Blog How to manage executive burnout

How to manage executive burnout

Mar 6, 2023

8 min read

Although mental health has been a trending topic of conversation in popular media for a while, the fact is adults are now more than ever, struggling with coping with the stresses of life. At least 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. are facing mental distress, with a staggering 85% of people reporting that they suffer from work related stress, naming workload as the main cause. 


What is Executive Burnout?

When these stresses reach an ultimate high, it leads to a condition known as burnout. Burnout is defined as a complete exhaustion of physical and cognitive abilities due to unmanageable and prolonged stress. It can influence all facets of a person’s life, including work. When severe stress is left unchecked, it can lead to even more serious diseases, such as headaches, digestive issues, and even cardiovascular problems. 

During the pandemic, tech startups experienced accelerated growth due to the increase in demand of digital solutions, product innovation, and low overhead cost. However, rapid growth has come at the expense of well-being. Executives, particularly those at tech startups, are frequently in charge of managing teams, making crucial choices, and fostering innovation under extreme time constraints, leading to exhaustion and burnout can result from this pressure over time as it wears on their physical and emotional well-being. 

Burnout in executives should be addressed early, since it can negatively affect their wellbeing and capacity for effective leadership and ultimately the trajectory of a company. Many detrimental effects, including decreased productivity and higher turnover rates, can result from burnout. For example, the average tenure for a VP of Sales is ~18 months, with the rest of the VP team following closely behind. Not managing burnout can seriously impact a company’s long-term success by diminishing their executive’s capacity for innovation, problem-solving, and decision-making. When leaders know how to effectively manage burnout, it helps enhance their general wellbeing and productivity, thus leading to positive effects for their team. 

tired executive because of burnout

What are the causes behind executive burnout?

Although reasons may vary from person to person, according to a recent study by Deloitte, 73% of C-level executives are being overworked and are not getting sufficient rest. Some of the most common reasons behind this phenomenon include: 

Having a heavy workload

Long workdays and an overwhelming amount of workload is a common factor for executives. Leaders are often tasked with making important decisions, managing budgets, supervising the work of their teams, and ensuring that the business achieves its objectives. This results in executives, particularly those at startups, trying to perform through a demanding and stressful work schedule that calls for extensive hours and very little downtime. 

Series A and B startup leaders might struggle to keep a healthy work-life balance as a result of focus on accelerated growth and expansion, causing physical and mental fatigue. Even for startups that reach series C, the stress of scaling and securing funding can get even the most productive and dynamic of leaders. 

Operating under high-pressure

The continuous pressure to provide results and meet deadlines can lead to high levels of stress within executives. Working in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment is common and accepted in tech companies, where there are constantly pressing targets to meet. The high-pressure of work-related tasks can lead to stress, anxiety, and a persistent feeling of always being “on” even during rest periods, as the brain remains engaged and unable to fully disconnect. After a long day of work, 1 out of 4 C-level executives find it difficult to disconnect from work because they fear that if they do, when they return the workload will be unmanageable.

The pressure to produce positive results is one of the major factors in executive and leadership burnout. It can be challenging for them to keep a healthy work-life balance when the burden of leading a team under pressure is too heavy. Some executives may experience chronic stress and burnout because they operate under the notion that they always have to be on call, leaving them unable to disconnect even for a few hours from their jobs.

Feeling Isolated

Executives may experience isolation and a lack of support from colleagues and upper management, especially if they are new to the organization. This could lead to feelings of loneliness, lack of motivation and an overall sentiment of feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, the nature iself of leadership frequently calls for leaders  to set aside their own needs and wants in order to serve the needs of the company. This can be mentally exhausting after extended periods of time. That mentality can set barriers between leaders and their own team, leading to untrustworthiness from both sides. Because of this some leaders may develop a fear of delegating tasks and thus end up handling too much on their end. 

feeling isolated as an executive because of stress 

How to manage executive burnout

As we have mentioned, burnout in executives can have detrimental effects on both the person and the organization they lead. Avoiding burnout is easier said than done, as the stresses of life can sometimes be unavoided. This is why techniques that deal with how to manage burnout are far more reasonable and effective than ignoring the issues at hand. Here are some techniques that can help manage executive burnout: 

Having a self-care routine

Executives should place a high priority on activities like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating a balanced diet, and practicing stress management. It can also be highly beneficial to schedule regular vacations or long weekends and take enough breaks throughout the day. This will mitigate feelings of exhaustion allowing individuals to work more efficiently and productively with no negative consequences. 

