The Bizarre Truth Behind Leadership Burnout in 2023
What exactly do you think about when you hear the phrase "Leadership Burnout"? Among the images that immediately come to mind are physical exhaustion, mental fog, and emotional drainage.
As a business owner, you are probably used to pulling yourself up and powering through. But how long can you go on like this before your health, business, or family suffers as a result?
According to 2020 and 2021 survey data from Gallup, "manager burnout is only getting worse." Experts say late-stage pandemic fatigue is taking a toll on many managers and business leaders, with some veering towards feeling burned.
Among the many challenges that the pandemic brought on, The Great Resignation is perhaps one of the most significant one. Managing the day-to-day nuances of a remote workforce, while watching your best employees leave, is a recipe for stress and anxiety.
As a leader, you will feel the responsibility to serve, support with positivity, and have answers to all uncertainties. The pressure, isolation, and weight that come with being at the top can be overwhelming, making things appear hopeless and tough to handle. The burnout symptoms can include emotional exhaustion, detachment, loss of motivation, and reduced efficiency — all of which can have a ripple effect throughout an entire workplace.
Burned-out leaders become slow and indecisive when faced with important decisions. They feel much less confident in their choices. A low confidence level can lead to poor choices, missed opportunities, and lower employee engagement and morale.
What is Leadership Burnout?
Leadership is an active role; 'lead' is a verb. But the leader who tries to do it all is headed for burnout, and in a powerful hurry. - Bill Owens.
Leadership burnout is the feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion that senior managements and high-performing managers feel when they overburden themselves with too much work or neglect to spend time on their wellness techniques or can be caused by isolation.
There is a saying, “it’s lonely at the top.” In a wide-ranging interview in 2016, five years after taking over from Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke candidly about the challenges of running one of the world’s most iconic companies. “It’s sort of a lonely job,” he admitted.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases' chapter on "factors influencing health status." The WHO notes that burnout results from chronic workplace stress and that three dimensions characterize it:
- Energy depletion/exhaustion.
- Increasingly negative feelings toward the job.
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long. - Michael Gungor.
Now, burnout has become a word that people throw around a lot these days. But, what does it mean?
Burnout is when your body says, "Enough, I am out." Burnout is beyond just exhaustion; it's not just "I am tired." It's more of "I have no mental stamina left.."
Development Dimensions International's Global Leadership Forecast 2021 reveals that nearly 60% of leaders reported they feel used up at the end of the workday, which is a strong indicator of burnout.
Leadership burnout can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job or when you have worked in a draining role for a long time.
You can also experience burnout when your efforts at work have failed to produce the results that you expected, and you feel deeply disillusioned as a result.
Stress, uncertainty, and long hours can cause malaise among leaders too. If left unchecked long enough, it's a condition that can manifest as exhaustion, disengagement, depression, and burnout.
So what causes people to get to this point? What signs can you look for as a leader to see whether you're heading for burnout?
Let's look at a few ways you can identify these signs.
How to Identify Signs of Leadership Burnout?
It is important that you don't lie to yourself. If you lie to yourself, you end up with burnout. - Patrick Pichette.
We are living and working in a fast-paced culture that rewards busyness. Companies are under-resourced and forced to do more with less.
While leaders are living up to the challenge, it can come at a high cost to their well-being. Here are the top five signs that point to leadership burnout-
Cynical and Low Energy Level
If you get to a place where you feel your job doesn't satisfy you anymore and you see no future in it. That's a big warning sign. Also, another clear indicator of burnout is lethargy which results in tiredness, lack of enthusiasm, and low spirit.
While putting off self-care because you "don't have the time or energy" may appear heroic or selfless, the reality is quite the opposite. Taking good care of yourself serves you and those around you because it allows you to perform at your best.
If you find yourself feeling exhausted at the end of the day, and this occurs two to three times a week or more, that's a red flag. For a leader, it is important to discuss operations at a tactical level. However, if you fail to vision your big ideas, you might be heading towards exhaustion and burnout.
Being exhausted can rob you of the opportunity to relax, recharge and rejuvenate, and the downward spiral continues.
Can't Seem to Control your Moods
When you start losing your cool over small things, it's a clue that something is seriously wrong.
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 frequently leaking into your work and relationships. It is a clear indicator of burnout.
Low Internal Enthusiasm and Motivation
The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vaporized or become self-centered.
If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to go to work in the morning and nothing seems very interesting or inspiring to you anymore, it's a clear indication that you might be running towards burnout.
Loss of Perspective and Brain Fog
If you can't see the end of the tunnel or feel the sweet taste of success, you can tend to get burned out much faster. That dull, fuzzy feeling in your head? It's a symptom of chronic stress, which leads to burnout.
Burned-out leaders tend to make errors, forget things, miss appointments, and take longer to get back to colleagues or clients.
What Causes Leadership Burnout?
Leaders who insulate themselves from others and choose to bear their burdens single-handedly are destined for loneliness and burnout. Leaders, like everyone else, need friends and perhaps in the light of the load they carry, even more so. - Richard Blackaby.
Over the past year, much attention has been directed towards the rise of employee burnout resulting from pandemic-related occupational stressors. Organizational human resources took multiple steps to help mitigate employee burnout. However, recent findings indicate that leadership burnout may be just as pressing of an issue.
