How to Deal With Executive Burnout

Posted on November 10th, 2009
Posted in Mental Health

All across America, in companies big and small, executive burnout is on the rise. It should be no surprise, given the frantic, wild economic fluctuations, intense competition, businesses folding left and right, trying to squeeze as much productivity out of every employee as possible and cutting costs – and sometimes corners – just to stay afloat or break even. But the human costs add up to so much more, consequences that can be incalculable. Whether you are the executive who suspects you’re in the midst of burnout or are concerned about burnout affecting your employees, you really need to pay attention to how to deal with executive burnout.

Executive Burnout versus Stress

Burnout and stress are related, but they’re not synonymous. Burnout, according to author Beverly Potter, Overcoming Job Burnout: How To Renew Enthusiasm For Work, is a type of job depression caused by a feeling of powerlessness. It is stressful, but stress doesn’t cause burnout. Stress is the condition where your body is overly taxed.
When burnout occurs, the individual feels powerless, overwhelmed, depressed, dispirited, no motivation, and no sense of control over what’s happening.

Nevertheless, executive burnout is often characterized as a stress-related illness. This is because stress in the workplace is the body’s reaction to an accumulation of increased pressure to perform, putting in more hours to keep up, trying to jump-start profitability in the face of declining resources, and other mounting concerns.

Signs of Burnout

When you’re stressed, your body reacts physically. Your heart may race uncontrollably, your digestive and immune systems may shut down, or your body may produce adrenalin and cortisol to counteract the need to act and act now. These powerful chemicals were not designed for sustained performance, produced by the body for emergency situations. Over time, continued stress due to burnout can lead to the following physical and psychological symptoms:

• Anger
• Anxiety
• Chest pains, shortness of breath
• Clenched jaw, teeth grinding
• Depression
• Decreased sexual desire
• Eating problems (overeating or not eating enough)
• Emotional displays (on the brink of tears, overreacting emotionally)
• Faintness or dizziness
• Fatigue, low energy levels
• Insomnia, erratic sleep patterns
• Lack of concentration
• Muscle cramps
• Nervous twitches
• Profuse sweating
• Stomach problems

In addition, executive burnout frequently leads to associated conditions such as:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug abuse
  • Chronic depression

Before you self-diagnose yourself as having executive burnout, it’s important to get a thorough check-up by your doctor to either rule out or take into consideration any other contributing factors. In other words, you may have an underlying or aggravating condition that needs attention in addition to or before any treatment for executive burnout.

Tips to Deal with Executive Burnout

Assuming that you’ve gotten a relatively clean bill of health from your doctor, and you’ve pretty much concluded that what you’re suffering with is actually executive burnout, here are some things you can do about it. While they may sound easy, they aren’t. If they were, you probably would have already done them. Nevertheless, if you want to avoid further complications from executive burnout, it’s time to take action – for your own good.

• Insist on time for yourself – When was the last time you enjoyed a family outing, took your spouse to a romantic dinner or weekend getaway, participated in your favorite hobby? If you even have to think about this, you know your work and home life are way out of whack. Exhaustion, overwork, too much stress – classic signs of executive burnout – has taken its toll on the other part of your life. You’re not in balance, by any stretch of the imagination. You need to carve out time – block it out on your calendar, if that’s what it takes – to spend time on your family and interests outside of work. And make sure that work doesn’t creep into that time away from the job. Solution: Ditch the cell phone, PDA and laptop. When you’re away from work, be really away – mentally and physically. Make it a practice to spend quality time with family and friends on a regular basis.

• Make reasonable to-do lists – We all have our lists of things to do. Sometimes the lists are easily accomplished, such as take the dry cleaning in or pick up medication or walk the dog. When it comes to work-related tasks and projects, however, the daily lists executives make seem to get longer and longer – and fewer items ever get crossed off. As a major executive, you probably have multiple projects to oversee at one time. It’s not unreasonable for a corporate executive to have 50 to 100 concurrent projects – each requiring considerable oversight and attention. Too much to do and not enough time or resources to do them equals burnout. Solution: whittle down the endless to-do list into something more manageable. It isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. By concentrating on fewer simultaneous projects, your output will be more focused and productive.

• Factor in reasonable deadlines – Stop promising and over-promising when a project will be completed. Sure, you’re under pressure to perform, or to have your employees perform, but constantly whacking off hours and days to beat the deadline will inevitably have its consequences. When you promise your higher-ups that you’ll have the project done in the shortest possible time, this means you have to cram that tight and impossible deadline down the throats of the people who work for you – the people who actually have to do the work. This is unreasonableness in the extreme. You not only shortchange yourself and your employees, but the end product may be inefficiency, poor results and highly frustrated employees. Solution: set more realistic timetables for work to get done. Start by establishing a deadline that allows for leeway of a few extra weeks, days, or hours, as appropriate.

