Breaking the burnout cycle: CEO success strategies
CEOs and other leaders experience a tremendous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, for many leaders, the consequence of constant demand is burnout.
How impactful is this exhaustion? A 2022 Deloitte study found that 70% of C-suite executives are so burned out that they’re “seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.”
We spoke to executive coaches Michael Flannery and Phillip Thomas about what causes CEO burnout, how to recognize the warning signs and strategies for preventing it.
What is burnout?
To Phillip Thomas, “burnout is simply a diminishing of enthusiasm for a particular task or role. You’re less and less committed to it as time goes by.”
Michael Flannery describes it as a feeling of numbness and apathy, which he calls the “staring at the fire” effect. When he felt burned out, Flannery would sit at home and stare into the fire until his wife asked if he was okay.
“‘I’m numb,’ he answered. ‘I can’t even think right now. I just need to sit here.’ That’s called burnout.”
Why do CEOs experience burnout?
Flannery finds that CEOs and other executives often experience burnout when they become a “bottleneck” in their company. “When CEOs are running their businesses, they get caught up in a cycle of being the person everyone comes to for answers,” he says. “You end up with people that are burned out because they’ve been the bottleneck.”
Thomas also shares a CEO burnout cause he frequently sees. “They may get into a rut; they don’t introduce new and innovative and exciting ideas. They don’t try new things.”
Another factor? The vicious cycle of working long hours, neglecting sleep and continuous stress. “You’re not giving yourself a break; you’re not giving yourself any downtime,” Flannery explains. As Thomas puts it, “You’re just not getting the rest you need.”
Symptoms of CEO burnout
For both Thomas and Flannery, certain symptoms are key to recognizing burnout.
Flannery says that burnout often shows up as anger or frustration over things that wouldn’t usually affect you.
He gives an evocative example: “Think about yourself getting in your car. You’re trying to get on the highway, and the guy in the lane next to you is not letting you merge. You get frustrated, and you get angry — maybe you say something that’s not appropriate.” Flannery sees this quickness to anger as a warning sign.
A sense of indifference is one symptom of burnout that Thomas looks out for. He describes this as being “kind of on autopilot. I don’t really go into the details as much as I would before — I’m sort of skimming along the surface.”
Another indicator is a negative impact on personal relationships. One of Flannery’s coaches told him that frustrations in the office spill over into your home life. “And if you’re not sure about that, just ask your spouse.”
How to prevent burnout
Luckily, there are effective methods available to prevent burnout, from recognizing the source to creating balance in your life.
Identify the root cause
Determining what causes burnout can help stop it in its tracks. The specific causes vary for each individual, so it’s important to spend time reflecting on your triggers.
Flannery says that a coach can help identify the primary cause of burnout.
“Work with somebody who can be a sounding board,” he says. They “can help you begin to recognize what’s going on on a day-to-day basis, both in your life and in your business.”
Promote a healthy work-life balance
Start by making time for family, friends, activities, and other priorities outside the office. Relaxation, sleep, and exercise are also vital.
“Physical activity can help stimulate endorphins,” says Thomas. A 2021 study in Physiology and Behavior found that aerobic exercise can help people recover from mental exhaustion by improving cognitive flexibility, motivation and a sense of well-being.
When he’s working with CEOs and business owners who are at risk of burnout, Flannery helps them prioritize their duties. He says that systems such as EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) can help with this.
Flannery encourages people to make a list of tasks they want to address. “Figure out the things that are going to have the biggest impact on your business over the next 60 to 90 days and just focus on those.”
If you have too many responsibilities piling up, try delegating or hiring an additional person to help. Thomas describes how a peer advisory group member told him he would benefit from an executive assistant. Thomas took that advice, and his assistant has been invaluable.
How to cope with burnout
Sometimes, burnout sets in before you can apply preventative strategies. So how do leaders cope when they’re already burned out and struggling?
One method is to ensure adequate support. Flannery mentions peer groups, mentors, and coaches. He says leaders “should not be without” this type of support.
Both Flannery and Thomas say that time away from work is essential, whether you’re engaging in hobbies, traveling, or spending time with loved ones. One recommendation Thomas offers is to “go away for a week and just recharge somewhere.”
Along with preventing burnout in the first place, sleep and exercise can help you manage and relieve your symptoms over time.
How to spot burnout on your executive team — and help ease it
CEOs and other leaders can play a vital role in helping their teams with burnout. Some symptoms to look for include:
- Unexplained or frequent absences
- Complaints about stress
- A drop in work quality
Consistent check-ins are crucial. Observe people’s body language and attitudes in addition to checking in verbally. “It’s okay to say, ‘Is everything okay with you these days?’” says Thomas.
Depending on the CEO’s observations, they may tell a team member to take a break or a few days off, encourage a better work-life balance, or offer training.
For Flannery, once he recognizes the symptoms of burnout in someone, the next step is to acknowledge what they’re going through. “It’s very encouraging to the people that work with you to know that you’re the type of person that cares that they’re experiencing or potentially experiencing burnout.”
Flannery likes to share the coping methods he’s learned from his own experiences. “Pay it forward, right?”
How Do Leaders Help Staff & Themselves Recover From Burnout? [Vistage Perspectives]