Avoiding burnout

Leadership expert Karen Gately explains the six typical drivers of burnout in business leaders and offers practical tips to help you avoid them

Avoiding burnout

Business strategy


Have you ever reached the point where you felt like you simply couldn’t go on? Have you found yourself losing concentration and lacking the motivation to do the things necessary to drive the performance of your business? It’s common for CEOs and senior leaders to experience periods of disengagement from their roles and teams due to the extreme exhaustion they feel, and many fail to recognize the state of burnout they have reached.

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Typically reflected in our energy and behaviors, burnout unquestionably undermines any CEO’s ability to lead a thriving organization. Despite its devastating impacts not only on job performance but also on quality of life, many of the senior leaders I work with fail to take the necessary steps to avoid reaching this state of exhaustion and disengagement.

The following are six typical drivers of burnout in business leaders and some tips for how to avoid them.

There are always more things you could do in any given day. But the reality is that it isn’t possible to explore, plan and execute all of the ideas and even priorities you are likely to have. Your ability to invest energy and resources wisely depends on your ability to know what matters most. While deciding what you will do is important, arguably more so is deciding what you won’t.

TIP: Create a business plan on one page. Identify the priorities that will have the greatest influence on your success, and anchor your focus, and that of your team, to them. Review progress regularly, and identify ways in which you need to bring focus back to these critical objectives. Strike things off your to-do list that add little value and distract you from your main mission. Learn to say no.

The need to make tough decisions and have difficult conversations is inevitable when leading a team or organization. And yet so many of the leaders I work with avoid them. The consequence of failing to address issues is continuing to live with the stressful impacts of underperformance and uncertainty. Fear of having the conversations or implementing the actions necessary to drive change is common among leaders who experience burnout.

TIP: Work with someone who is able to guide you in shifting the thoughts and feelings that cause you to hesitate to do what is necessary. Find a mentor or coach you trust to challenge your thinking and hold you accountable for dealing with issues that arise.

Executing poorly
Even when decisions have been made, executing them can be difficult. Most often what I observe are senior leaders who recognize what needs to be done but fail to act decisively. These leaders fail to apply disciplined approaches that ensure priorities are achieved. Commonly, a lack of planning, review, and deliberate decision-making about priorities and resource allocation leads to costly mistakes and wasted resources. The pressure and workload demands on leaders and teams when things go wrong can be immense.

TIP: Develop your organization’s ability to manage projects well. Develop your own ability to set a clear vision, establish priorities and drive change. Also develop the capabilities of leaders at all levels of your organization to drive strategic priorities through to successful implementation.

Aiming for perfection
Let’s face it – worrying about being perfect all the time is stressful. Many of the perfectionists I have worked with have recognized this tendency in themselves but have failed to see the seriousness of its consequences soon enough. The simple truth is that none of us or our businesses are perfect. Investing unnecessary time, energy and resources in striving for standards beyond what our staff or customers expect is a common reason CEOs are overworked.

TIP: Understand the 80/20 rule and apply it. The rule states that 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your inputs. The important thing to understand is that in your life, 20% of the activities you do account for the majority (80%) of your happiness and success.

Work-life imbalance
We all need time away from work to slow down, unwind and recharge. No matter how much we love our work, if the time we spend doing it disproportionately consumes our focus and energy, our health and relationships are likely to be impacted. It’s difficult to avoid feeling stressed when conflicted between the demands of our job and the desire to be with our friends and family. We’re likely to reach burnout if we fail to give our mind, body and spirit the nurturing needed to thrive.

TIP: Establish routines that ensure you take time out for you. Switch o_ the technology that allows you to stay connected with your work world, and spend time with the people you love and doing the things that energize your spirit. Maintain a level of activity and diet that allows your mind and body to be healthy.

Worry and regret
Reflect for a moment on how much time and energy you waste worrying about things that are outside of your control. How often do you worry about things that haven’t yet happened and may never happen? Do you expend vital energy on concerns that can’t be resolved? Feeling helpless and regretful drains our energy and is likely to erode our resolve to keep striving.

TIP: Recognize when you are worrying. Start by asking yourself whether the problem is something that can be solved, and whether it can be solved by you. For example, is the problem something you’re actually facing, or is it just a ‘what if ’? Is your concern realistic? Can you do something about it or prepare, or is it really out of your control? If it’s an unsolvable worry, recognize that fact, put it out of your mind and move on.

Avoiding burnout comes down to making necessary and balanced choices – those that allow you to deliberately invest time, energy and resources in achieving what matters most. Know when to let things go, choose to focus on today, and keep an eye on the future.

Karen Gately is a leadership and people management specialist and the founder of Ryan Gately. She works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. Gately is also the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results Through Spirited People.

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