What Happens When the Leader Burns Out?

Leaders are supposed to help prevent burnout in employees. But what if you're a leader who is struggling to balance your workload? Leaders are burning out in alarming numbers too.

By Jennifer Moss October 5, 2021
What Happens When the Leader Burns Out?

Leaders are supposed to help prevent burnout in employees. But what if you're a leader who is struggling to balance your workload? You're definitely not alone. In our survey data, we found that leaders are burning out at alarming rates.

I Burned Out

As a good leader, when you are mostly accountable to yourself, you have to walk the walk, which can be challenging if you're a high performer who loves the work. I remember one day in May 2020 when I was trying to get some space to write this book. My family of five was feeling tired of each other. We'd been in lockdown since March, with three kids homeschooling.

There is nothing more humiliating than realizing you are definitely not smarter than a fifth grader. My ten-year-old daughter had received a note from her teacher saying she didn't seem to understand the last assignment and wanted to offer some assistance. I had to write back that actually I had poorly advised her.

I switched over to my six-year-old, who was completely disengaged from school and would sometimes cry because she missed her old life so deeply—her friends, her teachers. It was all a bit much. Then my thirteen-year-old, who was struggling and had suddenly become nocturnal, was a challenge to get going in the morning. He'd be sullen and frustrated. I didn't blame him.

My husband had been thrust into a new role and was working in the basement. We were privileged to have separate spaces, but it was still chaotic. I had gone from writing the book at home in my happy quiet space to feeling as if I was in a real-life version of The Loud House.

That space had been all mine during the day, and I loved it. I am someone who loves working remotely and thrives in the work-from-home world. My husband is the opposite. He likes people and collaborating with his staff. He enjoys feeling that energy that can come with being in person with coworkers. So, adjustments had to be made all around. I often had to write in my bedroom. That felt so tiring, I just wanted to go back to sleep.

The reality was, everything had changed, but the expectations hadn't. We still needed to hit deadlines, meet goals, learn, execute, and deliver. Yet, we were all stuck in one house, under extreme circumstances, glued to the news, fearing for our health and the health of our loved ones. No wonder I started to burn out while writing a book on burnout. Oh, the irony.

Work and Home Collided

But I figured it out, as you can tell because you're reading the final product of those intense and emotional months. The one and perhaps most paramount practice while writing the book and keeping up my speaking engagements, consulting work and research was to cut the guilt. The stories we gathered from respondents around the world repeatedly echoed mine. Here is one example, taken from hundreds just like it: "There is no semblance of balance or separation in the structure. Now my work is literally in my living room and my parenting is happening in my 'office' (which is on the kitchen table). Roles collided and it makes for an almost comical impossibility (taking important meetings from the floor of my closet, while my daughter passes me notes under the door telling me she needs a snack)."

I had the privilege of being my own boss (as many of you know, there are pros and cons to that). But, reporting to a boss while leading others adds complexity to the role. As a manager, we feel we have to put our emotions aside to quash uncertainty during times of change and stress. We often have to be the harbinger of bad news, which can be taxing. That role threatens us with blame for the changes.

Leaders Must Model Self-Care

As leaders, we are so prone to burnout. We often feel pressured to move constantly at breakneck speed. We fail to recognize when to take the jet packs off and slow down. Yet, if we want to protect our employees from burnout, we had better start modeling the behaviors we want to see in others. Employees can't be what they can't see.

Palena Neale, in an article for Harvard Business Review, "'Serious' Leaders Need Self-Care, Too," writes that when she suggests that her leadership clients take a break, she's constantly met with, "I don't have time!" Or something along the version of, "Are you kidding me?! I'm already way beyond capacity looking after my team and my family, trying to organize home schooling, emotionally supporting my friends, colleagues, family . . . I don't have time for that!"

I have said these words before. It wasn't until I actually experienced burnout personally that I stopped saying them. I urge you—do not take that route. It's so much easier to find the time now, before you burn out—even 15 minutes each day—for self-care. We can't be successful leaders if we don't take time to recharge.

Neale points to an abundance of research that reinforces this point. "Studies show that taking breaks can help prevent decision fatigue, renew and strengthen motivation, increase productivity and creativity, and consolidate memory and improve learning," she says. "Even short 'micro-breaks' can improve focus and productivity."

Neale also suggests that leaders consider the "I don't have time" objection with some introspection questions:

  • What are the key priorities in your life? Can you achieve them without health and well-being?

  • How much time can you save by responding from a place of control rather than reacting from a place of stress?

  • What is one thing you can choose to say no to today that will give you back at least five minutes? (Hint: You probably spend longer on social media than you want to.) How can you use this time to improve your own well-being and performance?

There is always time. You just need to prioritize it. And you will be a more effective, efficient, and transformative leader if you stop making the excuse that you have no time.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It by Jennifer Moss. Copyright 2021 Jennifer Moss. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Moss is a syndicated radio columnist and sits on the Global Happiness Council. She is the author of The Burnout Epidemic.