MANAGING EXECUTIVE BURNOUT

“I’ve tried yoga, tai-chi and meditation, but I find stress less boring.”

I had an interesting comment posted by a colleague in response to my last blog post, which was about Leadership (see “Leadership is a subtle art” posted July 22, 2013. He felt strongly that expecting an executive to be both a leader and a manager created too much stress in an individual, often leading to executive burnout.

Author: Rexrodo (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Rexrodo (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Whilst I do not necessarily believe that this is the main cause of executive burnout, I do acknowledge that burnout is a real issue in the business world and that, according to all that I read, its incidence is actually increasing.

Even in a country as laid-back as Australia, it is estimated that the cost of executive burnout costs local businesses over $20 Billion annually. (see Executive ‘burnout’ costing billions).

David Lassiter, founder and President of consulting organisation, Leadership Advantage, summarises the reasons thus “The atmosphere at work has changed in recent times. The pace of change keeps accelerating. As companies continue to search for ever higher levels of quality, service and overall business agility, the pressures are felt on individuals at all levels of the organization. The treadmill moves faster, companies work harder, improvements are made only to be changed again and again. Today’s managers are experiencing a whole new order of exhaustion. Performance targets become tougher to meet in each succeeding quarter and fiscal year. Managers have ever-widening spans of control. In the boundary-less organization, work goes on round the clock. The post-dinner time zone has become prime time for answering e-mails, voice mails, faxes and the rest of what didn’t get done during office hours. Thanks to technology, work is now very portable. It’s easy to see why many managers feel overwhelmed. The only way they can get it all done is to take the writing, reading and reviewing tasks home. Finding personal fulfillment through one’s work is becoming more of a challenge. Job burnout is a reality for many people”.

The average life expectancy of the average CEO is now estimated to be between 30-40 months and one in four CEOs of UK businesses with sales of over £500m leave before planned. This is twice the early departure figures for 1990, and this trend is continuing to grow today (see CEO: A Life on the Brink).

However, not all executives burn out, and they don’t all succumb to allowing the levels of stress mount to a point where it all becomes unbearable.

So what are the secrets to sanity and survival as a business executive ?

Here are some that worked for me in my 40 years of frantic, stress driven life in the Hi-Tech industry.

– Don’t do a job you hate, no matter how much they pay you.

– Don’t work for a boss, or a board, that you cannot respect or that isn’t supportive.

– No senior executive should be allowed to stay in the same role for over 5 years without rotation. Make it part of your career plan.

– Play truancy occasionally, like sneaking off to a movie in the afternoon during a busy work day. It feels deliciously mischievous, and gives you the stress relief similar to that provided by a long weekend.

– Laugh long, laugh hard and laugh often. Fortunately there is much to laugh at in the business world. Work is meant to be fun.

Author: White House Photographic Office; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: White House Photographic Office; via Wikimedia Commons


– Don’t procrastinate on tough decisions or tasks, as they will not get easier with time, and doing them straight away gives you something less to dwell upon to create another sleepless night.

– Build a team of skilled people that you can rely on to do their job without constant supervision.

– Delegate whenever possible and sensible to do so. It will give good people a challenge and a chance to grow.

– Remember that control freaks tend to burn out faster than collaborators. Let go the reins and rely on your people to deliver. They will surprise you.

– Build a support group of peers (not current colleagues) with whom you can mutually share issues and challenges that you face. 5-6 ex colleagues that you respect and trust works well.

– Get an executive coach that you can regularly dump on in confidence. Knowing that you need help is a sign of strength not weakness.

– Build habits. Doing 30 minutes of exercise when you first get up in the morning works, whereas telling yourself that you will get to the gym as soon as you finish your priority and past-due list doesn’t.

Author: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS; via Wikimedia Commons


– Manage your time to minimize interruptions. Schedule specific times when you will check your email, rather than doing it on demand. The same with when/how you make phone calls. Doing one thing at a time takes too long. Doing many of the same things in a batch makes you more precise, succinct and bloody minded.

– Limit your attendances at meetings to only those that you determine are necessary because you are needed for a group decision. For all others, apologise for non-attendance and ask to be copied only on any resultant action items that will impact you or your organization.

– Celebrate victories and successes often letting people know that you appreciate their contribution and commitment, both to the company and to you as their manager.

