CEO burnout is a serious and rapidly growing problem. Our lives are speeding up; competition, disruption, and demands are increasing; expectations are rising and pressure is building on CEOs to deliver in near-impossible situations.
Though there are no official figures for CEO burnout, we know that in the UK alone, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 40 percent of work-related ill health and 49% of working days lost. Much of this is down to burnout. But what causes it and how can you avoid it?
1. Repetitive work patterns over a prolonged period
Many people think that the job of a CEO can’t possibly be repetitive. Every day must be different. It’s not like you’re working on an assembly line boxing up widgets for sale. But the job of a CEO can be highly repetitive.
CEOs experience the same challenges, in different guises, over and over again. Moving companies to a new CEO job doesn’t change this fact. Businesses have the same high-level problems no matter their sector, size or location. Building a business and keeping it profitable involves the same hiring, strategy, competition, supply chain, governance and shareholder challenges.
That means CEOs are faced with a revolving door of problems. They solve the hiring issue, then six months later it’s back again; maybe it looks slightly different, but in reality, it’s the same problem presented by the same HR director and dumped at the same CEO’s door. This pattern can go on for decades.
The way to break this pattern is first to accept that it’s happening, and it’s causing problems for you, and then step outside and find new approaches. Often, stress caused by repetition at senior levels occurs because we always default to the same solutions. We don’t look for new solutions, perhaps new technologies, new modes of thinking or new corporate services. We just go: oh, yes, I’ve seen this before – this is how I deal with it. Next time, just stop, take a step back and find a different solution.
2. Lack of value or meaning in the job
We all know that younger workers are keen to join companies that make a meaningful contribution to society, or take up roles where the value they add is clear, and the same issue applies to the role of CEO – but it’s much harder to find meaning at the senior level.
CEOs today are run off their feet. They are expected to not only manage the company but increasingly they are the representative face of the business too. They must be authentic, charismatic leaders and outstanding communicators; they must be the face of the brand and be able to deliver profit year on year. All this on top of the daily demands of their core role.
These pressures leave no time for a CEO to consider the value they’re adding, or find personal meaning in the job. They are constantly on the move, without time to reflect or consider their own personal goals.
To avoid this trap you need space and time for yourself. There can be no excuses here. If you want to avoid burnout or even worse, public meltdown, you need to schedule regular time out. Put it in your diary and stick to it. Take a lunch hour – and use it. Go for a walk around the park. Take 20 minutes every couple of hours, walk out of the building, get some fresh air and clear your head.
Alternatively, you might want to find other ways to add meaning to your days. “More companies are launching community engagement schemes,” writes HR expert Sophie Henderson. These are schemes that involve giving back to your local community through charity, volunteering or mentoring. They are a great way to get out of the office and reconnect with the world. Consider it.
3. The effort-reward imbalance
Every worker knows what it feels like to put huge amounts of effort into a project only to see it fail. The disappointment, frustration, and anger that goes with this can be acute. But for CEOs the effort-reward imbalance can cause burnout quicker than almost anything else.
CEOs carry the can for the whole business, and they drive the direction and decisions at every stage. They put huge amounts of effort into every project, not least because they have the best view of the ramifications of failure. If a project does fail, to any outside observer it generally has their name written on it, and they often don’t have anyone to turn to for support if things go wrong.
Tackling this issue can be tough but not impossible. First you need to take control of your targets, the narrative surrounding them, and inject some personal perspective. Today, in this rapidly changing world, failure is good – great in fact. Failing fast is what allows us to move forward. Instead of slogging away for six months on a project, divide it up, and test elements quickly, in one week. If that element fails, move on and don’t look back.
4. Overcommitment to the job
CEOs are committed people. It’s how they’ve managed to reach the level they’re at in the company. But many people think because CEOs have a great salary and are secure at the top it must be easy for them to switch off, go and take time out and enjoy life outside of work.
Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Studies indicate that highly engaged, successful employees have high rates of exhaustion and burnout. They are overcommitted to the job. They have trouble saying no, setting limits, knowing when to call it quits, scheduling in downtime and holidays, and find it hard to see the value in rest and recuperation.
This is a poisonous cocktail and it always leads to burnout sooner or later. It might be many years down the line, but living to work never ends well.
To stop this from happening to you, you need to do the one thing that many CEOs find difficult: delegate. If you think you’re the only person that can handle this issue then resign and go and do that job role instead. Since you’re not going to do that, then take a step back and accept that you are surrounded by competent, skilled people who are quite capable of taking on this work – it’s why you hired them.
5. Sense of inadequacy
Most people know how it feels to think they’re not up to the job. This usually passes with time, experience, support and perhaps some extra training. But for CEOs this feeling of inadequacy can become chronic. We’ve all heard of Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that eventually someone will find you out and realise you’re actually not that good at your job. For CEOs this is often their very biggest fear.
Many CEOs use this feeling of inadequacy as a stick to beat themselves with. And it’s a cyclical challenge because most CEOs do not have a mentor figure, someone who understands their issues surrounding being a CEO, that they can go to and talk things through. Left unchecked, eventually this feeling of inadequacy can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
CEOs have a problem with feelings of inadequacy because they lose sight of one thing: perfection is the enemy of good – or even great! If you’re feeling inadequate it’s because your personal standards are too high. It’s as simple as that. You’ve already reached the level of CEO, you have nothing to prove. Now is the time to understand that you can never be perfect, no one is. Stop worrying and just accept that you’re great!