The Modern Epidemic: Why Are Leaders Burning Out?

4 min read
30 April 2019

Positions of power often seem to be burdened by an unwanted force–stress. Is stress a necessary evil for people in the upper echelons of leadership, or for those who wield power in an organisation? Leaders are burning out at alarming rates, and perhaps we are turning a blind eye to a huge potential culprit.

In today’s world, where we stubbornly pride ourselves for working hours upon hours of overtime (especially if it’s unpaid), and we force ourselves to work even with severe illnesses or injuries, it’s no wonder our physical and mental health eventually suffer. Stress and leadership seem to go hand in hand, and you almost can’t have one without the other if you want to be seen as a high-performing, ready-to-handle-anything type of leader.

The Toxic Appeal Of Stress

When we encounter stressors, a series of events is kicked off in the brain. The amygdala picks up on the stressor through your senses, and if it decides you’re in trouble, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls part of the nervous system responsible for heartbeat and breathing, so this is why you feel an accelerated heart rate in moments of perceived danger. The hypothalamus also activates the HPA axis, resulting in the release of cortisol, a stress hormone.1

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, and it helps maintain blood sugar levels and provides energy for the brain. And, in the short-term, increased cortisol isn’t always a bad thing. Long-term stress, though, can wreak havoc on your body and mind, with effects ranging from anxiety and depression to digestive problems, heart disease, weight gain, and memory impairment.2

The Link Between Stress And Burnout

When we say “burnout”, what do we mean? According to experts, burnout is a psychological syndrome which emerges due to the presence of prolonged job stressors. Burnout has long been associated with certain occupations, including those that are people-oriented, such as health care, education, retail, and leadership.3

There are three main components to burnout: reduced personal efficacy (evaluating yourself negatively), emotional exhaustion (being emotionally overwhelmed) and disengagement (detachment or indifference). Once these symptoms begin, it’s easy for them to snowball as stress increases.4

Burnout doesn’t just affect the person suffering from it, but rather the effects can spill over into personal and professional interactions with others. It can even be contagious in a way, as others may give in the same stressors. When businesses experience low levels of performance, you can expect increased conflict, poor planning and strategy, and increased absenteeism and accidents.5 So, what can we do to prevent burnout, or help those already suffering?

Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.

Simon Sinek

How To Mitigate The Effects Of Stress To Reduce Burnout

While we can’t erase all the stressors from our lives, we can learn to cope with them. Leadership models such as the i4 Neuroleader can teach you skills useful for handling stress, leading to a healthier brain and body. Other tactics include:

  • Seek professional help. Your organisation likely has a system in place to help employees facing increasing stress and burnout. If not, your health care provider is a good first step to getting the assistance you need to live happily, and not chained to an unhealthy way of life.
  • Meditation. Transcendental meditation has long been shown to have positive effects on the mind and body. The Internet makes it easier than ever to find practitioners and classes near you. To learn more, watch Make Me A Leader, a film that explores how leaders can optimise their performance to thrive in the 21st century.
  • Go outside. Many of us work in steel jungles, surrounded by machines, concrete and a scant patch of grass here or there. Fortunately, many cities recognise the need for green spaces, so hopefully, there’s one near you. If not, make it a point to take a weekend excursion to a nearby forest or field and spend some time reconnecting with nature.
  • Change things up and find your passion again. If the monotony of daily work life weighs you down, don’t be afraid to change things up. You can’t perform at your best when your brain and body are suffering, and you don’t have to live that way. Explore your options, go back for training if you need to and don’t let fear and stress hold you back from achieving your dreams.
  • Delegate responsibilities. One person can’t do everything, so effective leaders must learn how to delegate tasks to people they trust. It can be difficult for leaders to let go and pass control to someone else, but you’ll likely be a lot happier and less stressed out if you find competent, trustworthy people to work with.

Burnout doesn’t have to be the inevitable result of working hard. We can reverse the epidemic we see if we recognise the role of stress and then actively work to lower stress levels for improved health and wellbeing. Our leaders must be ready for the challenges ahead, but without healthy minds and bodies, it’s only a matter of time before burnout occurs.

1. WebMD. What does stress do to the body? WebMD, LLC. 2018.
2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 2019.
3. Maslach C, Leiter MP. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016;15(2):103-11. DOI: 10.1002/wps.20311
4. Maslach C. Burnout, the cost of caring. Prentice-Hall Services. 1982.
5. McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Model. About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].

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