With the constant pressure to always be on and do more, burnout is a widespread problem among high-level workers. Burned out employees are prone to an overwhelming sense of physical exhaustion coupled with mental fatigue that can lead them down a treacherous path toward mental ill-health.
And whilst burnout has serious implications for employees it affects at all levels, it’s leaders in particular who have been shown as having higher rates of burnout than anyone else.
Leadership burnout is on the rise, and it’s because leaders in today’s world feel more responsible than ever before to provide guidance and direction amid rapid change both on organisational and personal levels.
Economically, opportunity is fiercely competitive with shrinking resources, and so many leaders are becoming burned out just to stay afloat. Yet it’s the management of these stressors that is responsible for leading them down the path to burnout in the first place.
So what can leaders do to mitigate burnout? We’ve listed the signs to watch out for and provided some proactive strategies that can help leaders better manage their burnout, and in turn, manage their health.
What is leadership burnout?
In its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organisation included burnout for the first time as an occupational phenomenon.
It defines burnout as “a state of physical and emotional fatigue from exposure to long-term job stress, or from investing a lot of effort into a project or piece of work that has failed to produce desired results.”
Leaders of organisations and team leaders in departments of organisations are particularly vulnerable to burnout because of the intrinsic nature of their job: Responsibility, stress and expectation can all place exceptional pressure on someone’s emotional and physical wellbeing.
And leadership burnout is bad news, not only for individuals but for their organisations too. On average burnout costs businesses between £89-134billion annually due to losses in productivity, poor decision-making and even employee turnover due to things like low-quality management procedures.
What are the signs of leadership burnout?
Leadership may look (and feel) different to everyone, but the main warning signs of burnout to look out for are:
1. Switching to survival mode
Ever heard yourself, or a team leader, say “My main aim for today is to survive”? If yes, that’s an early warning sign.
When experiencing burnout, we have such low energy that we lose our ability to be proactive and motivated, and instead switch into our survival instincts just to get through our days, often doing the bare minimum just to scrape by.
2. A feeling of constant lethargy or fatigue
One of the most common symptoms of burnout is a feeling of malaise and fatigue that just won’t budge. We may find ourselves wishing the weekend was four days instead of two, and it may be getting harder to find the energy to even pull ourselves out of bed.
The reason for this symptom in particular is usually down to how hard a leader is working to get everything done, or alternatively because they’re either going to bed too late because of work, or failing to sleep properly due to worries and anxieties about work.
3. Irritability and unbalanced moods
Noticed you’ve gone from life of the party to irritable, easily angered or upset? This can be a warning sign of burnout as fatigue begins to play havoc with our mental wellbeing and mood.
Burnout often leaves leaders feeling cynical, hopeless, irritable, resentful, and low on productivity which only fuels the negative cycle as they begin to doubt their own abilities and qualities.
4. Loss of enthusiasm or motivation
One sure sign of leadership burnout for leaders is the loss of enthusiasm, energy, motivation and productivity for their work. We may find ourselves daydreaming about winning the lottery and retiring, switching jobs or career fields, or even abandoning a project or organisation altogether – even if we were previously incredibly happy there.
Ironically because leaders are often overcommitted and achievement-orientated, it very often doesn’t occur to them that this change in their character is down to burnout and not a reflection of a sudden change in their competency, commitment or ability.
5. Becoming avoidant of people
Burned out leaders will often start to fail to return emails, miss phone calls, be late for meetings, overshoot deadlines and even avoid their colleagues under the fog of fatigue.
This is mostly due to their exhaustion and the fact that they are unsure whether they’ll be able to keep an act up around those that know them best. Leaders suffering from burnout will go to great lengths to hide that something is wrong, and therefore avoiding having to take on the responsibility of leading is one such way.
4 ways to manage your leadership burnout
Burnout is a serious issue, and it can take months to bounce back from in the very worst of cases – but there are ways that leaders can minimise and manage their burnout to prevent it from spiralling, and to avoid it developing into a much more severe case.
1. Incorporate self-care
One of the most recommended things leaders – and indeed, employees in general – can do to avoid burnout is to uphold a regular self-care routine. Generally self-care refers to exercising and eating healthily, but leaders should look to go deeper than this by identifying ways that they can use to restore and rebalance themselves.
For example, spiritual practices like meditation can help us to recentre and combat against burnout, as can taking regular time outdoors, or writing in a daily journal.
Another recommended and research backed way to fight burnout is to simply unplug from our constantly pinging, updating and ringing devices. Research suggests that just by taking one night away from phones and laptops left some leaders feeling much more refreshed and looking forward to returning to work in the morning.
Becoming inaccessible is also a great model to pass down to your team members, which helps to prevent burnout across all layers of the organisation.
2. Streamline your day and delegate where appropriate
Some leaders can concentrate better on big tasks in the morning, whereas some are more focused after lunch. By streamlining and organising our days in comparison to our best ways of working, we can lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed which drastically reduces the risk of burning out.
Our latest recommended business reading talks about how to delegate and unify your team. Read more about Who Not How here.
For example, a leader who works more efficiently earlier in the day might schedule their day as follows: Replying to emails between 8:00am and 10:00am, working on a large project that requires significant concentration from 10:00-12:00pm, and scheduling the department catchup meeting for 2:00-4:00pm when feasible.
Being more discerning about what work is taken on and when helps to communicate with the rest of the team as to what is realistically achievable and what is not. This then opens up channels for delegation, as other team members may be able to remove tasks from the pile, keeping everyone’s workload balanced and reducing the pressure-cooker feeling.
3. Check in with yourself
Another important way to minimise burnout is for leaders to regularly check in with how they’re feeling, and compare that against the identified signs of burnout.
If a leader has noticed they feel remarkably more tired, or less enthusiastic than usual, they are likely already bordering on an acute burnout level. So, by learning the signs of burnout and checking in with themselves at least once a month, they can take preventive measures to adjust their behaviour which will then reduce the effect of severe burnout and lead to a shorter reversal and recovery period.
4. Change your mindset
The only things that are “inherently stressful” are the thoughts in our minds, and that’s because stress is a perception. It’s not the task itself that causes stress, but our mental attitude towards it. That gives us a very overlooked power: The power as to how to respond, which places us in control of any given situation.
Once we leverage that power, we can develop better mental fitness and change what thoughts come to our minds when faced with any given task. Eventually this strengthens us in the face of burnout as we’re able to overcome or avoid the emotional and mental exhaustion, which helps maintain emotional equilibrium for better results in the future.
Looking to grow your organisation without compromising your wellbeing?
At Growth Idea, we help take ambitious businesses to the next stage of their growth – but we don’t do it at the risk of exhausting their leaders or employees. Want to know how? Book your free business strategy review here.