Leadership burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress experienced by people in leadership roles. This happens when leaders feel trapped in a quicksand of demands and volatile business climates, yet don’t have the resources to manage these stressors.
With all the firefighting and “watching out for the troops”, leaders often overlook burnout until it's too late. Or worse, they deny the signs and bite the bullet only to suffer health consequences later. Yet, no one can lead from an empty cup. So today, we’ll address the traits and side effects of leadership burnout, as well as how to prevent and manage it across leaders at all levels.
Understanding Leadership Burnout
According to Development Dimensions International's Global Leadership Forecast in 2021, many leaders (about 60%) feel exhausted at the end of the workday, which is a sign of burnout (1).
Additionally, a Deloitte survey showed that nearly 70% of executives are thinking about leaving their jobs for companies that prioritize their well-being (2). This is clearly evidenced in 2022, when major companies including Amazon, Starbucks, Pinterest, and American Airlines, have seen the departure of their CEOs.
Factors that may increase the risk of leadership burnout include working long hours, bearing too much responsibility, and toxic work environments. Without sufficient support or resources, leaders may face symptoms such as:
Physical exhaustion: fatigue, insomnia, or a lack of energy.
Emotional exhaustion: overwhelm, cynicism, or feeling detached from their work.
Mental exhaustion: having difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or solving problems.
Decreased productivity: decrease in work quality or quantity, making more mistakes, and having difficulty making important decisions.
Decreased job satisfaction: feel disillusioned or unhappy with their work.
Managing and Preventing Leadership Burnout
Leading a team and/or organisation in today’s climate is a daunting task (3). In 2022 alone, we’ve dealt with inflation, global health scares, supply chain issues, and large-scale resignations. These pressing concerns of 2022 will likely bleed into the years ahead.
That’s why more than ever, the modern leader needs to be healthy in all aspects to lead successfully. And that starts with being health-savvy and building skills that prevent and manage burnout. Here’s how:
1) Demystify leadership burnout
Gone needs to be the days when we tell people, especially leaders, to suck it up and just leap into the fire. From leaders to other leaders, employees to their supervisors, and to most importantly to ourselves - acknowledge that burnout is a real thing that deserves attention.
Research even confirms that leaders who model self-compassion are better leaders overall (4). They are more emotionally intelligent and resilient and these traits cascade down their teams. The more we educate ourselves and others, the less guilt we feel when pressures begin to pile up.
2) Nurture emotionally safe environments
Leaders uphold a lot of emotional labour, whereby they hide their true feelings to meet the expectations of their role. Studies suggest that leaders perform emotional labour similar to that of front-line workers who must consistently deliver “service with a smile” (5). Unfortunately, forced and prolonged inauthenticity at work can manifest into aggression, insomnia, heavy drinking, and other health issues (6,7,8).
However, a global study of 12,000 employees found that people are more willing to go the extra mile when their manager removes their halo and shows vulnerability (9). This shows how building an emotionally safe workplace from the top not only relieves the dissonance between a leader’s feelings and actions but also creates a more engaging culture.
3) Diversify your identity
Remember, you’re more than just a leader. And you deserve to find multiple places in the world where you can find peace, belonging, and worthiness. May it be a fitness group, book club, a baking class - make time to detach from your identity as a leader every once in a while.
A survey by the Harvard Business Review reported 81% of respondents agreed that anchoring their identity on hobbies outside of their role as a leader helps manage work stressors (10). So, don’t skimp on the things that inspire you or bring you a sense of inner peace. Even simple activities like journaling and meditation go a long way.
4) Replenish your tanks
A startling 73% of executives say they don't take enough time off or breaks from their jobs. Rest doesn’t always mean sipping margaritas at the beach (2). Rather, it’s the self-care activities like sleep and exercise you need to preserve your productivity and prevent burnout.
When we practice good resting habits, we show up to work with more joy and vitality, and this energy trickles down to our teams too. So, block out time in your calendar to recuperate and encourage others to do the same.
5) Connect with other leaders
We’ve all heard the infamous phrase, "It's lonely at the top" - birthed after Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted how being a leader is “sort of a lonely job”. Surely, many of you leaders out there can relate.
But no matter how independent and self-sustaining you are, know that you don’t have to suffer in silence all the time. Leaders can seek camaraderie and support through leader networking groups and coaching circles (11). These spaces offer the psychological sustenance needed to get through both professional and personal challenges.
Leaders, you’ve done an extraordinary job juggling the demands of your teams, your organizations, and the tumultuous changes in your industry. But it’s time to speak up for your well-being too. Leadership burnout can be a challenging and overwhelming experience, but with the right support and strategies, it is possible to prevent and manage it effectively. Remember, you’re not just doing this for yourself but also for the people you guide, and the vision that the world needs you to uphold 💝
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