Some of the causes of leadership burnout are obvious and easy to spot. Whereas others are less obvious but potentially more important. Here are the five most prominent causes of leadership burnout-
Feelings of Isolation
The phrase "lonely at the top" may be true, but it is also fatalistic. Leaders are more likely to experience feelings of isolation. Some people believe that achieving a prominent role, recognition, or financial reward comes at the cost of loneliness.
However, the unwillingness to discuss such pressures with those in similar positions is a mistake that can lead to serious burnout. However, the most important factor in isolation is not the number or frequency of contacts but a lack of meaningful connection with other people. Effective leadership networking can be of great help in such situations.
Research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity.
However, research conducted at Stanford University found that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop and reduce our cognitive abilities. Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory.
Continuous Partial Attention
Leaders can get into the mental trap of constantly searching for the next best possibility and spending nearly all of their time doing so.
When this happens to a leader, they will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission-critical issues. Then they rush to finish their most critical tasks in a tight deadline, contributing to chronic stress.
Leaders often work long hours and are expected to be available at all times. They are also responsible for making major decisions that will significantly impact their company's and personal health.
Prolonged stress leaves sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning.
Senior leaders can become trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others, which leads to burnout because they feel unduly responsible for the success of their businesses. Leaders also may feel more pressure not to become burnt out in the first place as they are supposed to set an example for the rest of their organizations.
Moreover, every decision that a leader takes is consequential and the entire organization runs around their decision. Hence, the power of being solely responsible can have detrimental effects on their mental state leading to burnout. As a result, leaders may be unwilling to accept that they are burnt out, ultimately making their symptoms worse.
Tips for Preventing Leadership Burnout
In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel "burnout" setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective. - Dalai Lama.
Recognize the Early Warning Signs of Burnout
Though recognizing burnout can be particularly difficult for team leaders for many reasons, it is an essential step for recovery.
Leaders can start by acknowledging particular symptoms, including poor sleep, loss of motivation, exhaustion, feeling that every day at work is a bad day, increased irritability, and engaging in escapist behaviors like excessive drinking.
As businesses grow, leaders often have to relinquish control over positions they were once fully responsible for. If tasks are not delegated properly, leaders can inevitably be overwhelmed with the range of functions they are responsible for, leading to stress and burnout.
By delegating work effectively, they prevent burnout, stress and enhance their teams' capabilities. When leaders delegate work thoughtfully, they empower employees to take on new responsibilities and expand their skill sets. It is a win-win situation for everyone.
Hence, it is advisable to reduce micromanaging by empowering team members by sharing your vision and purpose with the rest of the team.
Rewind, Reflect, Remember
Having a clear purpose can make it easier to overcome even the most difficult obstacles. Over time, leaders sometimes tend to forget their mission, especially as the pressure of the job distracts them from their more idealistic concerns.
Take time to remember why you're doing what you do. What is your purpose? Why is this work so important to you? What do you hope to achieve?
Commitment is part of life. But there is a difference between commitment and overcommitment. Leaders are often expected to be accessible and responsive at all times. Overcommitment can quickly lead to burnout.
Leaders must set clear communications guidelines that enable them to narrow their focus and spend time "off the clock."
Ask for Help
Leaders who feel that burnout impacts their physical and mental well-being should make an appointment with a mental health professional to provide them with additional coping strategies and recommend other treatment options.
Also, leadership doesn't always have to be lonely and isolated. As a leader, you can also discuss your critical issues with other leaders across the globe through various leadership networking platforms to get support and guidance, which can help eliminate the feeling of isolation.
Exercise and Sleep
Recent research has discovered that proper sleep and exercise can benefit the body and our brains as well. When we exercise, it causes our brains to release a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain.
It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be.
Check out Dr. Stephen Dansiger as he speaks about how a leader can avoid burnout. Dr. STEPHEN DANSIGER is a clinician, writer, and meditation teacher. He has taught mindfulness-based anger management for over 25 years as a trainer, educator, and therapist.
Leadership is tough and increasingly demanding. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out.
Even when they are nearing burnout, some leaders refuse to pause their fast-paced lifestyles and continue down the path of destruction until it is too late. The most successful people, however, have prevented or overcome burnout by following some simple things.
I recently came across the concept of "karoshi" –a term that PubMed dates to December 2000, and it means 'death by overworking.' The term is used by survivors of heart attacks and strokes in Japan, where there was an identifiable link between chronic fatigue and cardiovascular attacks.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare thought that most cases of karoshi were caused by long working hours continuing for several months.
While experiencing burnout is nothing new, karoshi reminds us just how detrimental stress and overworking ourselves can be. Now post-pandemic, more than ever before, employee and leadership burnout is at an all-time high.
If you're currently dealing with it, life might currently feel like one big monotonous cycle with ups and downs. But, when the downs become more frequent, you need to acknowledge the warning signs and then tackle those issues head-on as they can compromise your ability to lead successfully.
Recognizing burnout is crucial to minimizing the disastrous effects on every area of life. Denial is an accelerator. Seeking help is a sign of strength and good leadership practice, not a symptom of weaknesses. You can't lead effectively with an empty cup.
Acknowledging the causes of burnout, unlearning bad habits, and recommitting to work-life balance may take a little effort, but it is well worth it in the long run.