When the Fire Reaches the Top Floor: 4 Tips for Addressing Executive Burnout - Senior Executive
Executive Life 6 min

When the Fire Reaches the Top Floor: 4 Tips for Addressing Executive Burnout

When it comes to burnout, experts often encourage discussion with a manager. But what do you do when you’re at the top of an organization? Here’s how you can beat burnout as a senior leader.

by Lindsay Bernhagen on December 28, 2021

QUICK TAKE

  • 44% of workers said they were more burned out today than a year ago

  • For senior leaders, solving burnout with a manager may not be viable

  • Discuss feelings of burnout with other members of your leadership team

  • Determine what responsibilities you can delegate

Burnout is running rampant in the workplace — fueled by the pandemic and resignations. More than 44% of workers said they were more burned out today than a year ago, according to an April 2021 survey from staffing firm Robert Half. That’s up from a 34% burnout rate in 2020. 

Experts often tout seeking solutions with a manager or taking a vacation. But what do you do when you’re on the leadership team of an organization? There may be no one above you. Or you may be the only chief information officer or chief people officer — with no peers at your organization to commiserate with. 

The stakes for addressing executive burnout are high. When your performance suffers, your organization can lose the vision and purpose that it derives from strong leadership. Find out if you’re actually experiencing burnout and what you can do to recover. 

So, Are You Burned Out? 

According to the Harvard Business Review and the World Health Organization, burnout is characterized by depletion in three areas: psychological or physical energy, sense of connectedness to your work, and professional self-efficacy or professional confidence.

Notably, burnout is not a dislike of your work or a feeling of having outgrown your current role. In fact, burnout is not related to the content of your work at all. Rather, it refers to the lack of ability (not the lack of desire) to conjure the mental and physical resources required to do the work you care about.

Executive coach Brian Krolczyk thinks of burnout as happening along four dimensions: 

  • resentment or guilt — feelings about past actions related to your work, such as regret about a project that didn’t go well
  • anxiety or fear of the future
  • trouble meeting daily demands 
  • impact on your physical health

Krolczyk is also a director of a joint program between the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and the National Wellness Institute that provides health and wellness coaching certifications. Burnout doesn’t come directly from any of those dimensions, he says. Rather, these feelings stem from not having enough resources to address the demands of a job or lifestyle. 

Here are four tips to help you identify burnout and beat it. 

1. Pay attention to signs of burnout.

For executives whose daily work is characterized by full plates and high stakes, identifying burnout can be difficult. A full calendar and competing priorities are normal — not necessarily indicators that your workload is out of balance. 

Rather, recognizing burnout requires reflection about your own behaviors and attitudes during your work day. Jay Schrader of Marshfield Clinic Health Systems says that he can sense he’s burnt out when he feels mentally and physically exhausted at the same time. “Regardless of how much sleep I get, I don’t feel rested,” he says. 

One sign of mental exhaustion, he notes, is how he interacts with family once he’s off the clock. “I can tell by how I communicate with my kids,” says Schrader, who serves as the organization’s vice president of community health, wellness and health equity. “When I’m burnt out, I’m more likely to snap at them.” 

Some other physical or mental tells of burnout might include: 

  • Inability to focus 
  • Headaches, colds, and other physical illnesses
  • Finding yourself regularly in a bad mood or feeling short-tempered
  • Thinking about work constantly, and yet not having the motivation or desire to deal with work-related issues
  • Wanting to disconnect entirely from your colleagues
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2. Find the Source of Your Burnout

By identifying where your burnout primarily originates, you can focus on building resources to alleviate stressors in that specific realm. For example, if you are feeling anxious about the fate of a future partnership, set aside time to focus on what you can address today even in small ways. That may include jotting down notes for a future conversation or drafting part of a project timeline. Even re-reading a couple of crucial emails can help you feel more hopeful and excited for the project.

When looking for the source of your burnout, Krolczyk recommends mindfulness as a way to cultivate presence and a sense of control. That includes regular meditation, deep breathing and gratitude practices. Importantly, he notes, “Vacation is not a solution for burnout. It’s just a break from it. We have to invest in our resilience on a daily basis to truly sustain ourselves. Put it [mindfulness practices and rest] in your calendar.”

3. Be Vulnerable with Your Leadership Team

Creating community within your leadership team is critical. Schrader emphasizes the benefits of openly discussing his feelings of burnout with other leaders. “Normalize it within the leadership team,” he advises. “Colleagues can then step up and share the work because we know that good work can’t be done if burnout is the condition in which it’s happening.” Corners get cut. Mistakes get made. Relationships fracture. And that’s not good for anyone.

Leaders should establish check-ins as a regular part of team meetings. Give everyone a chance to discuss a simple, informal question like, “If you could take one thing off your plate right now, what would it be and why?” This allows leadership to model truthfulness and vulnerability. Responses can open up conversations about shifting responsibilities and priorities. 

4. Delegate, It’s Good for Everyone!

“Burnout is often a sign you are not delegating enough,” says Roland Nasr, Chief Technology Officer at Zip Co, a fintech company. According to Nasr, executives should ask themselves whether you’re trusting and empowering your team enough. Are you stepping outside of your role? Tending toward micromanagement? Taking ownership of every fire? If so, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. 

Another upside is that delegating enhances the self-efficacy of your employees, which has team-wide benefits. 

The Importance of Prevention

Burnout affects your ability to lead your organization and guide through challenges. The best way to beat burnout is to lay the foundation for prevention. 

Hire a team you can trust. Make holistic employee wellness a strategic priority to avoid attrition organization wide. Have principled ways of deciding when to say no or when to delegate. 

Model healthy behavior by stepping away from work, whether for an hour to go for a run, or for a week to go on vacation. If you care about your organization, you have to care for yourself, too. 

How do you prioritize wellness and prevent burnout? Share your thoughts.


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