• Ensure enough resources to do the job – Often the downside of promising too much in too little time is the fact that there simply aren’t enough resources to get the job done. Maybe you haven’t properly calculated the overall cost, or underestimated the number of people that will be required, or the materials and availability – all of which impact the project delivery. Solution: before setting a delivery deadline for the project, find out what additional resources will be required and put them into place. Consult with your employees to find out what they really need to get the job done.

• Learn to say “No” – When was the last time you turned down a project? To most executives, this is anathema. They believe it’s the kiss of death to their careers. In reality, no one can do everything. No executive can handle everything the higher-ups send down the pike. Despite best intentions, projects fall off-track, never get done, come in way over budget, or are total disasters – all because the executive-in-charge failed to take a close, hard look before accepting the responsibility. Solution: start getting a handle on executive burnout by saying “No” the next time your boss hands you an impossible project in an unrealistic deadline. By the way, you can say no to meetings that you don’t really need to attend, say you don’t have time to talk when someone barges into your office unannounced, say you are in the middle of something if you’re constantly interrupted by the phone – and just start to say no instead of an automatic yes every time someone else wants something from you.

• Please yourself, not everyone else – Why do some people feel they have to please everyone all the time? You probably fall into this category, whether you realize it or not. Because you don’t want to disappoint others, you feel that you have to over-perform at all times. Your very image is caught up in how much you can accomplish, faster than anyone else, better than anyone else. When you continue on this course of action, it inevitably catches up with you in the form of lost productivity, and emotional and physical exhaustion. Solution: do a job or project that gives you satisfaction and a sense of well-being, not out of sense of duty to please others or perform to their expectations.

• Embrace change – The current situation has gone on for far too long. You’ve become used to the frantic pace, the sleepless nights, the constant hurry up and get it done syndrome. In fact, you probably believe this is a normal pace. But it’s not. Continue down this path and you’re in for a serious world of hurt. Solution: recognize that you need to make some changes. Learn how to deal with stress. Learn how to package and compartmentalize your life so that you have time for yourself. Do what it takes.

• See the positives – Maybe you believe that there aren’t any solutions to your current workplace burnout. Maybe you’ve given up hope that things can change. This is a mistake. When you give up belief in solutions, you lose hope. When you lose hope, you stop looking for ways to make things better. You feel trapped. It’s a vicious cycle – and it’s an excuse. Solution: adopt new strategies for dealing with issues. This gives you the impetus to move forward and again be productive – with appropriate energy.

• Envision a more self-reliant you – Your image of yourself may be threatened by the thought of change. You may feel that your job will be jeopardized if you rock the boat or insist on some job or project modifications. Your influence, power within the organization, your bonus, or even your career could suffer. This is doomsday scenario predicting – and totally without basis in reality. Why? It doesn’t take into account all the positive and productive things you could do to potentially alter what may, or may not, happen in the future. Solution: concentrate on today, on the things, processes, procedures and conversations that can make your job – and that of your employees – less stressful and more enjoyable, productive and self-actualizing.

• Have confidence – You didn’t get to your executive position because you lacked intelligence, skill or ability. In fact, these are critical elements for successful executives in any company or organization. Don’t be afraid to make changes because you feel it won’t work. Maybe you tried to make some changes in the past and it failed, and you don’t want to fail again. Maybe you fear that you won’t make the right changes and therefore refuse to try. This is self-rationalization. To beat executive burnout you need to be ready and willing to confront it head on. Solution: make a plan to deal with executive burnout and have the confidence to believe that it will work.

• Take action – Inaction breeds repetition of the same mistakes. Solution: it’s time to do something about your executive burnout. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step. Now, it’s time to focus on doing something about it.

Critical Outcomes

There are books, tapes and professional treatment programs to help manage executive burnout. Before you embark on any of these paths, consider the following:

• Want different outcomes – Things haven’t been working right for quite some time. You know you want a different set of outcomes.

• Live a balanced, healthy life – Stop living a life of too much for too many others. Concentrate on the goal of living a healthy and balanced life.

• Decide to change – Make the all-important decision to change, whatever it takes. Recognize that this won’t be easy for a hard-charging, powerful executive. But, you can do it.

• Be open to what’s new – Once you start making changes in your life, you’ll find that there’s always something new to learn – new tips, techniques and strategies to employ that can keep you focused on your well-balanced life.

Bottom line: executive burnout doesn’t have to wreak any more havoc on your life. You can do something about it – beginning today.

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