As defined by the World Health Organization, occupation burnout is a state of psychological distress characterized “by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.”

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Over the past year and a half, much attention has been directed towards the rise of employee burnout resulting from pandemic related occupational stressors. While it is essential that organizations become aware of the increasing prevalence and dangers of employee burnout, both for the sake of their employees and organizational success, recent findings indicate that leadership burnout may be just as pressing of an issue. For instance, according to the Global Leadership Forecast 2021:

  • 60% of leaders feel “used up” at the end of every workday, which is a common symptom of occupational burnout
  • Of the leaders who report feeling burnt out, 44% stated that they feel they would need to change companies to advance while 26% claimed they expect to leave within the year (four times the rate for leaders who didn’t report feelings of burnout)
  • 80% of the leaders surveyed reported feeling ineffective at leading virtually

These findings should serve as an urgent call to action. To help organization’s combat leadership burnout, below are some common causes of burnout as well as six steps that organizations can take to combat it.

Causes Of Leadership Burnout

Some of the causes of leadership burnout are obvious and easy to spot. Leaders often work long hours, are expected to be available at all times, and are responsible for making major decisions that will significantly impact their company’s health.

Other factors are less obvious but potentially more important. For instance, leaders are more likely to experience feelings of isolation. As Dr. David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence stated:

The higher up you get in an organization, the more isolated you become. […] You have fewer peers, fewer people you can be open and transparent with, so when you’re all the way at the top of the organization [you often] don’t even have a confidante that [you] can share things with

Unable to discuss their stressors with others in similar positions, leaders lack an important means of counteracting burnout.

Leaders also may feel more pressure not to become burnt out in the first place. They are supposed to set an example for the rest of their organizations, meaning their burnout could have significant downstream effects. Moreover, because their decisions are so consequential, they may feel that burnout would have an unacceptable impact on the company as a whole. As a result, leaders may be unwilling to accept that they are burnt out, ultimately making their symptoms worse.

Six Tips For Combatting Leadership Burnout

  1. Acknowledge Burnout: Though burnout recognition can be particularly difficult for team leaders for the reasons mentioned above, it is an essential step in treatment. Leaders can start by acknowledging particular symptoms (e.g., negative self-talk, decreased confidence, lost passion for the job, etc.). Once specific symptoms have been acknowledged, leaders can begin to treat their burnout.
  2. Delegate More: As businesses grow, Leaders often have to relinquish control over positions that they were once fully responsible for. With years of experience and expertise, this can be difficult to do. However, unless tasks are properly delegated, leaders will inevitably be overwhelmed with the range of tasks that they are responsible for.
  3. Set Boundaries: Because leaders have a hand in so many operations at once, they are often expected to be accessible and responsive at all times. This can quickly lead to burnout. Leaders must set clear communications guidelines that enable them to narrow their focus and spend time “off the clock.” Given the importance of workplace communication norms, it is critical to formally set up boundaries on when it is appropriate to communicate with employees, including leaders.
  4. Strengthen Virtual Leadership Skills: Managing virtual teams requires a unique skillset. This is likely why so many leaders reported feeling ineffective at leading virtually. Fortunately, there are several concrete steps that managers can take to become more effective team leaders, including:
    • Giving employees the right tools for seamless virtual meetings
    • Scheduling regular one-on-one meetings to foster connections and accountability
    • Being empathetic when it comes to employees’ concerns about navigating the virtual workplace
    • Expressing appreciation
    • Communicating a clear plan for the future of the organization
  5. Remember Why: Having a clear purpose can make it easier to overcome even the most difficult of obstacles. Though leaders often become leaders because they are passionate about their company’s mission, they may forget about it over time, especially as the pressure of the job distracts them from their more idealistic concerns. To combat this, leaders should spend time actively thinking about why they wanted to become a leader in the first place. This can reignite the passion they once had, providing them with the positive energy needed to approach their tasks with confidence and optimism.
  6. Ask For Help: Team leaders who feel that burnout is impacting their physical and/or mental well-being should make an appointment with a mental health professional who can provide them with additional coping strategies and recommend other treatment options.

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