How to deal with leadership burnout?

Being at the top can be overwhelming. Leaders should learn to disconnect themselves from the work environment from time to time

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One of the most common expressions in workplace parlance, ‘burnout’, has acquired greater ubiquity since the COVID-19 pandemic. Affecting both regular employees and those in senior high-performing roles, a burnout is typically the result of a toxic combination of consistently high levels of stress and punishing work schedules, leaving little to no time for self-care and wellness.

In 2021 and 2022, several major corporations including Twitter, Disney, Amazon, Pinterest, Starbucks and American Airlines saw their CEOs resign. While burnout may not have been the sole reason for their decision, Forbes cites “fatigue and lack of support” leading to burnout as a major factor for the spate of resignations. So, what is the solution to leadership burnout?

Three-pronged strategy

According to the Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, nearly 60 per cent of leaders reported feeling completely exhausted and drained at the end of the workday, pointing unequivocally to burnout. Likewise, according to American survey giant Gallup, senior executives and managers are more likely than other workers to experience burnout, not least due to the myriad challenges that come with a leadership role. These challenges include multiple – often fuzzy – priorities, stress due to heavy workload, frequent interruptions at work and unsatisfactory performance reviews.

“People in leadership roles often believe that things won’t run smoothly without them. The pressure can get overwhelming, triggering burnout symptoms”

Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo India

Since leaders are crucial to ensuring performance, productivity, engagement and retention at the workplace, burnt out managers are definitely not good for the overall health of an organisation.

Amit Chincholikar, global CHRO, Tata Consumer Products, suggests a simple three-pronged strategy to tackle leadership burnout. “Most leaders are responsible for a range of functions at an organisation, and thus under tremendous pressure. However, it is important that they find a balance and learn ways to disconnect from work,” he points out.

“One, it is critical to always get a good night’s sleep. Two, engage in an activity that allows one to switch off and disengage from work – it could be a pastime or passion. Three, understand as well as demonstrate flexibility in work life,” he suggests. The latter, Chincholikar further elaborates, could encompass working from home, flexible work timings, or even adopting a non-rigid way of doing things.

Likewise, Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo India, stresses the significance of taking frequent breaks in order to unwind. “Leaders must learn to effectively recharge their batteries. For instance, they need to stop carrying their laptops while on vacation,” he opines. He also underlines the importance of disengaging from work with the help of a constructive activity. “I know someone in a senior executive role who doodles in his free time,” he explains with an example.

Interestingly, Sharma notes that not many leaders participate in office activities meant to meaningfully engage employees and keep burnout at bay. “Leaders should also take part in non-work-related programmes and activities at office, just like other employees,” he says.

Importance of managing time

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation declared burnout an occupational phenomenon in its global standard for diagnostic health information, indicating both its inevitability and universality. Anil Mohanty, head of people & culture, Medikabazaar, characterises burnout as “common” in the private sector, and indeed difficult to avoid in certain sectors at certain times.

“Leaders must learn to exercise self-awareness”

Amit Chincholikar, global CHRO, Tata Consumer Products

“For example, there may be leadership burnout in the weeks before a product launch when working overtime becomes necessary for meeting specific targets,” he elucidates. “But perpetual, prolonged, or even frequent burnout suggests a systemic fault in the organisation or in the way things are being managed there,” he reasons.

Despite admitting that burnout isn’t easy to avoid, Mohanty opines that proper time management could effectively minimise – and even prevent – burnouts, both for managers and other employees. “Last-minute decisions and actions that lead to burnout can well be avoided by planning ahead, prioritising one’s time and learning to delegate tasks,” he advises.

Self-inflicted burnout

Five years after taking over from Steve Jobs, in a 2016 interview, Tim Cook, CEO, Apple, enunciated the challenges of running one of the world’s most prestigious companies. “It’s sort of a lonely job,” he confessed.

While the saying ‘lonely at the top’ may sound clichéd, studies have shown that leaders are indeed likelier to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. However, there are leaders who choose to insulate themselves from others and carry their burdens single-handedly. This may be a surefire formula for burnout, say the experts.

“Leaders must learn to exercise self-awareness,” opines Chincholikar. Pertinently, by aiding leaders in setting boundaries, delegating work and reflecting on goals, self-awareness has been proven as helpful in combating burnout.

“Perpetual, prolonged, or even frequent burnout suggests a systemic fault in the organisation or in the way things are being managed there”

Anil Mohanty, head of people, Medikabazaar

Chincholikar further points out that leaders should not just have empathy for others, but also themselves.

Leaders commonly feel personally responsible for the success of their business. This is because they are expected to make major decisions that could significantly impact their organisation’s health. “People in leadership roles often believe that things won’t run smoothly without them. The pressure can get overwhelming, triggering burnout symptoms,” says Sharma, explaining the phenomenon.

However, he adds that leaders must take a break, disconnecting themselves from work at periodic intervals. “An ex-manager of mine actually practised this. Whenever he’d go on vacation, he strictly instructed us not to call him – unless absolutely urgent,” Sharma recounts. The team – entrusted with new responsibilities – efficiently took care of work in the manager’s absence. “We seldom felt the need to bother him,” he recalls.

“Leadership is an active role; ‘lead’ is a verb. However, the leader who tries to do it all is headed for burnout, and in a powerful hurry,” summed up American politician, Bill Owens.

Indeed.

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