Executive Burnout. What does it mean? What does it look like?
When we think of executives, we generally picture an idealized life. A corner office, a golf course, a power suit, maybe even a private jet. But managing people comes with a unique set of challenges and stresses which can seem unending. As a manager, you’re constantly dealing with incompetent, unhappy and negative workers and trying to form them into a working team. You must define goals and determine how best to achieve them in less than ideal circumstances. As the Harvard Business Review has noted, managing people is “the most difficult administrative task, and it has built-in frustration. That frustration can -and does- cause many managers to burn out.”
Worse still, executive burnout can often lead to even bigger problems, like substance use disorders. SAMHSA has noted that of the “ individuals employed in the management sector (e.g., business executives and other managers), 11.4 percent had a diagnosis of a substance use disorder within the year prior to the survey. This was the sixth highest rate of all the occupations surveyed.” A demanding job which can cause a severe disconnect from the people close to an individual takes a severe toll on the psychological well-being of many executives.
Let’s take a look at 4 signs of executive burnout, and ways to deal with them.
Cynicism, Negativity, and Irritability
Trouble sleeping is commonly associated with burnout. It often begins with difficulty falling asleep one or two nights a week or disturbed sleep in times of stress. Trouble sleeping is often associated with persistent thoughts of seemingly insurmountable problems and intractable situations at work. In the later stages of burnout, insomnia is often a nightly ordeal.
With or without insomnia, the feeling of exhaustion is a tell-tale sign of burnout. According to Psychology Today, for those suffering from burnout, “fatigue becomes a physical and psychological state of exhaustion. You feel drained. Everything takes a concerted effort. You have no energy, so you do as little as possible to make it through the day. You find it difficult to get out of bed and may even call in sick on the days you feel like you simply can’t get out of bed.” Exhaustion and burnout go hand in hand: the World Health Organization characterises the disorder as “a state of vital exhaustion.”
Many people who have suffered executive burnout note that the demands of dealing with constant reorganisation can create a deep sense of dissatisfaction with their companies. Work lives are disrupted for seemingly arbitrary and political reasons, and promotion and reward can seem to be based on factors other than merit.
Compressed Immune System
Because the body is exhausted and depleted by burnout, sufferers often experience illness more frequently, and their symptoms tend to linger. Studies have shown that people experiencing burnout are more likely to experience upper respiratory illnesses, stomach and bowel problems, and headaches. And if left unchecked it can lead to life-threatening illnesses. A study at Tel Aviv University found that the syndrome can increase the risk of coronary heart disease by up to 79%, and also increases the risk of stroke.
Depression and Anxiety
In its early stages burnout commonly causes intermittent bouts of tension, worry, sadness and hopelessness. At its worst, it leaves sufferers feeling trapped, panicked, and even suicidal. Many executives dealing with burnout have reported panic attacks, and anxiety so severe that they began calling in sick to work.
Meanwhile, recent research suggests that depression and burnout seem to be inextricably linked. American researchers studying 5575 participants who identified as burnt out met “criteria for a provisional diagnosis of depression.” The same study also observed that “burnout and depressive symptoms have been found to be inseparably linked, increasing or declining together over time.”
One idea for dealing with burnout is to contemplate a career change. The New Life psychologist understands burnout as a response to intolerable pressure and stress: “In the people I have met, it can be quite functional – the only way your mind and body have left to keep you safe, of protecting you when there are no other options available. But it’s not a decision that you make; it happens unconsciously.”
Of course, a career change isn’t an option for everyone. Another way to prevent burnout is to change management structures, and promote collaboration and shared responsibilities. Companies that offer their employees a sense of purpose and belonging are far less likely to create burnt out managers, according to experts. The new movement Minds At Work is working to educate employers on their responsibility to care for the mental well-being of employees. But we are probably years away from corporate cultures that don’t foster stress and competitiveness.
If you don’t have the option of packing it in and opening an antique shop in a picturesque village, alternative psychological treatments can be a life-saving option. Studies have shown that psychedelics and oneirogenics, such as Ibogaine, can profoundly help severely depressed groups who don’t respond to traditional treatments. They also foster a sense of connectedness with others that can free sufferers from the debilitating sense of isolation that goes hand in hand with executive burnout. The treatment has helped many individuals suffering from dual-diagnosis related disorders, and the sense of spiritual well-being it can awaken is an ideal option for those dealing with executive burnout.
Following his training and employment in the US, Adam Freeman has been working as a recovery coach, case manager and live-in counsellor for the past 4.5 years. In the past, he served as a personal manager for high-level professional athletes and media personalities. Adam is trained as a Certified Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Advanced Life Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Project Manager. He personally participated in a 12 step recovery plan for 11 years, which allowed him to complete the 12 steps within both the AA and NA programs. Adam’s favourite hobbies include gym, golf and martial arts. Adam is a leading recovery specialist in constant demand.