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March 14, 2023

Executive Burnout

Categories:  Leadership | Coaching
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Burnout is the result of too much energy output and not enough energy self-invested. In other words, it's burning too much fuel than you’ve put in your tank. ~Melissa Steginus

When we started thinking about whether leadership needed to change in 2023, we quickly said ‘no.’ After all, the same leadership principles still apply. A new year doesn’t change the core of what it means to be a leader.

However, even if good leadership hasn’t changed, the landscape of what it means to be a leader has.

There has been a lot of talk in the news about employee burnout, increased layoffs, and even a move toward quiet quitting to preserve some energy at work. While we may think of these things in terms of what they mean for the average worker, they also have some implications for executive leadership. These changes are leading to burnout at the top, middle, and bottom of organizations.

What is Burnout?

Before we talk about how burnout is affecting leadership, it’s helpful to define it. The Mayo Clinic describes it as “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

While we all experience stress in the workplace, burnout is at a different level. If you’re unsure if you’re dealing with routine stress or burnout, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is my work stress affecting my home life?

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

  • Do you feel exhausted regardless of how much sleep you get?

  • Do you find yourself being constantly critical or short with those around you?

  • When you think about going to work, do you get an overwhelming feeling of dread?

How Burnout Shows Up for Executives

For executives, burnout can feel challenging to spot. Executives are often used to a higher level of stress and responsibility. You may quickly write off negative feelings as normal expectations of your roles. There may be generational differences in our ability to identify burnout, with the Baby Boomers being more averse to talking openly about mental health issues at work or being worried that they may be seen as lazy.

However, something like an increase in layoffs can have a significant impact on someone who is a good, empathetic leader. It is difficult to let go of people you’ve worked with and supported for years.

Even the employees who stay may be worried about their positions or grieving the company changes. Those people may put that emotional baggage onto their leaders. To some extent, that’s what companies want, but it can also be draining as an executive to not have someone similar to whom you can turn.

Some executives are the emotional well for their employees while at the same time the responsible party for shareholders. The pressure of these two, sometimes competing entities, can be a lot to take on.

That’s especially true when it starts bleeding into your personal life. According to the Financial Times, Chief Executives have an above-average divorce rate. It is unsurprising given that a study by FlexJobs and Mental Health America revealed that 37% of executives now work more hours than before the pandemic, and more than 75% also report job-related mental and physical health concerns.

In fact, those who now work remotely may be at higher risk for depression and anxiety. In a study done by the Integrated Benefits Institute, anxiety and depression were noted as more prevalent among those not working in an office: 35% for fully in-person workers, 38% for hybrid and 40% for remote workers.

That extra stress can be inadvertently affecting you and those around you. Your children might experience a more distant parent or start picking up that they need to worry about you. Continuous mental stress can also show physically with long-term illnesses or less time to do your regular wellness routine.

This reality means that more and more executives are looking to early retirement or finding an organization that won’t add as much extra stress. A recent Deloitte survey revealed that almost 70% of executives are considering leaving their jobs for workplaces that care more for their well-being.

In 2022 alone, major corporations, including Amazon, Starbucks, Pinterest, and American Airlines, have seen their CEOs resign (Forbes.)

While it’s inevitable that executives will eventually retire, losing your leadership team to competitors or sooner than expected can harm the company.

Burnout for Employees & The Path Ahead

The first step we’re going to recommend is to acknowledge executive burnout. It exists, even if it’s hard to admit, and it doesn’t mean leaders are weak.

So what can companies do? In part 2, we’ll talk a bit more about how burnout affects the rest of the team and what this burnout across the board really means for leadership going forward in 2023.


Lori and James

Lori Heffelfinger and James Jackman

Supporting Business Leaders to transform cultures, teams, and workplaces.

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