It is not uncommon for a CEO to crack under pressure, particularly when they are responsible for making decisions that are as tough as they are important. Plus, it’s the only peerless role in a company that can make it a lonely place to be, especially when that CEO is dealing with such an immense level of accountability.
Although individuals who take up the role of CEO are often highly stimulated by the challenges and rewards that come with holding the most influential position in a business, being held under a microscope by high expecting directors, shareholders, customers, and employees, is an intense place to be.
When one holds a position that is to do it all, the weight can, sometimes, be simply too much. Nevermore so the case than during a global pandemic, where difficult decisions are required to be made on a daily basis and navigating the unknown becomes routine.
Challenges exclusive to a CEO.
Needless to say, there has never been a more difficult time to lead a business. Covid-19 and the mountain of uncertainty that the pandemic has brought with it, has forced many CEOs to dig deep into their energy reserves, diversify at a pace and make enormously challenging decisions about both their valuable employees and ways of working. They have to do this all whilst presenting a confident and collected image to the world and their loved ones. Certainly, the inability to plan ahead, coupled with no real idea of what is around the corner, has, understandably, thrown many CEOs into panic-mode.
Plus, it’s important to not forget that CEOs are also mums, dads, wives, husbands, daughters, and sons too. And, just like much of the country, they have also been grappling with the challenges faced by two national lockdowns; juggling childcare whilst managing a demanding workload, standing in a teacher, caring for loved-ones – the list goes on. In all probability, the lack of physical boundary between work and home is creating a space where the workday never seems to end.
Spotting burnout is the most important step.
When a CEO feels trapped in psychological quicksand it can be hard for them to invest in themselves, and as a consequence, the company and its employees can also be neglected. After all, when an individual feels demoralised, it is unlikely they will have the energy and compassion to support the multitude of characters and personalities within that business. As a consequence, it can feel almost impossible for them to captain their ship to calmer waters.
Long hours, the ceaseless pressure of walking a tightrope, and handling conflicting interests without visible results can lead to intense feelings of exhaustion, demoralisation, and defenselessness. What CEOs in this situation are experiencing is the “occupational phenomenon” of burnout.
It can be tricky to recognise burnout in one’s self because it is generally something that builds slowly and creeps in without warning. Pinpointing burnout involves a level of self-reflection, as well as overcoming denial. But, identifying the problem is the first, and indeed, the most important step to making a decisive change.
The unconscious mind largely determines how an individual reacts. Unintentionally, a CEO may be reacting to pressure in a way that is pushing them towards burnout. Examples include, but are not limited to; not taking time off, increasing time online – particularly social media, drinking more alcohol, and experiencing disturbed sleep.
Based on my personal experience of working with a range of CEOs, those suffering from burnout generally have six identifiable characteristics:
1. Physical and emotional exhaustion
When an individual is burning out, one of the first warning signs is the feeling of constant tiredness and physical and emotional exhaustion. The stark rise in the volume of people searching online for support with fatigue over the past ten-years – a 113% increase between March 2010 and March 2020* – is telling of the impact.
2. Questioning one’s purpose
Being progressively cynical and feeling detached. Perhaps wondering what the point of one’s purpose is or displaying an increasingly rigid and inflexible attitude. Struggling to identify a purpose can leave individuals feeling hopeless and lost.
3. Feeling guilty or wrongfully accused
Despite best efforts, the individual has a constant feeling that they have not done enough, even when something is out of their control (preventing a global pandemic impacting a business, for example).
4. Feeling numb
Lack of interest, excitement and generally not looking forward to anything. Feeling numb or no emotion towards things that a person would usually find to be energising.
5. Not recognising accomplishment
A CEO who feels their competence or value is in question when it is not. Not seeing what they have achieved objectively. They may also feel they are being accused by colleagues or employees, when in fact the opposite is true.
6. Lacking tolerance
Experiencing a short fuse and little patience over minor issues or issues the CEO would otherwise be confident at handling.
Eight ways to overcome burnout.
There exists, in my opinion, a severe danger in what has long been the glamourisation of overworking. In this misguided world, forgoing lunch-breaks and weekends in favour of work is portrayed as a sign of passion, and chaining one’s self to a desk past sun-down is seen as commitment. Exhaustion has, unfortunately, become fashionable, but wearing burnout as a badge of honour and portraying exhaustion as in any way acceptable is as dangerous for the individual as it is for the company and those who work in it. It is the responsibility of the CEO to prioritise employee health, but to achieve this, they must ensure they prioritise their own health first.
With this in mind, here are eight, actionable steps to help avoid burnout:
1. Schedule ‘me time’ as a diary appointment.
Schedule some free time on the calendar and stick to it, making it an official appointment. This will help maintain a balanced perspective.
2. Step outside in daylight, every day
Far more active thinking happens when we are outside, rather than in front of a screen. Do this to help your mind reset and declutter. Aim to spend at least an hour outside, every day and ensure to expose yourself to daylight.
3. Set an alarm to move
Studies have shown that physical movement ‘turns on’ the brain. Spark creativity, ideas and clear away for processing by regularly moving away from the workspace.
4. Share boundaries with others
Set boundaries between work life and home life and communicate these to family and colleagues. Turn email notifications off, avoid answering calls and avoid communication channels like Slack and social media after hours, where possible.
5. Check in with diet and alcohol consumption
CEOs must be honest with themselves – are they eating a healthy diet or drinking too much? What we used to fuel our bodies can have a big impact on concentration and mood. Scheduling in alcohol-free days could also make a big difference to the mood of an individual. They may feel more positive, more able to tackle the challenges they face.
6. Find external support
Burnout can have a big impact on mental health. Find external support from a coach, counsellor, or GP. Confide in someone that you trust and whom you won’t feel judged by.
7. Be reminded of life’s joys
Build things that bring joy into a routine and create checkpoints throughout the week when time is dedicated to enjoyment. Talk about it. Create it. Seek it.
8. Own timeout
Make it a priority to take time off or alter the work routine by reducing hours, and then celebrate this with the team. Cheerleading this way of working will have a big impact on employees too, particularly as they look to the CEO for leadership.
Because of its many consequences, it’s crucial that CEOs take the responsibility to stop burnout in their tracks and dedicate themselves to overcoming it. The key to avoiding burnout is prevention. All individuals, no matter what their job title, experience, or years in the workplace, must make self-care a part of their daily routine. The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life.
It can take years for a business to recover from the burnout of its leader, not least because the weight of the person suffering is felt across the whole of the business. An excellent CEO is every successful organisation’s greatest asset, but a burnt-out leader can also be its biggest downfall, too.
* Volume of Google searches of the word “fatigue” between 2010 and 2020 (Google Trends)
Who is the author?
Ruth is co-founder and director of HRi. HRi is the UK body for independent HR and people professionals, providing support, development and a voice for external HR and people consultancy businesses.