– Acknowledge failures, learn from them and move on. Do everything possible not to repeat them.

– Understand your strengths and weaknesses. If they don’t closely match your current job requirements, do something about getting the skills needed, or ask for reassignment to a different role where they match up.

– Grow and develop your people to make the business goals easier to achieve each year. The better that your people are, the easier will be your job to lead them.

– Share your situation with your family. Sharing with them up front, for example, that you will be working 12 hours per day, and travelling a lot for the next 3 years, and why this is important for all of you, is better than letting them work it out themselves through your continual absences. However, commitments you do make to them for your availability must be met.

Just remember that “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

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14 Responses to MANAGING EXECUTIVE BURNOUT

  1. John Du Bois says:

    Flame out happens before burnout recognize the signs for you and your people and make the necessary adjustments. Align your decisions with the speed of business. Not everything needs to be done now.

    • leshayman says:

      Hi JD, you are right that one has to look for the signs of flameout to try and address the problem before it gets too severe and/or becomes irreversible. I have regularly thrown people out of the office in my time, even if just for a couple of days. Les

  2. Pfister Thomas says:

    Excellent Post Les !

  3. Rotzinger, Joachim says:

    Les,

    I really pretty much like your blog,

    it´s always an inspiration and gives me food for thought as well as energy for the start into my week!

    Best,

    Jo.

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Jo, I am delighted that you read and enjoy my blog. I find that I need to start the week off with strong coffee, which I need for energy after posting my weekly blog. Les 🙂

  4. Stuart Bell says:

    You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone! Especially when you are in your sweet spot! It doesn’t help when management don’t appreciate that it is your ability to delegate and achieve a collaborative outcome because they are control freaks.

    • leshayman says:

      Stuart, the problem with control freaks is that they don’t recognise any other management style. Building a strong, skilled, capable team is a major hallmark of a successful executive. If you create an environment where people have a chance to do great things, they will do so. Les

  5. Les,
    Great post… you don’t mention the importance of vacation. I am counting down to a break that is 2 weeks away!
    Simon

    • leshayman says:

      Simon, you are right … vacation breaks are a critical part of re-energising, as long as one leaves their mobile phone and laptop locked in the bottom drawer of their desk at the office. 🙂 Les

  6. Dinesh Madne says:

    Excellent. I agree with every bit you said. And most important is “Dont work for a boss who is not supportive …”. I would rather say, you should never feel like working for a boss. You should work for the company and work WITH the boss … not FOR the boss. Its critical to have that work relationship. A control freak, micromanaging boss will only help you pile up stress as compared to a collaborative one who provides you the freedom.

    While I comment here, I would also like to hear you on “Can you, the Manager of your subordinate, be his/her Mentor too … or should Mentor-Mentoree relationship be outside the Boss-Subordinate relationship”

    • leshayman says:

      Dinesh, I think we disagree only with wording and not intent. One works for the team and the company under the leadership and tutelage of a “boss”.
      I believe that every manager has to act as an advisor and guide to all his people, but that a true mentoring relationship should be outside of a direct vertical line. Les

  7. Bruce Rankin says:

    Excellent post Les,
    It prompts a few thoughts:

    Regarding truancy I can vouch for its value on a regular basis! I had a new PA and told her I had to leave at 4:45pm on Wednesdays for my stress management course. She looked at me in surprise – said she didn’t think I seemed like I needed that. I then explained that I was going twilight sailing on Sydney Harbour! Which I did every summer for 12 years – what a wonderful way for the stresses of work to just vanish mid-week with the pleasure of being out on the water.

    Regarding exercise, yes exercise in the morning is a great tonic. Some 16 years at the gym from 6:15am 2-3 mornings a week for an hour’s aerobics, circuit or pump class meant arriving at work fresh and tingling.

    Your Bertrand Russell quote reminds one of the need for an appropriate balance between work and family life. No-one ever put on their headstone: “I should have spent more time at the office!”

    Above all I’d add look after your health. It is more important than anything else – we cannot enjoy life otherwise.

    • leshayman says:

      Bruce, I agree totally about looking after your health both physically and mentally. I therefore, as well as exercise, recommend lots of vegetables, sex and laughter … although one has to be careful when trying to combine all 3 simultaneously. 🙂 Les

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