In a global study on work-life balance, researchers collaborating with Harvard Business Review found that only 25% of employees believe that their managers balance work and life in a sustainable way.
When owners and executives start burning out due to things like working indefinite hours or ignoring exhaustion, it results in stress and disengagement. This can ultimately create an unhealthy company culture. By setting a good example of managing one’s personal and professional life, leaders can positively influence employees and create more balance in the business.
So, how can leaders guard themselves against burnout and better serve their teams? Learn what work burnout is, what causes it and how to prevent it from occurring.
Table of Contents
What is Burnout?
Work Burnout Definition
Work burnout is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” When left unaddressed, work burnout can have devastating effects on a person’s mind, body and career. Whether it’s feeling a lack of motivation, resenting time spent at work or experiencing depression, job burnout is a serious issue that cannot be left untreated. With a variety of different causes, ranging from chronic stress to perfectionism, anyone—no matter their profession—is susceptible to burnout.
Job Burnout Signs and Symptoms
How does a person know if they’re actually experiencing job burnout, though? Writing off the signs as just having a few bad days at work is easy since the top symptoms are typically moderate fatigue and lack of motivation. Nevertheless, use the questionnaire below to find out if you’re experiencing unmanaged burnout.
- Do you feel a significant decrease in energy and an increase in exhaustion?
- Have you experienced any recent unexplainable health problems?
- Does going to work bring up feelings of anxiety and dread?
- Have you spent hours trying to focus on getting a singular task done?
- Is your job performance suffering due to a lack of motivation?
- When you speak about work, is it in a negative or cynical manner?
- Do you emotionally dissociate from team members?
- Has there been an increase in lack of sleep, alcohol or drug use?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you could be experiencing serious, unresolved problems from burnout. Since job burnout can be closely associated with depression or underlying health issues, meeting with a doctor or mental health professional to discuss any occurring symptoms is always a good idea.
Causes of Burnout
Stress is one of the main contributors to feeling burned out from work. Research conducted by Gallup shows business owners experience more stress than other workers. Following the results of a survey on the well-being of business leaders, their research found 45% of entrepreneurs surveyed felt stressed most of the day.
Becoming a Work Martyr
Not taking time for rest or relief is also a primary contributor to work burnout. Project Time Off refers to this complex as being a “work martyr.” Instead of recharging their batteries, work martyrs stay in a constant state of busyness. Since it is impossible be attentive to everything all of the time, this impacts motivation and productivity as well as the ability to maintain strong relationships at work and in their personal lives.
Limiting Vacation Days
Another study from Gallup found that small business owners rank as some of the least likely workers to take time off. 20% of business owners with fewer than five employees reported taking zero vacation days. This means entrepreneurs who are still in the early stages of building their companies do not take adequate time for recovery or rest.
Lacking a Sense of Freedom
In a survey conducted by Finimpact, researchers found that “freedom is the most dominant reason for opening a small business.” Yet, too often, company owners get caught in the cycle of the business running their lives. Instead of setting boundaries and protecting their time, many entrepreneurs allow work to consume them.
Burnout Risk Factors
Some people are more inclined to experience burnout than others. Those more susceptible to burnout might have demanding careers that require long shifts and little rest. Due to this reason, essential workers in healthcare rank as one of the top professions at risk. For example, the American Medical Association found that more than half of physicians in urology, neurology and physical medicine show signs of work burnout.
Other high-pressure jobs, such as being an entrepreneur can make someone in danger of burning out, too. According to Dr. Shikhar Ghosh, a professor at Harvard Business School, 90 to 95 percent of startups do not meet their initial projections. There’s a lot of responsibility riding on business leaders who don’t want to fail their teams, customers, investors and selves. This can cause feelings of anxiety which might lead to spending excessive hours at work trying to achieve company goals. Additionally, not meeting business objectives after working months on end can also put people in jeopardy of burnout, too.
Others at-risk for burnout include those who:
- Don’t set boundaries between their professional and personal life
- Work endless hours
- Have a bad manager or boss
- Are the victim of workplace bullying, harassment or poor treatment
- Try to meet unreasonable deadlines
- Have unfair or unclear expectations
- Receive an unmanageable amount of tasks and jobs
- Experience the pressure that comes with perfectionism
- Feel emotionally overwhelmed by responsibility
- Lack a support system at work and at home
- Work in a profession that doesn’t suit their talents and strengths
Consequences of Untreated Burnout
Successful business owners and executive leaders know that finding time for rest can be difficult. Nevertheless, without a plan to intentionally take time away from work, leaders can easily overlook or ignore signs of fatigue. It is important to remember that working more hours doesn’t necessarily equate to increased productivity.
In fact, data shows that overworking actually leads to less productivity. Survey results published in the Harvard Business Review found that “leaders in countries with more paid vacation days actually tend to seem slightly more likely to work at a faster pace [and] have a higher quantity focus.”
Working excessive hours, feeling the effects of unmanaged stress and lacking rest—especially sleep—are detrimental to a person’s health. In a study comparing burned out workers with “healthy” workers, scientists cite that “chronic job strain has been found to predict cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and poor self-rated health.”
Top Tips for Preventing or Managing Work Burnout
1. Master the Art of Delegation
Too often, leaders become crisis managers. Instead of working to the brink of exhaustion, set your sights on what you want to accomplish. Delegate the rest of the responsibilities to another team member. Delegation helps business leaders stay focused on fulfilling the vision and mission of the company. As leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”
Start delegating by:
- Writing a list of the top five impactful duties only you can do.
- Listing the tasks that steal your joy or waste your time at work each week.
- Delegating the second list to people on the team who are more proficient at these tasks.
2. Don’t Operate in Isolation
Being an entrepreneur can often be an isolating experience. As a result, many people struggle with mental and physiological issues stemming from business ownership. For example, Harvard Business Review’s CEO Snapshot Survey found more than half of respondents felt lonely, while 60% of company leaders said loneliness affects their performance abilities.
Making time for family, friends and team members is the key to staying connected. Researchers contributing to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found evidence that feeling connected “can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.”
3. Lower Stress and Anxiety Levels
Without a doubt, leaders can experience burnout from stress and anxiety. When anxiety hits, your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight mode, kicks in. Remaining in this constant state of fight or flight is proven to cause both physical and emotional repercussions on the body. In contrast, when you’re body’s other nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system—is engaged you’re body can recharge and re-energize in the way it needs to thrive. How do you switch this “calm nervous system” into gear?
Lower your fight or flight response by:
- Creating daily habbits that help lower anxiety, such as breathing techniques, regular workouts, and a diet high in nutrients and low in sugar.
- Practice boundaries, time blocking, and delegation, so not everything “rests on your shoulders.”
- Set quiet hours where you turn your phone on airplane mode and meditate or practice breathing techniques.
Learn More About Fighting Leadership Burnout
It’s important that leaders take work burnout seriously. It affects the health and wellness of CEOs and executives who also serve as models for the company’s work-life standards. Furthermore, burnout is contagious. Leadership that values busyness over mission fulfillment will find lower rates of productiveness, engagement and employee satisfaction.
To learn more about avoiding work burnout, check out:
- Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro
- Mayo Clinic Strategies To Reduce Burnout: 12 Actions to Create the Ideal Workplace by Stephen J. Swensen and Tait Shanafelt
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield