10 March 2021|Latest Posts, Psychology
By Ruth Cornish. It would be an understatement to say that the last year has been extraordinary. Least of all for CEOs who, without warning, were thrown by the spread of Covid-19. Amongst an endless list of tasks, keeping their businesses above water and ensuring the health of employees and customers became a priority, and all needed action while not losing site of the bigger picture. No doubt, CEOs suddenly found themselves under an immense amount of pressure.
Plus, any hope we’d start a new year on calmer shores was quickly dashed by rising coronavirus levels and the announcement of a third national lockdown. Although those who take on the title of CEO often flourish with its challenges, when the uncertainty feels unceasing the weight of responsibility can feel simply too much to carry. And whilst it is not unusual for a CEO to feel overwhelmed, it is a a danger when the person at the helm – the one who holds the highest influence and power – feels burnt out to the point they are unable to steer their business and its people through safely.
The unique stresses on a CEO.
Over the past year, CEOs have been obliged to dig deep into their energy reserves, diversify at speed and make incredibly hard decisions about both their valuable employees and ways of working. And they have to do this all while giving out a positive and collected image to the world and their loved-ones. Certainly, the inability to plan ahead, coupled with no real idea of what is round the corner, has understandably had a negative impact on many CEOs.
And let us not forget that leaders are also mums, dads, wives, husbands, daughters and sons too. And, just like much of the country, have been grappling with the challenges faced by two national lockdowns. Doubtlessly, the lack of physical boundary between work and home is creating a space where the workday never seems to end.
Acknowledge burnout early.
When an individual feels muddled in psychological quicksand it can be hard for them to invest in themselves, and as a consequence, the company and its employees can also be neglected. After all, when a CEO feels dejected, it’s unlikely they will have the energy and compassion to support the multitude of characters and personalities that exist within a business. Subsequently, it can feel impossible to gain perspective on the situation at hand.
Long hours, the unremitting pressure of walking a tightrope and handling conflicting interests without visible results can lead to intense feelings of exhaustion, demoralisation and helpnesless. What CEOs in this situation are experiencing is the “occupational phenomenon” of burnout.
It can be hard to notice burnout in one’s self because it is generally something that builds slowly and creeps in without warning. But, identifying the problem is the first, and indeed, the most important step to making a positive change.
Based on my years of experience working with a range of CEOs, those experiencing burnout generally have six identifiable characteristics:
1. Longstanding fatigue
One of the first warning signs when an individual is burning out is the feeling of constant tiredness and physical and emotional exhaustion. The stark rise in the volume of people searching online for support with ‘fatigue’ over the past ten-years – a 113% increase between March 2010 and March 2020* – is telling of the impact.
2. Cynicism and distance
Wondering what the point or one’s purpose is or displaying an increasingly rigid and inflexible attitude.
3. Feeling at fault or guilty
Despite best efforts, the individual has a constant feeling that they have not done enough, even when something is out of their control (preventing a global pandemic impacting on a business, for example).
4. Lacking interest
Feeling numb with no excitement and generally not looking forward to anything.
5. Unable to recognise accomplishment or progress
A CEO who feels their competence or value is at question, when it is not. Not seeing what they have achieved objectively.
6. Little or no patience
Experiencing a short fuse over minor issues or issues the CEO would otherwise be confident at handling.
Eight ways to stop burnout in its tracks.
There exists, in my opinion, a grave danger in what has long been the glamourisation of overworking. In this misguided world, forgoing lunch-breaks and weekends in favour of work is portrayed as a sign of passion and chaining one’s self to a desk until the early hours is seen as commitment. Exhaustion has, unfortunately, become fashionable, but wearing burnout as a badge of honour and portraying exhaustion as in any way acceptable is as dangerous for the individual as it is for the company and those who work in it. It is the responsibility of the CEO to prioritise employee health, but to achieve this, they must ensure they prioritise their own health first.
Bearing that in mind, here are eight, actionable steps that can help an individual avoid burnout:
1. Book ‘me time’ in your diary
Schedule free time in the calendar and stick to it. This will help maintain a balanced perspective.
2. Cherish daylight and get outside
Far more active thinking happens when we are outside, rather than in front of a screen. Do this to help the mind reset and declutter.
3. Move regularly
Studies have shown that physical movement ‘turns on’ the brain. CEOs must ensure they regularly move away from their work-space.
4. Ensure others know your boundaries
Set boundaries between work life and home life and communicate these to family and colleagues. Turn email notifications off and avoid answering calls after hours where possible.
5. Be mindful of diet and alcohol consumption
CEOs must be honest with themselves – are they eating a healthy diet or drinking too much? What we use to fuel our bodies can have a big impact on concentration and mood. Scheduling in alcohol-free days could also make a big difference in mood.
6. Get support
Burnout can have a big impact on mental health. Find external support from a coach, counsellor or your GP. Confide in someone that you trust and whom you won’t feel judged by.
7. Have fun
Build the things that bring joy into a routine and create checkpoints throughout the week. Talk about it. Create it. Seek it.
8. Cheerlead healthy working practices
Make it a priority to take time off or alter the work routine by reducing hours, and then celebrate this with the team. Cheerleading this way of working will have a big impact on employees too.
It can take years for a business to recover from the burnout of its leader, not least because the weight of the person suffering is felt across the whole of the business. An excellent CEO is every successful organisation’s greatest asset, but a burnout leader can also be its biggest downfall too.
* Volume of Google searches of the word “fatigue” between 2010 and 2020 (Google Trends)
About the author
Ruth Cornish is co-founder and director of HRi. HRi is the UK body for independent HR and people professionals, providing support, development and a voice for external HR and people consultancy businesses.
LinkedIn: HR Independents