

Burnout can be a scary word in the executive space. Leaders are expected to manage their stress and as decision-makers ensure they have the resources they need to look after their own mental health. Burnout is a silent adversary, however, so perhaps more open discussion about mental health could lead to more resilient leadership?

The negative bias around terms like anxiety and depression can make topics like this difficult to bring up but the experience of stress management is one that many people share. That’s why we developed our BeTalent Resilience tool to help break down the stigma and provide a shared language to connect people around the subject of mental health in the boardroom.

For more ways to tap into your resilience, listen to the latest Chief Psychology Officer podcast episode 49: Neuroscience of Burnout, available on all major streaming platforms and at www.thecpo.co.uk.

If you are struggling with your mental health and feel you have no one to turn to, the Samaritans are just a phone call away (116 123). Sometimes speaking in confidence with someone who doesn’t know anything about you can provide great relief and help you take the steps you need to put support in place.

References

The Chief Psychology Officer (2023). Ep49 Neuroscience of Burnout. https://www.thecpo.co.uk 
Deloitte (2022). Work often works against well-being. What can C-suite leaders do about it? 

Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff Burn-Out. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), p. 159; see also his book Burn-Out: The Melancholy of High Achievement (New York: Doubleday, 1980).

Health and Safety Authority (n.d.). Workplace Stress Overview. Levinson, H. (1996). When Executives Burn Out.

Samaritans. Freephone 116123. https://www.samaritans.org/
Wiley, C. (2023). Executive Burnout Is Real—Here's What You Can Do About It. 

First Published: 23rd March 2023

Last Updated: 25th March 2024

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Beth Turner
Head of Learning and Development UK/UAE : Robert Half

Amanda’s delivery was even more engaging and focuses on how she wants the audience to feel. The very poignant stories she told really set the scene, and the end story took the session from informative to extremely inspirational and hopeful.  Having set her stall out as someone who definitely has suffered from Imposter Syndrome early on in the session, to then demonstrate at the end that she categorically now doesn’t (in that area) was very powerful and gave a real sense of belief that we can change and challenge the messages we tell ourselves.

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