Opinion: How can we deal with executive burnout?


There is a deep need to recognize that everyone is susceptible to psychological challenges and that when the boss suffers, everyone suffers.

Have sympathy for the boss. The era of executive burnout has arrived.

It’s fair to say that pity is hard to muster for those with privileges and the main parking spot. But research shows that these leaders are burnt out, stressed and in pain. Their influence, however, means that their problems are everyone else’s.

Human nature is such that people can be told to use their oxygen mask first on a struggling plane, but many will always try to help those they feel are less advantaged first. This seems to have been the general case for the C-suite in COVID: they paid more attention to those they were leading and had less attention to take care of themselves. It did not work.

The result, two and a half years into the pandemic, is senior management feeling burnt out, struggling with physical and mental health issues, and alone and unsupported.

More than a year ago, Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks Research Group (formerly known as Morneau Shepell) surveyed a large Canadian cohort of 1,200 executives and found that four-fifths of them were fatigued, almost all said their mental health and wellbeing had declined in the pandemic and half were ready to wrap it up or cut back their commitments significantly.

A year later, says Deloitte executive adviser Zabeen Hirji, there is little reason to believe those numbers would have improved.

“The headline here for business is it’s not sustainable,” she says.

While 2020 and 2021 have been rough waters, it’s not like 2022 has gone smoothly, with inflation, rising borrowing costs, supply chain issues, shortages of labor and the Russian invasion of Ukraine superimposed on the insecurity and impact of the coronavirus, the restructuring of how and where many of us work and the physical restrictions and their social implications.

I accept the credibility of this study from experience and attest to what I have seen among business leaders in this community. Weariness took a long time to strike.

The urgency and uncertainty of those early months hit people differently – as in speed, severity, not if but when – and managers were challenged in ways they never had been. Some, as I felt, didn’t take care of themselves enough to be the best leaders for others. They didn’t buy into a leadership principle that you could only be a strong leader if you made sure you were strong, period.

Hirji sees no choice but to fix what ails the leader: “If they’re not healthy…then the quality of their decisions will suffer.”

Rather than take another study that would likely find the same characteristics, Deloitte and LifeWorks instead rolled out a playbook last week that boards would be wise to digest for the operational leaders they mentor.

The first step: there is a deep need to stifle the stigma of mental health and recognize that even at the top, sometimes even more so at the top, almost everyone is susceptible to dealing with psychological issues.

The starting point is with the managers themselves, as the study found that four in 10 had “self-stigma” about accepting, or even acknowledging, their mental health issues. That’s probably partly because more than half feared it would cost their careers dearly. Hence the need for companies to create psychological safety workspaces, invest in training and resources, and recognize the value of leaders who discuss vulnerabilities.

The second area is more difficult, as it calls for giving up Dukes in exchange for a buddy system – peer support in place of career combat – as a method to restore productivity and well-being. In many cases (fortunately not the one I occupy), this necessitates a shift in the ultra-competitive, zero-sum game of workplace politics.

You might think collaborative survivalism is taken for granted now, but I speak to many managers who say they feel more distant and suspicious and resentful of their colleagues, so their situations and probably many others remain disturbing and will be difficult to unpack.

The most profound recommendations relate to responding to the pandemic executive with one foot out, as they call for rethinking the job to save talent at the top. It is a great goal in principle, a formidable task in practice.

For most companies, this requires a reconsideration of time management, which on the surface takes your best-rewarded talent and demands less – less presence, less facetime, less authority, if you will – in the hope you will end up getting more. It requires delegating and surrendering power, which is hard to do when the pandemic itself has left many managers feeling like they’ve lost control and don’t have as many answers.

It would seem risky at first to entrench as permanent and not just in the age of the pandemic shortened meetings with fewer attendees, time set aside to recharge batteries, and a commitment to flexibility in location and timing. how the work is done.

It was not the archetype created by the corporate world. Given the research, however, what other choice is there? •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor of BIV and vice president, editorial, of Glacier Media.


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