Self-care can look different for every person, whereas for some a form of self-care is spending time with friends and family, for some it could be running some errands, or even getting some exercise. Overall, self-care should be taking measures in your life to take good care of yourself and recognizing when you’re failing. Having a good sense of self-awareness can allow you to recognize the signs your body is telling you to slow down. A great leader is one that understands the value of prioritizing time off for yourself, however that looks for them. 

Setting boundaries, restricting conversations about professional matters after hours, and taking part in hobbies and activities are a few examples of how to achieve a healthy relationship between work and life. However, some executives might struggle with trying to maintain , when it should be prioritized just as much as work. It’s been scientifically proven that proper rest and relaxation result in better performance at work, as it leads to an increase in motivation and enjoyment. But, due to the rise in remote work, trying to establish boundaries between the office and home can be tricky. 1 in 5 leaders are only sleeping 4-5 hours a day, which significantly reduces their quality of life and productivity at work. If separating the space from the offices to home is not possible, taking multiple breaks outside the house and trying to find an alternative place to unwind can be very helpful. For example, visiting a nearby coffee shop or a gym after working hours. 

Get yourself a support network

Finding a great support system is key for preventing burnout in executives, as this position can frequently include significant levels of stress, responsibility, and isolation. But, being surrounded by a team that gives you emotional and practical assistance when needed, helps dealing with these difficulties.

A great support network can provide emotional guidance by listening, showing empathy, and offering words of encouragement. Having someone to chat with who is aware of the pressures of leadership can not only be rewarding, but also encouraging. As Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has said “relationships are among the most important in the entire company.” When the pressures of leadership are high, it’s great knowing you have a team to back you up by helping with duties or tasks that can be delegated. 

Having a support system might make executives feel less alone. For example, Pavilion CEO, YPO, and EO, are all an executive community online where leaders can seek connection and advice.  These types of association can increase a sense of community, lessen loneliness, and provide executives a sense of stability and support. Counting on support may help executives manage burnout by giving them the tools and encouragement they need to remain forward-looking, healthy, and productive at their jobs.

support network executive

Start managing your time properly

To mitigate the feelings of stress, executives can benefit from working on their time management abilities. Setting priorities, assigning duties, and developing the ability to say “no” when necessary to focus on more pending tasks, allows leaders to keep their sanity while balancing different operations. 

Planning and managing one’s time effectively allows individuals to achieve their objectives in a sustainable manner. In order to achieve this leaders have to make deliberate decisions about how they spend their time and establish priorities in a reasonable way. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a great mental model to prioritize tasks efficiently. By establishing a concrete order of priorities individuals significantly reduce decision-making fatigue, that can eventually lead to burnout. Some leaders swear by the popular Pomodoro technique, separating their focused time into intervals and including rest into the equation. 

Executives who effectively manage their time can achieve more during their day in a more efficient way by lowering stress and encouraging a feeling of balance in the executive’s life. 

Dealing with executive burnout early on can enhance leaders’ overall wellbeing and productivity, reducing the chances of developing diseases caused by exhaustion and stress. A content, healthy, and positive leader encourages its team to work in the same manner. Cultivating an environment focused on the well-being of its team is vital for the long-term success of a company. 

Scheduling time off from work might sound easy, but when you have a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders it might be easier said than done. If you’re not sure how to manage your time and schedule effectively, hiring an Executive Assistant can take that huge weight off your shoulders. Known as the masters of productivity, Viva EAs allow you to focus on strategic thinking and managing your team. Executives can rely on their executive assistants to effectively improve productivity and efficiency as well as improve communication and collaboration across entire teams. Thanks to their help, executives can create a more unified team that is better able to meet objectives while not burning themselves out.

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