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Community Blog / CEO UNDER FIRE: THE REALITY OF BURNOUT

We have long been told that it’s lonely at the top, but now we’re fully understanding that it’s actually exhausting up there, too. Executives, especially CEOs, are notorious for hiding such issues because they have been conditioned to believe that any sign of fatigue or unhappiness will be seized upon by their subordinates. And, generally, this is a stubborn group that believes they are impervious to the human condition. Therefore, instead of acknowledging the issue, executives hide it and simply work through it.

CEO burnout is described as persistent fatigue, detachment, or resentment triggered by excessive work and stress. According to The Wall Street Journal, a Harvard Medical School study found that 96 percent of senior leaders reported feeling burned out to some degree, with 33 percent describing extreme burnout. The Harvard Business Review reports that more than 80 percent of the top 400 leaders in the country said that they feel negative emotions, primarily fueled by being overloaded, throughout the day. These executives tend to hide their burnout, but some don’t even realize exactly what is happening.

Not knowing that they are experiencing CEO fatigue, executives report a loss of focus and mental clarity, and the feelings that they're always lagging. This may sound like CEOs are their own worst critics, but according to management and psychiatric experts, company performance can suffer as CEOs struggle to make decisions or treat staff fairly. Some CEOs have pushed themselves to the brink and have had to take leaves of absence.

In 2012, Azko Nobel CEO Ton Buechner took a leave of absence to recuperate, as advised by his doctor. As a result, Azko shares took a hit and investor meetings had to be postponed. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that ABN Amro analyst Mutlu Gundogan said, “If this could be more serious, it’s a bad thing. But if it’s just temporary, people will wonder whether he’s able to head the company’s transformation as there’s so much still to be done.” And just like that, the efficacy and capability of a previously much-liked and respected CEO came into question.

The Harvard Business School even established the Crossroads Program to help executives learn to lead a somewhat normal and healthy lifestyle. Major organizations are realizing that burnout is a problem even in its infancy because, as the HBR points out, it’s not the hours we spend at work, but rather “it’s the quality of energy we bring to the hours we work.” And executives aren’t the only ones feeling the burnout - it is commonly seen among overworked corporate employees and is reflected in Americans’ attitude toward their jobs (spoiler: they hate their jobs).

 

Luckily there are some things you can do to bounce back from burnout and even mitigate it. First, you have to acknowledge it. CEOs and entrepreneurs are typically workaholics who push through any ailment, even the obvious and serious. When my father had a heart attack at 48-years-old, he was back to his business two days later, shrugging off the experience and proclaiming, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” Get some perspective from other CEOs and executives that you trust, review your schedule from the past month - whatever it takes for you to clearly see the condition you are in. 

The next step is to make real changes. This doesn’t mean radical change, but rather effective change. Review how you spend your time and with whom, find the energy vampire lurking in your workdays and replace it with something better wherever you can. This may come as a shock, but you really don’t need to be at the office all the time and can instead infuse some fun into your day (or evening - either way you have to pull yourself away from the desk). Have a standing appointment to get a drink with your best friend once a week, start the week with Monday morning coffee with other executive friends, commit to reading a book for pleasure the way you read income statements. Schedule these things into your life like you would a business meeting. Lock down your vacation and buy tickets months in advance to commit yourself to actually going.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do right now to curb burnout. A little physical activity can go a long way in reducing stress, decreasing physical burnout and overall fatigue, and helping you feel at ease. The same can be said for respiratory trainers and meditation - both low impact, quick, and effective ways to drastically reduce work fatigue and eliminate burnout.  


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