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Denial to Disaster: What Happens When Executive Leaders Burn Out

Denial to Disaster: What Happens When Executive Leaders Burn Out

“I’ll take a break when I get caught up.”

“If everyone worked as hard as I do, we might get somewhere.”

“I do not have time to find out how everyone is doing. I barely know how I’m doing.”

“Burnout. All I need is a vacation.”

“Stressed? No, I just get frustrated. I can’t fall asleep because my mind doesn’t turn off, so I drink wine… sometimes too much wine, but wine works for me.”

“I’m done. I can’t take anymore long nights, no relief, and no results.”

These are comments made by a few of my clients over the years when I questioned them about stress, burnout, and pressure. Burnout happens under chronic stress and a lack of self-awareness, and it is currently on the rise among executives.

Do you remember breaking news last year when Elon Musk went on TV drinking scotch and smoking a joint? At the time, he was also under investigation for securities fraud. He admitted he worked over 100 hours that week.

We could continue to give examples of executives who made similar decisions and ended up in a scandal or a financial bind—all as a result of denying the impact of chronic pressure. Working in a culture of denial, other leaders also fall victim as they ignore the warning signs of burnout.

Burnout happens at all levels of the leadership team. In a study done in 2015, researchers found 75% of directors and about half of their CEOs reported feeling burned out. The trickle-down impact can’t be overlooked, either: 80% of the workforce admits they are stressed.

Executive burnout is especially troublesome because at this level of the organization, changes could be made to the culture and the way business is conducted. The burnout trend is only increasing in this digital age as uncertainty rises, change accelerates, and demands create struggles at every level of the organization.

Continuing to conduct business as usual has massive consequences on performance, the health and well-being of leaders and staff, and the overall health of the organization.

When executives deny the impact of chronic pressure and the uncertainty that exists in the workplace, they also deny that any of their leaders will be affected. This sets up a tendency to ignore warning signs or deny they exist, like: sleeplessness, obsessive thinking, increased alcohol consumption, irritability, unhappiness, and maybe even depression and anxiety. These behaviors can replace healthy interactions, active listening, conflict management, and an open perspective. And the more one tries to ignore the effects of chronic stress, the more the symptoms show up.

The human body is not a machine—even if you are a smart, talented, and ambitious executive. In fact, there may be a greater risk of burnout among executives because they often lack self-awareness.

If you do not know what is going on within yourself, changing course is not an option. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and an important buffer against stress. Learn what triggers you, what your default response is, and the outcome when you use that response. Once you understand your default, you can design a better approach that keeps you performing at your peak.

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Denial to Disaster: What Happens When Executive Leaders Burn Out
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About the Author Cynthia Howard RN, CNC, PhD

Performance Consultant. Unleashing potential in leaders and organizations through innovative performance development.