By Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi, UK body for independent HR and people professionals.
The role of a CEO is as tough as it is important. It’s a title that comes with an immense amount of accountability, and with that accountability, there also comes an immense amount of pressure too. And whilst those who take up the role are often stimulated by the challenges and the rewards that come with holding the most influential position in the business, when that position is to do it all, the weight can, sometimes, be simply too much.
The CEO challenge is entirely unique
It goes without saying that there has never been a more challenging 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 incredibly difficult decisions about both their valuable employees and ways of working. And they have to do this all whilst presenting a positive and collected image to the world and their loved-ones. Certainly, the inability to plan ahead, coupled with no real idea of what is round the corner, has understandably hit many CEOs hard.
And let us 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 as teacher, caring for loved-ones – the list goes on. There is no doubt that for many, the lack of physical boundary between work and home is creating a space where the workday never seems to end.
Identifying burnout is the first step
When an individual 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. Afterall, when a CEO feels demoralised, it’s unlikely they will have the energy and compassion to support the multitude of characters and personalities within that business. As a result, it can feel almost impossible for them to captain their ship to calmer waters.
Long hours, the unremitting pressure of walking a tightrope and handling conflicting interests without visible results can lead to intense feelings of exhaustion, demoralisation and helpnessness. What CEOs in this situation are experiencing is the “occupational phenomenon” of burnout.
It can be difficult to recognise burnout in one’s self because it is generally something that builds slowly and creeps in without warning. Identifying burnout involves a level of self-reflection, as well as overcoming denial. But, identifying the problem is the first, and indeed, the most impotant step to making a positive change.
The unconscious mind largely determines how an individual reacts. Without intention, 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 allocated annual leave, increasing screentime and online presence, drinking more alcohol and stopping established exercise routines.
Based on my personal experience of working with a range of CEOs, those suffering from burnout generally have six identifiable characteristics:
- Chronic fatigue
One of the first warning signs when an individual is burning out 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.
- Cynicism and detachment
Wondering what the point or one’s purpose is or displaying an increasingly rigid and inflexible attitude.
- Feeling guilty
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 on a business, for example).
- Feeling numb
Lacking interest, excitement and generally not looking forward to anything.
- Not seeing accomplishment
A CEO who feels their competance or value is at question, when it is not. Not seeing what they have achieved objectively.
- Lacking patience
Experiencing a short fuse over minor issues or issues the CEO would otherwise be confident at handling.
How to overcome burnout
There exists, in my opinion, a grave 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 until the early hours 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 can help avoid burnout:
- Make ‘me time’ an official appointment
Schedule free time in the calendar and stick to it. This will help maintain a balanced perspective.
- Spend an hour outside in daylight, everyday
Far more active thinking happens when we are outside, rather than infront of a screen. Do this to help the mind reset and declutter.
- Set a ‘move now’ alarm
Studies have shown that physical movement ‘turns on’ the brain. CEOs must ensure they regularly move away from their work-space.
- Communicate boundaries
Set boundaries between work life and home life and communicate these to family and colleagues. Turn email notifications off and avoid answering calls after hours where possible.
- Address diet & alcohol consumption
CEOs must be honest with themselves – are they eating a healthy diet or drinking too much? What we use to fuel our bodies can have a big impact on concentration and mood. Scheduling in alcohol-free days could also make a big difference in mood.
- Seek support
Burnout can have a big impact on mental health. Find external support from a coach, counsellor or your GP. Confide in someone that you trust and whom you won’t feel judged by.
- Be reminded of life’s joys
Build the things that bring joy into a routine and create checkpoints throughout the week. Talk about it. Create it. Seek it.
- Take ownership of time out
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.
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 burntout leader can also be its biggest downfall too.