Executive burnout: Do you know how to spot the signs?

According to government statistics,stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of all work-related ill health cases in 2016/17 and 49% of all working days lost due to ill health.

One day everyone’s trundling along nicely at work and everything feels normal. The next day one of the team crashes, and everyone wonders how come they didn’t notice the signs, see that their colleague was right on the edge of executive burn-out. It makes a lot of sense to know what the signs are and what to look out for, so you can keep an eye on yourself and your colleagues.

If you want to develop deeper self-awareness, better self management and greater resiliency to sustain positive onward career growth, here’s what you need to know about recognising the signs of burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout happens when a person expends a great deal of effort, in an intense situation, over a long period of time, without visible results. It’s much more severe than everyday stress, the kind of stress many of us handle with ease at work. It involves a total and dramatic loss of energy, a corresponding lack of interest in more or less everything, and a total inability to function effectively.

As someone who’s dedicated to their work and usually manages everyday stress well, it can be extremely distressing to suddenly find you can no longer cope, especially when your expectations about your role and the actuality differ.

Where does the term ‘burnout’ come from?

So long-term, unresolvable job stress often results in burnout. But where does burnout originate? Our first stop is the author Graham Greene. His 1961 novel, A Burnt-Out Case, he coined the phrase to describe a profoundly exhausted doctor working in the Belgian Congo with leprosy patients. But ‘burnout’ wasn’t used in psychology until 1974, when the researcher Herbert Freudenberger published a paper including the term, inspired by studying volunteers at a free clinic for drug addicts. He characterised burnout as:

  • Emotional, physical and cognitive exhaustion driven by excessive work demands
  •  Headaches
  •  Sleeplessness
  •  Bad temper
  •  Closed thinking
  •  Looking, acting and seeming depressed
  •  The depersonalisation of others and disengagement from them
  •  Seriously reduced feelings of career-led personal accomplishment

Why does executive burnout happen?

The world of work is more complex than ever. The digital element of working life means that going home at the end of the day doesn’t necessarily mean the working day is over – mobile phones, tablets and other tech mean bosses can access us at any time of day or night. You might feel you’re constantly running but never catch up, because your role has grown so dramatically that it’s actually a job for two people, not one.

Performance targets at your company might have become tougher over the last few years. Finding personal fulfilment through work is more of a challenge than ever. When businesses merge and the interests of shareholders predominate, things get difficult. It’s tricky when people’s roles cease to exist thanks to technological innovation. Some of us are forced to take on more and more responsibility thanks to staff shortages or HR budget constraints. Maybe, as a manager, you have to actually lay people off. It all contributes to burnout, where you are running as fast as you can but are still falling behind.

Who suffers most from burnout?

Burnout often seems to happen to high achievers who push too hard and can’t easily say ‘no’. Push things too far and they tip over, becoming low achievers or under-achievers, which in itself is depressing for them. Add the classic ‘meet the challenge blues’ that follow, where high motivation swings to low motivation, driven by exhaustion and over exertion and, as you can imagine, the inconsistency fast becomes career limiting by creating all sorts of mixed, sometimes bizarre performance-related messages and interpretations.

How to save yourself and others from burnout

Self-awareness sits at the heart of everything you can do to protect yourself from burnout. Once you’re aware of your own tendency to over-work, to set yourself super-high targets, to say ‘yes’ when you really don’t have time to take on more responsibilities, you have the power to start acting differently. When you’re being honest with yourself, understanding how you’re wired, knowing yourself well, it’s a lot easier to take positive action before you reach the burnout stage.

Simply saying ‘no’ can help you to head all manner of stressful issues off at the pass. We’ve written about it here.Delegation is another essential skill to help you distribute responsibilities fairly and wisely rather than accepting them all yourself. You can read all about delegation here. It helps if you have strong prioritisation skills, something we’ve covered here. And if you happen to be prone to runaway perfectionism, you can learn how to step back and chill out a little here

Training employees in ways to manage workplace stress has proven effective in preventing burnout. It’s also important to understand ‘restoration activities’, which are different for everyone. Does being out and about in nature soothe you, make you feel calmer? It works for many of us. Maybe your restorative activities involve sport, theatre, creativity of some sort. Engaging with the non-work activities you love, which you’ve neglected through being so busy, can help a great deal.

Some employers run burnout prevention programmes, which tend to focus on cognitive-behavioural therapy, AKA CBT, cognitive restructuring, didactic stress management, and physical and mental relaxation techniques. But at the simplest end of things, common sense habits like starting the day with a relaxing ritual, healthy eating, plenty of exercise, good sleep, boundary setting, learning to take a break from technology can all help.

The core of your anti-burnout strategy?

Simply looking after yourself means you can pace yourself and ultimately be more successful. It’s all about developing a new attitude to stress, and acknowledging that there’s good stress and bad stress. The TEDX talk below is all about creating a valuable bedrock of resilience to make you more sustainable at work. It’s called The Burnout Gamble, and it’s by Hamza Khan.

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Khan talks good levels of stress and bad. He discusses keeping the right altitude for perpetual productivity with a little bit of productivity. He talks about Icarus flying too near the sun and getting his wings scorched. He says that resilience is your ability to adapt to stress. He suggests stepping out of your comfort zone gradually by taking baby steps each day. And he talks about how he himself rethought his relationship to stress and burnout as a classic high achiever.

Need support dealing with the signs of burnout?

At the Listening Partnership, we can help you to identify whether you’re at risk of burnout, and help you learn how to spot the early signs in others. We can also help you create a suite of effective stress-busting tactics that’ll help you steer clear of it.