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A Guide to Understanding & Preventing Burnout as an Executive

Executive burnout can affect the bottom line and employee morale—because burnout can quickly funnel down through the ranks of an organization. Here's how to stop it before it starts.

A black and white photo of a skyscraper.

There's a common misconception that executives have it all together—all the time. Yet, in reality, every leader must combat a variety of stressors at work, and over time that stress can lead to burnout if not managed properly. Executive burnout can affect the bottom line and employee morale—because burnout can quickly funnel down through the ranks of an organization. Burnout is serious, but it can be prevented through proper work habits.

The following two-part guide offers realistic insight for executives on 1) how to spot burnout when in leadership positions and 2) what you can do to protect yourself from burning out.

Part I. Understanding Burnout as an Executive

To prevent yourself from burning out as an executive, you must understand it—and appreciate the nuanced ways leaders experience it.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is not empty jargon but a dangerous ramification of being overworked.

Some symptoms of burnout include:

  • Lack of creativity.
  • Heightened negativity.
  • Emotional exhaustion.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Numbness toward one's work.
  • Increased stress and/or frustration.
  • Cynicism about work and/or colleagues.

Burnout is also more common than you might think. In 2023, 70 percent of C-suite leaders say they're considering quitting their jobs for one that supports their well-being. 

Health risks: Burnout doesn't only take a mental toll but risks a physical one, too. Burnout has been shown to affect diets due to comfort eating and can lead to stomach or bowel problems. Even more alarming, a 2020 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that burnout can lead to Atrial fibrillation (AFib), leading to the possibility of blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.

Burnout happens in stages, but experts have differing views on how many stages there are. Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, the scientists known for bringing the concept of burnout to light, outlined 12 stages in their work, while more recent research narrows the burnout stages to five. Regardless of how many stages you break burnout into, experts agree that the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to address.

How Does Burnout Affect Leaders Differently?

Executives risk burnout in often overlooked ways. According to human resource executive and consultant Kristin Durney, burnout affects leaders differently than other workers because "executives have more stakeholders, more people relying on them, and they typically don't have the same support as other team members." Durney also points to how there is a lot of added pressure, stress and anxiety when it comes to upholding your various responsibilities as an executive. And she should know, as Durney herself has had to recover from burnout.

Several years ago, Durney found herself managing over 20 people while working under a combative manager who micromanaged her every move. The work environment was highly unhealthy, negatively affecting Durney's mental health. "I felt chronic stress every single day," Durney recounts. "All the hobbies I once had after work were gone, I lost a significant amount of weight, and I constantly felt like my whole body was days away from shutting down. Yet I kept going as a leader because I felt I had to."

Durney's burnout eventually became so dire that she had to leave the office one day because she couldn't even read the words on her computer screen. Her body had finally given up. By then, Durney's burnout had become so pervasive that taking a mental health day or a week off wouldn't cut it. It took her two months to recover—and she used extended leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act to do so.

"I share this personal example because I think it's important to express personal lived experiences," Durney says. "I always tell leaders not to hide these things, and I tell them to be open and honest because I don't wish going through burnout upon anyone, and it happens too much."

Part II. Addressing Burnout: Prevention & Next Steps

As a leader, you're responsible for a lot—a lot of people, a lot of tasks—but you're also responsible for yourself. "Personal responsibility is vital when it comes to knowing when you are close to burnout," says Ginny Yi-Jiun Cheng, global head of talent at ŌURA. In this section, we detail how you can take personal responsibility—and address burnout.

Step 1: Check In

"Listening to our bodies is key," Cheng explains. "Only we know ourselves and the warning signs that often creep up in our relationships, our patience, and, for me, the knots in my neck and shoulders." Tuning in to how you're doing isn't always easy. To help, you can use a guided checklist.

Challenge: Let's try checking in right now. Take three deep breaths, release your shoulders from your ears and relax your facial muscles. Then ask yourself the following questions to gauge how much fuel you have in your mental tank.

  • How do I feel today?
  • Have I been taking on too much?
  • Does what I do at work matter?
  • Do I have enough support at work?
  • Am I feeling irritable or constantly exhausted?
  • Is it easy to concentrate at work?
  • Has my appetite or sleep changed lately?
  • What needs of mine are waiting to be met?
  • What must I do to meet my needs?

Why does this work? "Consider that, by the time we want water, we are likely already dehydrated," Cheng says. Asking yourself questions like these can help you prevent getting to the point of dehydration or, in this case, burnout.

Chris Bailey, author of How To Calm Your Mind (Penguin Life, 2022)—another helpful resource for mental well-being—recommends repeated check-ins every few months. You can even add the check-in to your calendar to hold yourself accountable.

Step 2: Account For Self-Care

The term "self-care" may seem like a buzzword, but it's crucial to hold yourself accountable and make time to care for yourself. For Cheng, that means going on walks to clear her head, whether incorporating "walking one-on-ones" with her teams to break up the day, or her new habit of being an avid dog walker. "Now, at times, it's me dragging my dog out for extra walks," Cheng says. "And, at ŌURA, we even celebrate naps since sleep is foundational."

