Leaders burnout

21 April 2016

Speaker Dr Howard G Awbery looked at the signs of burnout and possible ways to prevent it.

In addition to its positive improvements on our way of working, technology has also made it possible for professionals to be available and reachable 24/7, if they want to. Though this could be particularly useful in specific situations, it could lead to stress and burnout when taken to an extreme, especially when combined with a very dynamic and challenging organisational culture.

During the CMI CPD event that took place on April 21, Dr Howard G Awbery explained the concept of burnout, which differs from stress in that the primary damage is emotional rather than physical - burnout can lead to detachment and sufferers feel that life isn't worth living, and it’s more common among high performers. Even though it can sometimes be difficult to identify this phenomenon, there are clear signs that can indicate a state of burnout including among others short temper, reduced immune system, reduced memory, inability to turn off, difficulty sleeping and making mistakes.

It goes without saying that this affects not only individuals but also the organisations where they work. As a consequence, from a business point of view, preventing burnout is important in order to protect the talent as well as the brand of an organisation and ultimately its bottom line. During its presentation, Dr Awbery explored different ways to prevent burnout at organisational level, at a team level as well as at an individual level.

In particular, organisations can have a significant impact on the improvement of a leader’s professional life. Initiatives like encouraging the team to have a proper lunch break, restricting email usage e.g. 7am-7pm, taking regular breaks, banning hands free phone calls and helping make time for hobbies that have been neglected, could ensure leaders are acting as effective role models. In other words, organisations should promote a 'work hard, recover very hard, repeat' mantra so that employees can find a good balance between work and life.

Dr Howard G Awbery

Dr Awbery is founder of Awbery, who work with clients to create and deliver high-impact leadership and management development programmes, HR and coaching solutions. In order to help with overcome issues like leaders burnout, Awbery review the current strategy of an organisation to see what the barriers are and then tailor a bespoke ‘Fit to Lead programme’ to overcome these barriers. These ‘Fit to Lead’ programmes encourages leaders to focus on Mind, Body and Leadership and ensure they are leading effectively.

Q & A with Dr Awbery 

Leaders Burnout - How to avoid it 

The more I research burnout in organisations, the more amazed I am at our headlong race to deplete a rapidly diminishing talent pool. Here is a true story. 

When the police pulled up behind a young, high-flying leader staring vacantly out of his car window on the hard shoulder of the M1, they tried to question him. He didn’t know his name, where he was going or how he had arrived there. He was mumbling, “Must get the figures ready. Manager’s on my back. Need to perform better to get promoted”. He had just completed 15 continuous months of work of between 14 and 16 hours a day with rarely a day off. 

Back at his place of work, his manager, when questioned by the police explained: “Corporate send them to me to either make ‘em or break ‘em. Obviously he wasn’t made of the right stuff, so I broke him!” 

What a terrible indictment on his manager and the organisation, and what a waste of talent.

 A significant number of high-flyers burn out like this during the first 10 years of their career. I believe organisations need to take hold of this wasteful situation by analysing corporate cultures, eradicating the catalysts that create burnout, and supporting those unable to help themselves. 

What can we all do about it? 

For a start, we need to stop describing everyday stress as burnout. Burnout is not stress: it is a complete inability to get out of bed, an inability to function, tie shoelaces or choose what clothes to wear; an incapability to undertake work of any capacity; an addictive, overwhelming exhaustion; a condition resulting in disillusionment and a dysfunctional attitude towards work, colleagues and family. 

All of us experience workplace stress from time to time, but to describe leaders going through a busy time or a temporary rough patch as “burnt out” denigrates the seriousness of the real condition and mitigates the culpability of the organisations who have stood by and watched it happen. 

What does the current research say about burnout? 

1. Burnout predominantly happens to high performers and is sometimes described as “overachiever syndrome.”

2. The conditions for burnout are created by organisations or circumstances. 

3. Burnout predominantly occurs during the first 10 years of a career, following a subtle downward spiral. 

4. Burnout predominantly happens among 20 to 30 year olds. 

5. Immune systems slowly shut down resulting in repeated illness when leaders are burning out. 

6. Lower back or neck pains, increased use of painkillers and caffeine and disrupted sleep patterns are all early signs of burnout. 

7. Changes in eating habits and increased alcohol consumption are common. 

8. Often the only person who doesn’t recognise the downward spiral in performance is the leader themselves. 

When leaders completely burn out, organisations are faced with a number of serious issues. So, it is important to take a step back and tackle the issue of burnout before it reaches a crisis point.