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How to Prevent Executive Burnout and Keep Your Leader from Unraveling

A man covering his face in front of a computer screen.

​It's concerning when an organization's CEO starts behaving irrationally or erratically, uses questionable judgment and seems to fall apart. Burnout may be the reason.

While pressure is a part of any job, senior-level positions come with high demands and expectations from a number of stakeholders—employees, customers, boards of directors, shareholders. That can affect a leader's confidence, temper and ability to perform effectively.

The good news is that a person can recover from burnout, and it can even be prevented. 

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Establish and Design a Wellness Program]

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about one's competence and work value. Symptoms include exhaustion, feeling a lack of motivation, and being more cynical and negative. 

Burnout is not the same as stress, although they are related, explained Dr. David Ballard, head of the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association's (APA's) Center for Organizational Excellence.  

"Burnout occurs when chronic stress starts to affect the leader's motivation, confidence in their ability to be successful on the job and work performance. People who are burned out have an extended period of time where they feel exhausted, unmotivated and ineffective. They may feel frustrated, cynical and negative, and their actual job performance may suffer," he said.

"Interestingly, people who are really invested in their work … can be more susceptible to burnout than other people" because their identities are so closely tied to their work, Ballard said. 

Compounding the situation is that "the higher up you get in an organization, the more isolated you tend to become," he noted.

"You have fewer peers, fewer people you can be open and transparent with, so when you're all the way at the top of the organization … [you often] don't even have a confidante that [you] can share things with." 

The role of CEO has always been high-pressure, but [now] it's almost unsustainable, with the expectation you're available 24/7," said Caren Kenney, executive director of Premier Executive Leadership for the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute in Orlando. "Every move you make is watched, and it's picked up on social media immediately."

When a CEO is brought on, especially from outside the organization, it's often to transform the business with the expectation that changes will happen very quickly, she pointed out. 

"At the top of the organization there's a lot of emotional isolation. You don't know who you can trust. … [They are not] trained to build their own mental, emotional resilience, to invest in their physical well-being," Kenney said.

HR's Role

HR's role is to be a partner and find ways to support the person being prepared for leadership, Kenney said. Often, HR professionals have some insights into the leader's behavior when, for example, they see how stress is impacting temperament or performance. 

Ballard advised building support into succession planning efforts. "Work stress is about a mismatch between the demands someone is facing and the resources they have to cope with those demands. Either reduce the demands, increase the resources they have available, or do both at the same time," he told SHRM Online.

When grooming someone for a leadership position, he advised identifying the demands of the position, assessing the person's current level of skills and resources, identifying gaps, and incorporating training so that by the time the person moves into the new role, he or she has started to close some of those gaps.

Some of Johnson & Johnson's senior leaders participate in an executive training program that the company launched in March 2017 that is available, for a price, to other Fortune 500 companies. The senior leaders all meet with a dietitian, a physiologist who works out with the person and an executive coach. 

Steps HR can take to help ward off burnout:

Call attention to available programs. Those at the C-suite level typically have access to more resources than lower-level employees, Ballard said, citing more control over their jobs as one example. He's also starting to see more use of executive coaches. They are not therapists but serve as advisors that senior leaders can speak to without violating confidentially.

Help them learn the importance of disconnecting from the job. It's important for all employees—including leaders—to take time for themselves. "It's training them to do things differently … [and] building in time for the important things that they need" in their lives, such as sleep and exercise, J&J's Kenney noted. "You can be available but you can have times of disconnect" and still make time for family and relaxation. 

Tie well-being to the culture. Ballard recommended identifying someone at the senior level who can serve as a role model by being open about using the organization's mental health benefits, such as the employee assistance program, or taking paid time off for a mental health day. 

In 2017, a web developer in Ann Arbor, Mich., e-mailed colleagues that she would be taking a couple of sick days for her mental health. When the CEO thanked her for cutting through the stigma around mental health, she shared his response and the story went viral, Time reported.

"If organizations want their leaders and employees to function well and be committed and invested and do a great job," Ballard said, "they need to think about the whole person and not just what they're doing during business hours." 

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