How to combat 'leadership burnout'

The WHO recognises burnout as a medical condition. As common as it is with employees, leaders are not immune either

How to combat 'leadership burnout'

This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout as a chronic medical condition. For the first time ever, WHO is including it in the International Classification of Diseases.

Some may say the announcement is a little overdue, considering the innumerable studies on stressed out professionals and annual rankings on the most overworked nations.

Most of the findings go like this: 90% of professionals are overwhelmed by work. For this study by Step One Recovery, HR professionals topped the list of employees most likely to take time off work due to stress.

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As HR leaders run the hours putting out fires, ensuring everyone’s happy and productive, and getting the organisation future-ready, who’s taking care of HR?

How to recognise burnout

Leading surgeon Dr Shawn C. Jones, MD, FACS, is no stranger to burnout. He took a while to notice the tell-tale signs due to the constantly demanding nature of his work.

He told HRD it’s crucial to pay attention to your well-being and not get complacent even during off-peak seasons.

Some of his tips for recognising burnout:

  1. A pervasive feeling you are overextended
    You feel drained, overwhelmed and exhausted whether at work or at home. You are just as tired in the morning as you were when you went to bed.

  2. You feel ineffective at home or at work
    You don’t feel a sense of personal accomplishment in your work. You feel inadequate with family and friends.

  3. You experience an erosion of emotions
    You’re short-tempered. There may be a tendency to blame others for problems or difficulties and react to situations and individuals with anger or even rage.

  4. You engage in unusual or high-risk behaviour
    Illicit drug use, alcoholism, a suicide attempt or an episode of depression or anxiety can be a sign of burnout.

Warning signs for leadership burnout

Dr Jones’ burnout identifiers may be applicable to professionals regardless of their role and function, but are there any distinct features in leaders or the C-suite?

In a blog post, Melissa Raffoni, CEO at The Raffoni Group, a company that offers consultation and coaching for CEOs and leadership teams admitted this: “throughout my life, when people have suggested that I may be burnt out from a certain activity, I have shrugged it off.

“I have disregarded the comment because I’ve always been very driven and unless I was completely passed out and unable to move, I couldn’t possibly imagine that expression could apply to me.”

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Based on her experience working with C-suites dealing with burnout, she shared some clear warning signs:

  • You feel you always “must push through”
    Leaders are so accustomed to hyper-busy and taxing schedules that there’s a tendency to develop a “must push through” attitude. As a top rank, some may even feel the need to be a “martyr” – for the good of the company. Even when physical and mental signs creep in at work or at home, leaders feel it is simply their responsibility to trudge on.

  • It gets difficult resolving drawn-out work issues
    Some problems will never go away, and all leaders can do is contain the issue. For example, a misfit in job roles or persistent organisational issues. Raffoni said if the same problem or question keeps surfacing, the beaten-down leader may not have the space, stamina or concentration to clearly resolve or act on the issue.

  • Sleep deprivation and physical changes
    Many health experts have pointed out that trouble sleeping is a “sure sign” of stress. Losing your solid seven hours of sleep won’t just affect your day’s performance, it could be indicative of burnout. What’s worse, your physical health may deteriorate: chest pains, dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, nagging coughs or any form of chronic pain.

Why leaders should practice self-care

Although leaders may feel a higher degree of responsibility for their teams and their work, there is no reason to ignore any of the warning signs pointed out by Dr Jones and CEO Raffoni. Additionally, it’s always best to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to your health and wellness.

So, as leaders put in place well-being practices like mindfulness across organisations to boost mental wellness, shouldn’t they also practise what they preach?

Mental wellness advocate, Anthea Indira Ong, has many things going for her: she’s Singapore’s nominated member of parliament (NMP), founder of a C-suite platform called WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, and co-founder of Hush TeaBar, a not-for-profit social enterprise that employs deaf and persons-in-recovery from mental health conditions.

She was also former CEO of a high-flying business – before her “collapse” and close shave with depression 12 years ago. But she told HRD that her biggest achievement to date has more to do with the collapse than all her big titles.

“I’m as proud of the collapse as I’m – maybe even more – of how I actually got myself out of it,” she said.

She believes the problem with leadership burnout starts with society’s skewed view that leaders are superhumans and superheroes who are fixer-uppers as well as all-knowing problem-solvers.

“My philosophy is I’m very, very human,” she said. “I’m first a full-time human being and part-time everything else… that means I’m not a machine, and therefore I definitely need that pause, that grasp.”

What she advocates is not just short holiday breaks. She suggested a holistic, consistent practice to keep yourself in the right frame of mind.

“[Holiday breaks are] important – that’s one part of it,” she said. “[But it’s also] about that discipline of regular practice, of self-care. It doesn't matter what that is – all of us have different self-care practices.”

Her routine is a combination of daily meditation, yoga sessions and journaling.

“All that helps me to, first of all, go back to being human, and therefore release some of the pressure that I get from the world in terms of expectations, which then translates to expectations from myself,” she said.

“All of that helps me to take a pause, so that I can be recharged, restored and rejuvenated, so my cup is not empty.

“To be able to serve as a leader, we cannot pour from an empty cup, so the self-care aspect for us is really important.”

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