Top 6 Signs of Burnout for CEOs and the C-Suite

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

Throughout my life, when people have suggested that I may be "burnt out" from a certain activity, I have shrugged it off. I have disregarded the comment because I've always been very driven and unless I was completely passed out and unable to move, I couldn’t possibly imagine that expression could apply to me. "Burnout" conjured up images of somebody who couldn't get out of bed in the morning, was uninspired, rundown, unproductive and maybe even grumpy.

Burnout is not a dirty word.

But the longer I’ve run my own business and the more I’ve worked directly with CEOs, I’ve come to realize, that driven executives who are heading toward burnout don’t actually see it's happening, until it does. The good news is that burnout is treatable and when we tend to it in ourselves and our colleagues, everyone will be happier and more productive.

Based on my experience working with CEOs dealing with burnout, here are six warning signs:  

  1. The “I’m So Busy/Taxed and I Must Push Through” Syndrome. I get that some people are busier than others. Asian travel, acquisition, the loss of a key employee, a start-up situation -- these all create hyper-busy and very taxing schedules. But the "must push through" piece doesn’t scale. It's not backed by wisdom and does not connote a graceful leader. At some point, the physical and mental signs creep in and worse off, a "martyr" type of attitude can instill itself, if not at work, then at home.  For most high-performing execs, this attitude often comes from a place of very good intent. It comes from execs who want to do the right thing, who, without batting an eye, embrace responsibility. They believe you are rewarded in life by "pushing through." These street fighter/survivor types need to step back and find a new way. 
     
  2. The Wake Up Hour is 4 AM.  If you took a poll of high-performing execs, I would guess that at least 25% will note a non-planned 4 AM wake up time or that they have issues sleeping more than seven hours. Not being able to sleep is a sure sign of stress and certainly can indicate burnout is on the horizon. 
     
  3. The "Stressor" Behaviors Are Unveiled. Many personality assessments (such as Hogan) tell you that when you are stressed, you are more likely to demonstrate your "go to" negative behavior. Maybe it's anger, lack of patience, extreme testiness, going "dark," or talking a lot. When you see this behavior in yourself or your colleagues, it's a good indicator of the need to course correct. 
     
  4. The "Repetitive Problem Treadmill" Doesn't Stop. This is when the same issues come up over and over and over, without resolution. Examples can range from, “I’m not getting my job done right...to this employee is not right for this role...to our model is not working.”  If the same problem or question comes up over and over, the individual just may not have the space, stamina or concentration to clearly resolve and act on the issue. 
     
  5. Physical Appearance Changes. The obvious signs are weight gain, bad posture, dry facial skin, puffy eyes and rapidly graying hair. What we can’t see or predict is what can come next, such as shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, fainting, headaches or a generally weak immune system that can cause nagging coughs or colds.
     
  6. The Failure of the "What Are you Doing for Exercise?" or "What are You Doing for Fun?"  Most execs I know, even when stressed, find time to exercise because they started the habit early in life. But when exercise falls off the cliff for a normally active individual, it's time to pay attention. Other burnout candidates may still be exercising, but fun, laughter, joy and happiness has been pushed to the side. In these cases, the activities that drive these emotions need to be identified, resurrected and, as cold as it may sound, "put on the calendar." 

Other warning signs may include blaming others, forgetfulness, impaired concentration, and things piling up. Many C-suite execs have systems to keep these behaviors in-check, but these warning symptoms could apply to family members, friends or other levels of staff.

When our CEO Collective peer groups spot a CEO on the path to burnout, we call it out and then move to emphasize sleep, healthy life practices (exercise, food, etc.) and a reflection on what activities provide happiness. Just calling it out can make a difference. For some, extra mental health support may be needed.   

In working with CEOs who may have direct reports suffering from burn out, we also discuss the CEOs responsibility in setting clear job expectations that map to the employee's strengths and values.

Burnout is not a dirty word. It doesn't mean that we are weak or not doing our best. It just happens sometimes as a result of a situation or lack of change in our jobs. For many highly driven, productive execs, it's a bit "par for the course" at some point in their career. What’s most important is recognizing it, not letting it go too far and putting in a course correction plan that, in almost all cases, will put the individual on a better track to being personally healthier and more productive.

Additional resources:  

Refueling Your Engine: Strategies to Reduce Stress and Avoid Burnout

The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout ... Do You Have Them?

Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action