How to spot and prevent executive burnout

Growing the business that you’ve started from scratch with your own idea is possibly the best job in the world. You’ve made something from the very beginning with your ingenuity, determination, and maybe a little dose of luck.

The role of running your own startup that’s ready to expand is hectic. There are endless things to do – meetings to run, reports to read, investors to please – and very little time for yourself.

If you’re not careful, the work of a CEO can get on top of you. Life at the helm can be very stressful, and the longer you let the stress brew, the harder it’s going to hit when you reach the point of burnout.

You might think burnout only happens to the weak, that you’re doing exactly what is expected of you and this is the life you signed up for. Maybe it’s not, though.

Here, we’ll look at what the signs of burnout are and what you and your HR department can do to make things work for you and the rest of your C-suite.

Is burnout actually a thing?

The idea of burnout came about when a psychologist experienced it for himself in the 1970s. It’s been around for a long time before then, for sure. The World Health Organisation now recognises it as an official diagnosis.

The symptoms of burnout are:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism and mental distance from work
  • Lack of ability to complete tasks

Sound familiar? You may think these sound normal, cropping up occasionally as part of the role of running around to work to make your business a success. It’s not normal, and it will be impacting you more than you might think.

Breaking this down into tangible things that might be easier to spot…

Thinking ‘must push through’

When you have to push through, power on, soldier on, it’s a sure sign that you’re not coping well in your current situation.

This feeling is more likely to come up during funding rounds, when a key team member leaves their role, or when taking on new commitments.

Weird sleep patterns

Have you been waking up at 4am without your alarm? Are you lying awake at 2am, anticipating the buzz of your phone?

A disrupted sleep pattern is a major indicator of stress and is going to pile on the problems. The inability to switch off from the office, put your phone down, and have time for yourself is damaging even if it feels right at the time.

Dealing with the same problems

When your finance team comes to you with the same problem three times in four months, or your customer service team have failed to hit their targets again, this could be a sign of personal burnout.

To get to be the CEO of a successful business, of course you have problem solving skills. Getting to the point where you’re not coming up with the answers that work and the same issues keep landing on your desk is a sure-fire sign that your creativity and business know-how isn’t on point at the moment.

Messy mind = messy body

When the stress starts to creep in, you’ll probably notice that you start to take care of yourself less. Taking less care of your personal appearance: more messy bun days, a more unkempt beard, wearing the same shirt for an extra day. These are all signs that you’re disengaging with your role.

I’m not quitting, so what can I do?

You aren’t expected to be a superhero. Or maybe you just need to adjust your idea of what a superhero is. There are some changes you can make to your lifestyle and the way you work to reduce your stress and avoid burning out completely:

  • Set boundaries, such as turning off your work phone after 7pm and making sure that you have a lunch break in your diary every day and actually take it. Remember that you have a team around you that are there to be delegated to – leave the flickering light to facilities. 

  • Leave the office on time, and for a reason. Being stuck in the same four walls, no matter how funky the décor is, isn’t healthy. Sign up for classes at the gym, go for a walk on your lunch, assign a night for family or friends that will make sure that you leave work at a decent hour. 

  • Change your diet so that you’re eating regularly and healthily. By taking control of the food you eat, and importantly _when _you eat, you are building a routine of self-care that is outside of your business and focuses on you.

These might take some self-discipline to achieve, and asking a friend or partner outside of your organisation to support you might be in order.

The people who care about you have probably already spotted the signs that you’re hitting CEO burnout and will want to help.

Fix you, fix your workplace

Whilst you’re getting your life in order, think about how you can actually change your organisation to make it support you and your team better. After all, if you’re getting burned out then your team could very well be in the same position.

This is a chance to work with your HR team and make sure everything is functioning as it should be. A good first step, if you’ve not got to it yet, is to get your management teams’ role defined. Even if it seems obvious, it will make everyone clear on their roles and mean delegation is simple and clear.

There may be a lack of resources in the company that is increasing stress. Does your technology need an upgrade? Have you got structures for you and your staff to seek mental health support? Investing in systems that will make small difference to everyone will relieve stress.

Hiring freelancers might not seem like an obvious solution, but they are able to pick up the strain at busy times without the costs of recruitment and onboarding. When it is annual report time, look at bringing in someone to get the presentation up to scratch, or hire a pro to write up the white paper for investors.

Final thoughts

Your company isn’t going to be successful if you’re frazzled, not able to focus, and just not bothered anymore. As a leader of a company that you’ve created, of course there is pressure for you to make it succeed but making your mental and physical health suffer isn’t going to get the investors knocking at your door.

Take some time away and allow yourself to reset. A recent survey by Simply Business showed that 9% of SME owners haven’t taken a holiday in over five years - that’s not a statistic you want to be part of!

Things aren’t going to collapse around you. Trust the team you’ve built around you, switch off the phone, relax, and come back with resolve to restore balance.