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Let’s Talk About Burnout: at the Leadership Level

I hear a lot of talk about employee burnout. And that’s very reasonable. Good leaders care about the well-being of their employees, understand that the effects of employee burnout can extend to the customer experience, and know that turnover is costly. We should talk about it.

But we don’t talk enough about burnout at the leadership level.

Yes, our teams are exhausted. They are burning out, or already have.

And leaders are exhausted too.

How is a burned-out employee supposed to get the support they need from their leader, if their leader is also burned-out?

Leaders are exhausted and burning out…

  • Due to a myriad of internal industry changes we’ve seen in the last few years increasing the complexity of the business landscape that present new challenges for leaders. Navigating this complexity requires mental agility and resilience, which can contribute to burnout if not effectively managed.
  • Due to an accelerated pace of work in this digital age, and expectations on constant connectivity that lead to feeling a need to always be “on.”
  • Due to rapid changes and uncertainty, and constantly having to adapt to new circumstances. Making decisions in ambiguous situations can be mentally taxing and contribute to burnout.
  • Due to changes in workforce expectations. The traditional boundaries between work and personal life have become blurred, particularly with remote work arrangements and flexible schedules (and difficulty disengaging from work). There have also been changes in workforce expectations as it relates to leadership styles in general with big shifts away from “control and command” leadership (toward a focus on the actual human doing the work). While this is critical for fostering a positive work culture, it also adds complexity and emotional labor to leaders’ roles, contributing to burnout if not managed effectively.
  • Due to increased scrutiny and accountability. With the rise of instant communication channels, leaders are under constant scrutiny from various stakeholders (including employees, customers, shareholders, and the public). This pressure can lead to a fear of making mistakes or facing criticism which contribute to stress and burnout.
  • Due to changes in customer expectations and demands. Especially in healthcare as it relates to patient expectations (requirements of cost transparency, shifts toward value based care, whole person health, etc.) There is often pressure on leaders to drive innovation, meet aggressive targets, and deliver results quickly.

That is a lot to navigate. These changes may have already been shifting in small increments and whispers before 2020, but the Covid Pandemic surely sped things up. We hadto make big and quick changes. And that means there is so much untouched territory coming at an accelerated pace that leaders are expected to move through, and often without direct support (like coaching, development, or training).

Studies show that 89% of leaders experience moderate to extreme stress in their roles with 41% using the term “burned out” as something they feel sometimes, often, or always. Yet, Only 20% of leaders receive leadership coaching and support (HBR; Gallup). This is mostly due to (1) constraints on a leader’s time, and (2) a lack of support and resources.

And I totally get it. Some leaders feel like they don’t have the time and energy to work on their development, and some companies don’t understand the value in leadership development (therefore not providing it as a resource).

At the same time I think those are misconceptions and inaccurate lines of thought. At least they are if you’re working with me.

(1) Time Constraints

Leaders who don’t prioritize the time to work with a coach or trainer on their leadership development do so because it sounds like another job, on top of everything else they have on their long list of things to do. But I believe that leadership development should not feel like another job or more work.

Your leadership development and coaching should make the job you already have as a leader, easier and better. My framework within the Leadership First Approach™ is different. It’s not another job. It is designed to seamlessly integrate into your existing role (and reduce your need to use four-letter words on a daily basis).

So consider that perhaps you’ve just tried the wrong program, or worked with the wrong coach before. Consider learning more about the Leadership First Approach™ and how it’s your advantage as a leader.

(2) The Value in Leadership Development

There is a misconception about the results people see from leadership development. Some people have told me that it feels less clear to set goals related to leadership development, which also makes the results seem less tangible. I’m actually asked about this often, and seeing the results as “less tangible” are the words of people I’ve spoken with – not mine. I don’t believe this has to be true. I believe that the results you get from leadership development should 100% be tangible. If you don’t see tangible results from your leadership development coaching, then you might want to consider whether or not you were clear about your goals in the first place, and whether or not you were working with the right coach for you.

Leadership development is a prerequisite for solving your people-problems and achieving organizational health that leads to rises in revenue. It’s necessary in order to stop tolerating the status quo and start moving the organization toward reaching it’s full potential. And that’s not possible if you are a leader experiencing burnout – where are you supposed to get the energy to do all that?

Well, working with a leadership development coach offers the strategic advantage of having a high-level of expertise that can accelerate progress. Despite your position on a leadership team, it can feel isolating at the top. You might feel unsupported (particularly when there is a lack access to adequate resources or support). And this lack of support can increase feelings of overwhelm and burnout. Leadership development and coaching is collaborative. It gives you a partner who will help get you out of the mud, and will sometimes get in the mud with you if you need it.

What Else to Consider

Burnout at the leadership level is a significant concern in various industries and organizations. Here are some more key aspects to consider that I hope will help you make support and development a priority for yourself, and other members of your leadership team.

  1. Responsibility Overload: Leaders often shoulder significant responsibilities, including making critical decisions, managing teams, and dealing with complex problems. This constant pressure to perform at a high level can lead to burnout.
  2. Work-life Integration: Integrating (“balancing”) work commitments with personal life can be particularly challenging for leaders. They may find it difficult to switch off from work, leading to chronic stress and exhaustion.
  3. High Expectations: Leaders are often expected to be role models and maintain high standards. The pressure to consistently meet these expectations can be overwhelming, especially if there is a lack of support or recognition from same-level peers or higher-ups.
  4. Emotional Exhaustion: Dealing with interpersonal conflicts, managing difficult conversations, and shouldering the emotional well-being of team members can lead to emotional exhaustion for leaders. Especially as the definition of a “good leader” has shifted and now emphasizes the need to provide social-emotional support for employees (versus “control and command” leadership).
  5. Lack of Autonomy: Despite being in leadership positions, some leaders may feel micromanaged or constrained by organizational structures, limiting their autonomy and contributing to feelings of burnout.
  6. Unclear Goals or Vision: If leaders are not clear about their goals or the organization’s vision, it can lead to a sense of purposelessness and frustration, contributing to burnout.
  7. Pressure to Perform: Leaders may face intense pressure to achieve results and meet targets, often within tight deadlines. This pressure can lead to feelings of inadequacy and burnout if not managed effectively.
  8. Isolation: Leadership positions can be isolating, with leaders often lacking peers or colleagues with whom they can openly discuss challenges and seek support.
  9. Continuous Change and Uncertainty: In today’s fast-paced business environment, leaders must navigate constant change and uncertainty. This can be mentally and emotionally draining.
  10. Physical Health Impact: Burnout at the leadership level can have significant consequences for physical health, including increased risk of cardiovascular problems, weakened immune system, and other stress-related illnesses.

Addressing burnout at the leadership level requires a multifaceted approach, including fostering a supportive work culture, promoting work-life integration, encouraging open communication about mental health and well-being, and providing access to resources and support (like leadership development coaching and programs).

I’d love to be considered as one of your resources and support. Send me a DM and let me know if you want to learn more.


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