Durney uses daily rituals to hold herself accountable. "As a leader, I have a morning ritual to start my day and an evening ritual that includes celebrating my daily wins," she says.

Self-care looks different for everyone and every leader. To feel content, you may need a morning cold plunge, an afternoon nap, or an evening yoga session. Or perhaps self-care for you means taking a mental health day, going to therapy each week or booking a monthly getaway. Whatever it is, own it.

And if you find it challenging to make time for self-care, consider putting self-care directly on your calendar or finding an accountability partner (essentially, someone who will help you stay on track). "The more we have accountability partners and partnerships within and outside the work environment, that's what'll help us," Durney says.

Step 3: Know Your Boundaries 

In her book Rising Strong (Random House, 2015), acclaimed professor and researcher Brené Brown defines boundaries as "simply our lists of what's okay and what's not okay." Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is essential to preventing executive burnout.

"A lot of leaders take on too much," Durney notes. "They don't delegate for many reasons, whether it's because they feel like they need to control things, want something done a certain way or feel bad asking, but you need to delegate out before it becomes too much." How? By understanding your boundaries.

For instance, if you've checked in with yourself, feel overwhelmed and haven't made time for self-care (i.e., steps 1-2), you may need to reset or re-communicate your boundaries, get better at saying no, and delegate when you're already at your maximum.

Delegation pro tip: Heather Wolfson, CEO and lead strategist of Maven Leadership Consulting, suggests effective delegation follows five steps: 1) provide context, 2) set clear expectations, 3) offer support, 4) give them space, and 5) say thanks.

"Sometimes leaders feel like they can't say no because they worry they're going to look weak, but building boundaries and saying no is a huge help," Durney says. "If you can't do it, delegate it to someone who can." Don't fall into the trap of telling yourself, "Everyone is busy, so I'll just do it." Your employees will appreciate knowing they can do the same if needed.

Also, think of it this way: "When you delegate, you also teach your team members about what you do, so you're providing professional development too, making it a win-win all around," Durney explains.

Afraid to get support? "If you're scared to ask for support, then there's something going on with psychological safety in your workplace's culture or the organization itself that doesn't allow you to delegate or ask for help—and that deserves a closer look," Durney says.

Step 4: Model Your Methods

Leading by example can help prevent burnout in yourself and others.

Cheng models her methods by not scheduling Friday afternoon meetings to help others wind down from the workweek, and she takes advantage of wellness benefits to encourage others to follow her lead. Cheng was also inspired by her time at Facebook London years ago when she saw colleagues add all their vacations to their calendars at the start of the year.

Now, when she receives the calendar with her daughter's school breaks, she uses those as a signal to plan for her holidays, staycations or even mental breaks because "booking those in calendars gives others a nudge to plan some breaks too."

Modeling your methods is preventive and promotes a psychologically safe workplace.

For example, going back to the previous step, "If your boundary is leaving at 5 p.m. to go to your kickboxing class or your kid's dance class, you must model those boundaries so others feel safe doing so too," Durney adds. "When you are open as a leader, that is how we help develop that psychologically safe culture and ensure people feel the same way."

"After all, psychological safety is contagious," says Durney.

Step 5: Find What Works For You—And Make It Routine

The wisest way to prevent burnout is to make steps 1 through 4 a natural part of your routine. As Cheng notes, "Managing stress and burnout at work—and in life—is an ongoing practice." Thus, make taking care of yourself part of your lifestyle by constantly checking in, accounting for self-care, communicating your boundaries, modeling your methods and taking action when burnout symptoms arise.

Treating Burnout: When It's Time To See A Professional

Sometimes, even if you do everything "right," burnout can still happen. If you're on or beyond the edge of burnout, asking for help is okay. When is it time to do so?

"An executive should seek professional help for burnout when the burnout begins to negatively impact areas of their life," explains Whitney Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Toxic Positivity (TarcherPerigee, 2022). "The sooner you can get help, the better, as burnout will likely continue to worsen without any intervention or change."

Goodman explains that treatment for burnout is complicated as it often requires individual and systemic change. Her tips include some of the prevention strategies mentioned above, such as working on boundaries and how you engage with your work. However, she also notes that you will likely need to make changes in your environment and schedule to treat burnout. "A therapist can help you look at what you can control and what might need to change," Goodman explains. 

If you decide to look for a therapist, Psychology Today lets you search for a therapist in your area, review their bios and check out their specialties (e.g., anxiety). Most therapists offer complimentary consults, during which you can get a better sense of their expertise and communication style.

Moving Forward

No executive should be expected to have it all together all the time, but you can cultivate openness to prevent that misconception from causing undue stress. Stay open to when you need help, when you need to step away and when you're not okay. "Being open with your peers and those who report to you is essential," Cheng says. "After all, we are all human, and being transparent in peak times and how it may affect how we work is authentic." 


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