In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as a chronic medical condition, and with over 60% of board-level executives reporting feelings of high anxiety and stress on a regular basis, burnout in the C Suite is of growing concern. These are people who are at the heart of the business, and without them functioning at the best of their ability, potentially every employee working for them will suffer either directly or indirectly.
In reality, there is no easy solution to prevent burnout at executive level. C Suite executives have risen to the top of their game because they are inspirational leaders, they are great role models and visionaries, and they strive to be the best. But when the results don’t manifest themselves, not-withstanding the hours of effort put in, to the detriment of their own personal lives, negative feelings and emotions can become heightened. However, there are pre-emptive warning signs and indicators, and there are steps that can be taken to prevent burnout at this level.
Burnout, just like stress, can manifest itself in many ways and affect people differently, but there are always some distinguishing traits. Chronic fatigue, being irritable, self-criticism and suspicion are some of the danger signs. It is not unusual for a Chief Executive who is at their lowest ebb to exhibit behaviours that are contrary to their visionary leadership persona. They may demonstrate public loss of temper. They may even quit and walk away.
How can you recognise burnout?
- You feel ineffective at work and at home. There is a lack of personal accomplishment and no matter how hard you try, you cannot meet your personal targets.
- You feel drained and overwhelmed. You are as tired getting up in the morning as you are when you go to bed.
- You turn to alcohol or substance abuse to combat a hard “day in the office”. In the case of alcohol, your intake may be higher than usual.
- You are short-tempered and irritable. You may blame others for difficulties being faced, leading to the possible breakdown of good working or personal relationships.
- Your physical health may change – sleep deprivation brought about by stress, a poor diet, or loss of appetite for any physical activity can, in turn, lead to poor physical health.
Overcoming the hurdles
Whilst there is no silver bullet to fix burnout, having a personal dedication to self-care and building resilience are seen as key contributing drivers to overcoming extreme levels of stress.
An over-ambitious workload and conflicting deadlines are major contributors to burnout. Being able to recruit a team with whom there is confidence to delegate work to can reduce the burden. Delegation lessens the load and is a recognised tool of effective leaders.
Many leaders hire executive coaches that can help them to learn to lead through their difficulties and develop greater resilience skills to weather the storms of business.
Other softer techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help to regulate emotions as they focus attention on thoughts and feelings without judgement. Mindfulness, in particular, is linked to a number of physiological benefits, including reducing anxiety, improving memory and lowering blood pressure.
A step in the right direction
The most important step that companies and individuals can take is to recognise that burnout at an executive level can and does exist and that anyone can be vulnerable to it. By taking this bold step, organisations can put in place the preventative measures at all levels to ensure that stress and burnout have no place in the business.
Health and corporate wellbeing strategies must be mutually inclusive from the Chief Executive and their Leadership Team to every employee on the company payroll.
Ultimately, the loss of a leader through burnout can and will have a detrimental effect on an organisation, which can often take years to recover from. By recognising the warning signs, and more importantly making some small adjustments to working habits, burnout does not have to feature at the top of the C Suite agenda.
Sue Rees is an expert C-Suite executive search specialist with over 25 years of experience in Pharma, Biotech, Lifesciences etc.