As a C-suiter or high-level business executive, you know that stress and an ‘always on’ work culture is part of most fast-paced work environments. However, the line between stress and career burnout is a fine one, and it can be challenging to know when you are at risk of crossing it.
Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat or challenge, and in small doses, can be motivating and energising. Occasional or short-lived episodes of stress pose little risk, but chronic and relentless stress can result in several physical, emotional, and mental health problems.
However, job burnout resulting from prolonged periods of work stress, is a different battle altogether!
Leading occupational burnout expert Christina Maslach, professor of Psychology and core researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California remarks, “Burnout is a psychological syndrome that involves a stress response to chronic job stressors. It’s not something you experience occasionally or only a couple of times a year. You’re facing chronic work stressors daily, and on regular high frequency.”
Taking its toll
As Maslach explains in a podcast presented by the American Psychological Association (APA), the three key dimensions of burnout are ‘exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of professional efficacy on the job.’ Since burnout is mainly triggered by the chronic nature of stressors, people with burnout develop what she calls “an increasingly negative, hostile response to the job, to the work they’re doing and a negative sense of self.”
Carole* (*not her real name), COO and Publisher of a global book publishing company, recalls her experience of ignoring burnout.
“For months at work, I’d felt increasingly irritable, negative and frustrated every day. Like a malfunctioning robot, I felt numb, doing as little as possible, and using painkillers, endless cups of coffee and wine at night to ‘fix’ the continual headaches and debilitating exhaustion. With zero motivation,
I’d stopped caring about the job. The wheels finally came off when I totally disengaged from everything and everyone. A concerned psychologist friend referred me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed a severe mental and physical breakdown caused by burnout. Being booked off medically for eight weeks was a huge wake-up call. Since that experience, I’m more mindful of early burnout triggers and signs. It’s not easy, but I’m making meaningful changes to my mindset and work habits to avoid a recurrence.”
In case you’re wondering, the term burnout is not just another modern buzzword ─ it was first coined in the 1970s to describe job exhaustion in workers.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon with health consequences, defining it as ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ Burnout has also been included in the 11th edition of the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), widely regarded as the global standard for diagnostic health information.
Alarming burnout rates
Despite a phenomenon described as ‘an occupational epidemic in a culture of busyness’, there is limited data on the prevalence of burnout among
C-suiters and high-level executives. Leadership development provider ExecOnline’s report ─ in its survey on several thousand senior leaders ─ found that 72% of leaders polled reported being burned out. Other studies confirming the considerable extent of burnout include:
- Nearly 70% of senior leaders say in global data collected during 2022, that indicate burnout is affecting their ability to make decisions.
- The Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, included data from more than 15,000 business leaders in more than 24 global industries. It found that nearly 60% of leaders reported feeling ‘used up’ ─a strong indicator of burnout ─ at the end of the workday.
- A Deloitte marketplace survey involving full-time corporate professionals in the US revealed burnout to be one of the top issues facing high-level executives, with 77% of respondents having experienced it at their current job.
Some of the most telling revelations about burnout is from research by Deloitte and independent research firm Workplace Intelligence. Their 2022 survey involving more than 2,000 full-time C-level executives and employees from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK found that:
- Nearly 70% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.
- 89% of the C-suite say improving their well-being is a top priority for them, while 81% say improving their well-being is more important than advancing their career.
- Of the C-suiters, 73% report being unable to take time off and disconnect. Reasons include wanting people to know they’re dedicated to their job (22%), having too much work to do
(24%) and that no one would be able to cover for them while they’re away (22%).
- One out of four executives say they don’t disconnect because their workload would be unmanageable when they return (25%) and they’re afraid they’d miss out on important messages or emails (24%).
Contributing factors, early predictors and symptoms
So, what factors play a role in burnout? The Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence (WWCOE) reports that many contributing factors, which have become part of the executive job description, include:
- Tremendous responsibilities
- Repetitive or prolonged stress
- Standards that are nearly impossible to achieve
- The need to maintain a strong façade of leadership by hiding emotions such as fear, compassion or helplessness
- Expectations to solve conflicting, complicated situations even when doing so has a minimal impact on the organisation’s bottom line.
As for early burnout predictors, Dr Jeremy Sutton, specialist researcher in the human capacity to push physical and mental limits, remarks while burnout is unique for every individual, identifying these early predictors are critical:
- Job demands that exceed human limits.
- Role conflict leading to a perceived lack of control.
- Being under pressure from several, often incompatible, demands that compete with one another.
- Insufficient reward and lack of recognition for the work performed.
- Work perceived as unfair or inequitable, caused by an effort–reward imbalance.
- Lack of support from others.
He comments, “Proactive effort to reduce workload can be highly effective at removing some stressors impacting burnout, because when workload and capacity are in balance, it’s possible to get work done and find time for professional growth, development, rest, and work recovery.”
Burnout manifests in both physical and emotional symptoms. The most common ones include:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion: Feeling physically and emotionallydrained from work or other activities.
- Cynicism, apathy, and detachment: Feeling negative or hopeless about your work or goals. You may also feel like you’re just going through the motions without any real investment in what you’re doing.
- Ineffectiveness and lack of productivity: Feeling like you’re not getting anything done, or that your efforts are not making a difference.
