Recognizing Burnout's AEIOU SymptomsOct 09, 2023
In today's fast-paced corporate world, the term "burnout" is increasingly prevalent, but what truly defines it, and how can you distinguish it from everyday stress and exhaustion that come with leadership roles?
Burnout is more than just feeling tired, stressed, or overworked. It's when the relentless frustration, cynicism, exhaustion, and powerlessness become overwhelming.
To gain a deeper understanding, let's explore real-life scenarios from the world of senior leadership with some clients* we have partnered with in the last couple of years. Each of them working in a market leading company in their respective sectors or industries, and each struggling with regaining the impact and performance they once had.
- Tom, a senior leader at Client Alpha, epitomizes the perfectionist. His relentless pursuit of excellence has been admirable, but the constant anxiety about meeting colossal expectations has left him perpetually drained.
- Rachel, an executive at Client Bravo, feels like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her daily responsibilities transformed into a source of immense stress. She felt she was the only one who could ultimately deliver results, isolating her from her team and overwhelming her.
- In the boardrooms of Client Charlie, John, a seasoned executive, reached the top at a cost. His success distanced him from his team and loved ones, leaving him stranded on an island of achievement, where success felt empty. He was disconnected from his network and had little support to go to when he was struggling. He felt lonely and concerned that if there was another restructure, his powerbase could be at risk because there was nobody left to advocate for him.
- At Client Delta, Marsha's burnout doesn't affect just her, but extends to her team. An anxious, exhausted, and demotivated leader creates a stressful work environment, where team members are pressured to meet unrealistic standards, resulting in disengagement and productivity decline. In these cases, burnout permeates the entire organization. Marsha was the first member of the team we worked with on an organisation level culture change project.
- Over at Client Echo, Laura, renowned for her leadership success, was no stranger to burnout. The relentless pressure to outdo past successes in spite of repeated strategy changes and restructures has left Laura demotivated, unable to embark on new projects. Burnout signifies the loss of the drive that once defined her.
Each of these examples will have varying levels of familiarity for you but what it showed us was that there were 5 symptoms to look out for which any leader could use to healthcheck themselves and their teams.
Introducing the AEIOU of Burnout
If you, as a leader, or someone around you is experiencing three or more of these symptoms, you could be grappling with burnout:
- Anxious (A): A constant unease, similar to Rachel at Client Bravo, is a clear indicator of burnout.
- Exhausted (E): When you're more than just tired but perpetually drained, like Tom at Client Alpha, it's a telltale sign.
- Isolated (I): Feeling alone and disconnected, as experienced by John at Client Charlie, is a prominent symptom.
- Overwhelmed (O: Juggling too many balls, like Rachel at Client Bravo, can lead to perpetual overwhelm.
- Unmotivated (U): If you've lost your drive, much like Laura at Client Echo, you might be in the midst of burnout.
The Ripple Effect in Leading Organizations
The consequences of burnout are not limited to the individual. In Client Alpha, where innovation is demanded, leaders struggling with burnout make more mistakes, exhibit reduced productivity, and grapple with effective decision-making. This affects the entire team's effectiveness, leading to a decline in innovation.
Perfectionist leaders, common in organizations like Client Alpha, tend to micromanage their teams to ensure everything aligns perfectly with their standards. This can take the form of high operating standards, excessive compliance or simply control freak managers who won’t let exploration occur. This stifles team autonomy, dampens morale, and can lead to high employee turnover.
In cut throat companies like Client Charlie, known for delivering better results every quarter and individuals pitted against each other to achieve them, a fear of failure can drive unhealthy habits and burnout. Innovative thinking thrives where individuals feel safe to take risks and make mistakes. Interestingly when people feel fear, they take less risks and the decisions on the risks they take are often flawed out of desperation versus consideration.
Insights for Leaders
Where leaders frequently experience burnout, the effects cascade. An anxious, exhausted, and demotivated leader often creates a stressful work environment, where team members feel pressured to meet unrealistic standards. This can lead to team disengagement and a decline in productivity. In these scenarios, burnout extends its reach to the entire organization.
Fostering resilience can create a powerful buffer against burnout. Embrace mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning.
Focussing on a collaborative spirit among your team, transcending the boundaries of competition or business unit. Shift the focus to collective goals, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.
As you navigate your leadership journey, recognizing the signs of burnout is the first step. Embrace these innovative insights and take proactive steps to manage burnout. It can be a catalyst for positive change, sparking renewed purpose and motivation in both work and life.
*names changed for confidentiality.
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