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Leadership Burnout – 5 Causes And How To Avoid It

In today’s fast-paced corporate landscape, leadership burnout has emerged as a pressing concern that affects both leaders and their organisations. As those in leadership positions are under increasing pressure to perform and innovate, addressing and preventing burnout has become essential.

By recognising the signs and understanding the causes, leaders ensure their work, and the work of their organisations are protected. Even if affected, recovery from leadership burnout is more than possible with the right support, treatment, and tools.

What Is Leadership Burnout?

Leadership burnout describes a state of complete physical and emotional exhaustion caused by chronic exposure to stress and high pressure due to a leadership position they hold. Some examples of what leadership burnout might look like include:

  • Experiencing severe physical exhaustion, no matter how much rest or sleep you get
  • A severe emotional exhaustion where you do not have the capacity to connect with others or care about things that were previously important to you
  • Lowered performance at work, as you struggle to keep up with previous output and meet the demands and expectations of your role
  • Developing a negative attitude about most things and people, including your work, colleagues, friends and family.
  • Experiencing low satisfaction, that the work you do is going unnoticed or unappreciated. You may have an increasing sensation that what you are doing isn’t making a difference.
  • Difficulty concentrating, to the point where you struggle to focus consistently despite knowing you need to or having been able to before.
  • Getting increasingly frustrated, irritated, or angry with the people around you, or even at the work that you’re doing.
  • Isolating yourself from your friend, co-workers, and family, even if they’ve been reaching out to you or inviting you to connect.
  • Perhaps you’ve even started to drink, smoke, or use drugs in higher frequencies and quantities than you used to, just to ‘take the edge off’, ‘relax’, or ‘get through the day’.

Are Leadership and Executive Burnout the Same?

Leadership burnout, and executive burnout, are often referred to synonymously due to the fact that most people who experience leadership burnout are in executive positions within their workplaces. However, leadership burnout can be experienced by leaders at any organisational level. From front-line supervisors to C-suite executives, the responsibilities they shoulder can lead to burnout if not managed effectively.

The 5 Main Causes of Leadership Burnout

Overwhelming Workloads

Leaders are likely to experience high workloads, often juggling multiple tasks, projects, and teams simultaneously. The constant pressure to meet deadlines and perform ‘for’ everybody can be exhausting and contribute to burnout.

This can be particularly true for those in leadership positions that involve entrepreneurial work where there are high stakes involved, especially financial ones. This adds to pressure placed on oneself, as well as pressure from others.

Inadequate Support

Often when experiencing burnout people tend to isolate themselves and withdraw socially. In the absence of strong support systems, either personal or professional, feelings of isolation can be intensified and contribute to burnout.

Even if those around the burnout person may want to help, they may not know how, or their attempts may ‘make things worse’. Those with burnout may reason that they’re “better off” or “work better” alone.

Poor Work-Life Balance

Those in leadership positions may struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, particularly one that respects their personal time. This can lead to neglect of healthy sleep and exercise patterns, as well as poor nutrition.

The imbalance between time dedicated to yourself and time dedicated to your business/es contributes to chronic stress without sufficient time to relax and decompress.

High Expectations

Unrealistic expectations, whether self-imposed or set by the organisation, can create an unrelenting pressure that drains leaders’ energy and motivation. Often those in leadership positions can be demanding of themselves, and perfectionistic, adding to the weight.

Over time we see that leaders are unable to maintain a consistent level of high performance, which can be demoralising and upsetting. After all, no one can deliver at 100%, 100% of the time.

Limited Autonomy

Not all leaders have the right to ‘call the shots’, and when they lack decision-making authority or feel micromanaged, their sense of autonomy is compromised, leading to frustration and contributing to burnout.

This can also be true if the leader is feeling a loss of control or inability to manage teams or departments. When we feel like our authority is not respected, but we are unsure of how to reinstate it, we can start to doubt ourselves and lose motivation.

Avoiding Executive Burnout

Prevention is just as important as treatment, particularly for those who are more vulnerable to experiencing burnout. Some examples of how someone can avoid leadership or executive burnout include:

  • Prioritise Self-Care: Make sure you regularly dedicate time to relaxing, exercising, and engaging in hobbies. Engaging in mindfulness activities can help reduce stress and promote overall mental health.
  • Set Boundaries: Protect the boundary between your work life and personal life. Ensure that you make the most of any tools you have to prevent you from being disturbed when you’re “out of office”.
  • Delegate: Empower your staff to take responsibility and take control of certain tasks. This lightens your workload, as well as fostering growth and collaboration within the team.
  • Seek Professional Growth: Learning is a life-long skill, and the more tools you have in your belt, the better equipped you are to manage difficult situations as they arise. This boost to your confidence and skill set can help prevent burnout setting in.
  • Create a Supportive Culture: Open communication and a supportive network are just as important in the office as they are at home. Cultivate an environment where seeking help and support is seen as a strength, not a weakness.

Options for Leadership Burnout Treatment

Embracing treatment is a proactive step that paves the way for a swifter recovery from leadership burnout while protecting you against it happening again. There’s a spectrum of approaches available, depending on the severity of the burnout, and the resources available to you.

There are some effective self-directed interventions, such as mindfulness-based practices, which empower you to remain rooted in the present, manage stress, and regulate turbulent emotions. Techniques such as meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction have demonstrated promising outcomes in both treating and preventing leadership burnout.

For those experiencing mild to moderate burnout, weekly therapy and counselling sessions can offer a supportive framework to navigate the challenges, effectively equipping you with coping strategies and bolstering your resilience. Therapists often employ diverse methodologies to enhance stress management and cultivate inner strength.

In cases of more severe leadership burnout, or where a swift recovery is crucial, in-patient treatment can serve as a valuable option. Specialised treatment centres, such as Clinic Les Alpes, extend round-the-clock medical care and the expertise of clinical professionals adept at enhancing both psychological and physical well-being.

Summary

Leadership burnout is a significant challenge, but by understanding its causes and adopting proactive strategies, leaders can cultivate a work environment that prioritises well-being. Recognising the signs, setting boundaries, seeking professional support, and fostering a supportive culture are essential steps toward avoiding burnout and thriving in leadership roles.

Leadership burnout is a reality that many leaders face, but it doesn’t have to be an inevitable outcome. By arming themselves with knowledge and adopting practical approaches, leaders can navigate the complexities of their roles while maintaining their well-being.

Organisations that prioritise leadership well-being reap the benefits of engaged, resilient, and effective leaders who drive success. Experiencing leadership burnout doesn’t mean failure, it simply means it is time to prioritise yourself, and seek help.

Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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