- Physical symptoms: Burnout can also manifest in physical symptoms including headaches, digestive problems, weight gain and puffy eyes.
- Difficulty concentrating: Experiencing ‘mind fog’ or an inability to focus on anything.
- Sleep difficulties: Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Depression: Feeling depressed, hopeless or helpless.
- Anxiety: Feeling anxious, on edge, or stressed out.
- Changes in eating habits: Overeating or undereating. Skipping meals or eating unhealthy foods are other coping mechanisms.
- Lack of motivation: Lack of energy or motivation to do anything.
- Procrastination: Avoidance behaviours or putting off tasks.
- Isolation: Disengaging from friends and family.
- Pushing through tasks even when you’re visibly fatigued and stressed.
- Experiencing recurring problems which may indicate you lack the support or concentration to resolve and act on an issue.
- Behaviour that’s very out of character for you – like impatience, excessive self-criticism, blaming others, forgetfulness, etc.
Winning the battle: Spotting the Warning Signs
In a journal article in World Psychiatry ─ which Christina Maslach co-wrote with organisational psychologist Dr Michael P Leiter, adjunct professor at Canada’s Arcadia University ─ she remarks that “burnout has a complex pattern of relationships with health, in that poor health contributes to burnout and burnout contributes to poor health.”
Of the three burnout dimensions, exhaustion is typically correlated with such stress symptoms as headaches, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle tension, hypertension, cold/flu episodes, and sleep disturbances.
A healthy dose of self-awareness helps to identify early signs of burnout, for example by doing a self-assessment using the widely used Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The MBI, developed by burnout pioneer Professor Maslach measures job burnout by including questions about emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment.
Access the Maslach Burnout Inventory here: https://mondiahealth.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Maslach-Burnout-Inventory-MBI.pdf
Health researcher Dr Sutton suggests identifying early signs by honestly answering the following questions:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it difficult to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you experiencing unexplained headaches, stomach or digestive problems, or other physical complaints?
He also recommends assessing how you’re doing in each of the following activities:
- Work planning: Do you know what work is coming? What will you be working on next week? Do you have a shareable plan?
- Delegating tasks: Steering away from handing over work to others can be positive for both parties.
- Saying no: It’s necessary when you have too much work or someone else could perform it.
- Letting go of perfectionism: Sometimes producing good enoughis all that is needed.
The fallout from burnout doesn’t just impact individuals ─ its ripple effects can easily affect your fellow C-suiters, employees and the organisation, causing decreased productivity and negatively impacting mental and physical health.
The Deloitte study confirms this in its findings, that 87% of respondents say burnout negatively affects employee retention and engagement, while 71% say it has resulted in increased absenteeism.
Taking stock and acting on burnout in yourself is the first step. Next is leading by example, encouraged by the knowledge that 84% of C-suite leaders in the Deloitte study say it’s important for them to see other leaders taking care of their well-being (84%), while 82% state seeing this would motivate them to improve their own well-being.
Taking stock, fighting back
Like many high-level executives, you may find it challenging to recognize the signs of burnout in yourself, especially if you are accustomed to heavy workloads, high-pressure situations and long working hours.
Even though many top-echelon execs are battling burnout, some C-suiters still perceive work burnout as a weakness not to be discussed. This perception can be particularly prevalent in industries or organisations that normalise a culture of competition and pressure to perform, no matter the cost. But burnout is a common and natural response to chronic stress, and as Maslach stresses, it’s ‘not a mental illness or individual flaw.’
Seeking support or intervention is not a sign of failing, but rather a sign of self-awareness and strength. Moreover, consulting a doctor or a mental health professional can also rule out that your symptoms are not related to other conditions such as depression.
Ignoring the situation, dismissing burnout as part of the job or hoping it will go away is futile as burnout will almost certainly worsen if unattended.
The Mayo Clinic adds that aside from symptoms like stress, fatigue and insomnia, ignored or unaddressed job burnout can have other significant health consequences, including alcohol or substance abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
With experts agreeing that early identification and intervention is essential in treating treat burnout, Maslach and Leiter highlight various intervention strategies, which are mostly focused on individual strategies adapted from research into stress, coping and health.
Some try to treat burnout after it has occurred, while others promote engagement to prevent burnout. Moreover, complementing initiatives to moderate workload demands ─ by improving recovery strategies such as better sleep, exercise and nutrition ─ are directly relevant to the exhaustion component of burnout.
Recommended treatment strategies include:
- Revising work patterns (working less, taking more breaks, delegating tasks, avoiding overtime work, aiming for a better work-life balance)
- Developing coping skills (e.g., cognitive restructuring, conflict resolution, time management, reducing workload)
- Getting social support (both from colleagues and family)
- Using relaxation strategies (mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing)
- Promoting fitness and healthy eating habits
- Developing a better self-understanding (via self-analytic techniques, counselling or therapy.)
If you suspect burnout is affecting your physical and mental well-being, get help from a mental health professional who can provide you with additional coping strategies and recommend the most appropriate treatment options. There are also many online resources, such as positivepsychology.com that offers science-based burnout prevention methods and interventions used in coaching, teaching and therapeutic settings.
In the end, the most important bottom line to succeeding and thriving in your career is YOU. Winning the battle against burnout is possible, but only if you tackle it head on.