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How to Prevent CEO Burnout: A Framework for CEOs to Stay at the Top of Their Game

Updated: Jan 23

How to Prevent CEO Burnout: A Framework for CEOs to Stay at the Top of Their Game

CEOs can burn out. The very drive and deep energy reserves that fueled their success fatigues over time. In the beginning, building the business was fun. Late nights and succeeding against all odds were part of the game. Now, it’s an endless grind just to tread water and stay in the game. The 24|7|365 constantly-on routine is incessant and exhausting. Sometimes, it's just too much.

What is Burnout?

We’ve all been there at one point or another. Burning the candle at both ends. Working long hours and doing whatever it takes to succeed has, in some respects, been the model of success.

While the topic of and experience of burnout is not new, it has only recently been recognized as a legitimate condition that needs to be addressed. In May, 2019 the World Health Organization clarified its position on this condition:

“Burnout is …. is an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

  • Reduced professional efficacy

Put simply, it’s being worn out, in a fog, irritable and unable to recover.

Early Warning Signs of Burnout

Burnout isn’t like a heart attack that causes you to keel over on the golf course. The accelerating velocity of business, frequent disruption, increasing competition, non-stop tethering to the Company gradually erodes your resilience. Here are some of the signs that you are running the risk of becoming more than “just a little tired.”

  1. There is a blurring of boundaries between work and home. You’re on the phone on your way home. Urgent calls pull you away from the dinner table. An important and urgent project that could not be dealt with during the day commands your attention in the evening and over the weekend.

  2. You’re not home. Physically you may have left the office but you’re not present . You’re still wrapped up in the conversation or trying to work out the problem in your head before you show up tomorrow.

  1. Inability to focus. Like the quarterback that hangs on to the ball too long, it is increasingly difficult to make decisions.

  1. Your emotional agility plummets. It’s that feeling of running on edge. Things irritate you and your ability to remain calm under pressure erodes.

  1. You’ve stopped taking care of yourself. There is an unhealthy imbalance in your life and you are compensating in other areas.

  1. You start micro-managing and have trouble delegating. You begin to lose trust in others and your mindset increasingly shifts negative.

These warning lights and more are indicative that your resilience meter is in the danger zone. What’s more, everyone around you has been noticing the change long before you begin to recognize that you’re “just not yourself.”

I get it.

My Burnout

For 10 years, I built a national brand. We redefined the industry, owned our market and were seemingly untouchable. Everybody wanted to be like us. I was lauded by customers and suppliers alike about how successful we were. And yet I knew how fast my feet were paddling under the surface of those serene and oh so admirable waters.

Attracting good people became harder and harder. Retaining them was almost impossible. We had to spend more and more to maintain our competitive edge and consequently there was never any cash. Customers were fickle. Suppliers were anything but loyal. And the unmistakable sign of burnout? I felt there was no one I could trust.

I put on more than 50 lbs. Three Manhattans at the end of the day were common. I worked very long days, seven days a week and felt I was unable to leave the business even for a day. I binge ate every night, slept only a few hours and hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in years. And yet,I thought I was on top of my game.

I never did pull out of it and my business failed. Even worse, in addition to losing my business I lost my identity and I spent three years essentially lost in a funk trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to do next.

This is why CEO Burnout is a serious threat and why you should take it seriously. I would compare it to avoiding drugs because you don’t want to run the risk of becoming addicted. CEO Burnout can rob you of everything.

Preventing Burnout

Burnout is a matter of degree. It can range from “feeling burnt out” and needing to dial it back a bit, to needing a sabbatical whereby you step away for an extended period and essentially rebuild your outlook and approach to life, to becoming unable to effectively do the job. It basically boils down to self awareness and having the courage to accept that something needs to change.

Here are some of the things you can do:

  1. Know the difference between fatigue and burnout.

It’s one thing to be tired and spent having given everything you have to the day or to a project that may have spanned days or weeks. Take a long weekend. Let the grass grow and put off cleaning out the garage for another weekend.

However, when it’s hard for you to get out of bed every morning and that “pep in your step” is long gone, it’s time to re-evaluate.

  1. Understand ebb and flow.

Balance periods of intensity with relaxation and recovery. The tide comes in and the tide goes out. It’s part of nature’s cycles. And yes, even you have those cycles. Discipline yourself to allow your mind, body and spirit to recover

  1. Establish personal boundaries.

Some have called it the 7-7 Rule (no work, no calls/texts, no emails between 7pm and 7 am. It sets the limit for you and everybody else.

  1. You need time away.

If you can’t step away from the business, something is wrong. Seriously wrong. You need thinking time to put things in perspective. Others need to know that you trust them to handle what needs to be done.

  1. Meet with other CEOs.

You need connection. Actively work to develop a community of other CEOs that can offer support and who in turn can benefit from your support. It helps to build your perspective.

  1. Find a coach.

Great players have a coach. They have someone to counsel them on their perspective, to hold them accountable and to help them achieve their goals.

  1. Have a personal dashboard.

You have to know the score. Your car has a dashboard, there’s a giant scoreboard at the stadium and your business has financial reports that tell you how well the business is doing. Where is your dashboard and what’s on it? It could include your personal goals and achievements, your weight, the amount of sleep you’re getting, what time you get home from work and so on.

  1. Take care of yourself.

You’ve heard it before, “put your oxygen mask on first.” This means developing a self-care routine that includes self-compassion, rest and recovery. It means leaving work by 5 pm most days and not working on weekends and doing things that you enjoy. It means not thinking about and obsessing over the business every waking minute.

Final Thoughts

There is a reason the “Check Engine” light comes on in your car. It’s there to alert you that the engine needs attention before serious damage or failure occurs. You are no different. In my case, it was too late. Me and my company were headed for a crash long before we hit the ground. But I was too proud and too stubborn to listen, let alone ask for help. And yet everyone, except me, could see that the very company I had dedicated my life to building was crashing because I failed to take care of myself.

Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun.

What can you do?

Talk to someone and get some perspective. Remember, burnout is a matter of degree and it is much better to ask questions and reconsider your thinking sooner than later.You need a skilled listener that can help you dig deeper into what is truly going on for you. Someone that can ask the right questions and help you get clarity about how well you are responding to the demands on your life and to what extent you are being fulfilled and meeting your own needs. This person will also help you to identify the issues, establish a new set of behaviors and routines and set up a system to monitor your progress.

If you would like to have a no-obligation conversation about your situation and please schedule your session by clicking below.

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