Feature

Burnout – The Executive Burnover

In this first part of a two-article series, special Boardroom contributor Ole Petter Anfinsen, Vice President of EDBAC and DBA Research Associate at Henley Business School, UK, explains what overwhelming stress and pressure can lead to and how it represents an increasing risk in these unprecedented times.

As we’re trying to recover from the ashes left by the recent pandemic, faced with a high level of discontinuity and economic and political uncertainty, we are continuously taking some major health risks – not just for our organizations but also for ourselves. Every day we have to make crucial choices which have massive implications on health and wellbeing – some of which may bring us to the edge. 

There are reasons why we are getting ill, and it all depends on circumstances of course. But looking at the senior executive role some of us lead and the complexity that sometimes comes with working in associations, one sees stress levels and pressure rapidly increasing as we manoeuvre the aftermath of COVID-19.

Three is the number

It is important to be aware that senior executives are often faced with three forms of pressures and stress factors in contrast to others. These are: “isolation, the pain of downsizing and pace of work” (Kneale, 2009), and they may cause severe pain and stress. 

In times like these this may take some very dark turns with respect to mental health and psychological well-being. People might find it much more difficult to maintain a healthy perspective in certain situations – which again may lead to things spinning out of control, leaving people with worries that, if not attended, can lead to emotional stress, anxiety and ultimately depression. 

For example, something you previously considered as minor suddenly takes up a tremendous amount of mental space and creates worries beyond your own comprehension, and the emotional response might be overwhelming and very troubling to acknowledge and deal with. It often becomes a fear in itself – giving the inner saboteur too much space, which is that inner detrimental voice filled with self-doubt and fear. Even Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Meta[1], has admitted having days where she is doubting herself – feeling like a fraud. 

However, stress is a part of life – but, as mentioned above, the problem occurs when the emotional response to pressure gets out of hand. If not attended, this may lead to burnout (Valcour , 2016), which not only can destroy private lives and careers, but can result in severe depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and/or even substance abuse. 

Dark taboo

This has for too long been the dark secret of executive life and talking about something that slightly resembles mental health issues is sadly still considered a taboo – which again adds to the problem. It goes like this: we have a problem, we have the cure, but we are not allowed to talk about or promote it. 

The first signs of burnout seem to be cynicism, lack of presence, the constant feeling of inadequacy and not measuring up (Maslach, et al., 2001). Nevertheless, people handle stress very differently and those who are driven by intrinsic drivers seem to be better equipped to cope with high levels of stress and pressure, in contrast to those who are driven by extrinsic drivers such as status, money and material goods (Roche & Haar, 2013). In other words, if you are doing something you are passionate about, you are more likely to cope well and manage stress than if you are not. 

I can only speak for myself, but I know that when I am passionate about something, time flies by and it does not really feel like work, even though I might be dealing with lots of pressure and challenging situations that requires clarity and focus. I’d rather say that it increases my senses and makes me more alert. On the contrary, if I work on something that is not of interest to me, I’m more inclined to get distracted, stressed and disconnected.

The best word to describe the level of burnout we are talking about in the context of associations and the executive sphere is ‘burnover’.  For those who are not familiar with the expression, it is the way fire takes over and eliminates all routes of escape, which in this case is quite descriptive of what is going on in the professional arena, where it often forces people to abandon ship. This is one of the greatest leadership challenges of the 21st century and something we must learn to deal and cope with successfully. 

Consequently, looking after one’s health is crucial, and it is important to understand that health is significant to any stakeholder in any organization as people create, add value and have a direct impact on business and share value. Therefore, looking after people’s health would be considered a good strategic move (Quick, et al., 2000). 

In the next issue of Boardroom Magazine we will be looking at how to avoid burnout, what preventive measures one can take to support this and why investing in health provides a return on investment (ROI). 

Ole Petter Anfinsen is a new, special contributor to Boardroom. He is the Vice President of the Executive DBA Council (EDBAC) and a doctoral research associate at Henley Business School. He is also the founder of Anfinsen Executive Health and Performance (AEHP) and co-author of the book Quality of Life. 

Sources

Kneale, K. (2009). Forbes. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.forbes.com/2009/04/16/ceo-network-management-leadership-stress.html 

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B. & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 52, 397-422.

Quick, J., Gavin, J. H., Cooper, C. L. & Quick, J. D. (2000). Executive health: Building strength, managing risks.. Academy of Management Executive, 14(2), 34-44.

Roche, M. & Haar, J. M. (2013). Leaders life aspirations and job burnout: a self-determination theory approach. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 34(6), 515-531.

Valcour , M. (2016). Beating Burnout. Harvard Business Review, 94(11), 98-101.


[1] At the time of writing this article Sheryl Sandberg was still the COO at Meta.

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