As "High Profile" Burnouts are on the Rise, the Stigma of Burnout is Trending Down for the Rest of Us

Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long” – Michael Gungor

Jacinda Ardern, Simone Biles, Pope Benedict XVI,…

Weeks ago, Jacinda Ardern announced that she will step down as Prime Minister of New Zealand. At 42, her 5-year tenure was marked by dealing with the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the country's history, a deadly volcanic eruption and the Covid-19 pandemic. On January 19, Jacinda Ardern declared that she no longer had enough "in the tank" to do her job justice. "Politicians are human. We give all we can, for as long as we can, and then it's time," she said. "And for me, it's time."

Simone Biles, artistic gymnast, 4-time Olympic gold medalist, backed out from competing in 5 of her 6 finals at the 2021 Olympic Games, citing mental health issues that would make her participation unsafe. In fact, experts in gymnastics warned that the loss of focus or spatial perception could be fatal if they occurred in mid-air. Although Ms. Biles was supported by her teammates, fans and sports officials, many commentators criticized her for "quitting" and suggested that her behavior was a sign of weakness.

Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI abdicated his papacy. "The vigor that left me in recent months is such that I must admit my inability to properly administer the ministry entrusted to me," he said.

The growing collective awareness around burnout and the emerging emphasis on mental health in the workplace marks a significant turning point. It reflects progress in normalizing the debate about mental health at work – that is, we can talk about burnout without apprehension or perceived stigma.

The definition of burnout in 2023

Burnout is broadly defined as physical and emotional exhaustion, coupled with decreased motivation and lowered performance at work. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it “results from performing at high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll”. 

Burnout is when your body says, "Enough, I am out." Burnout is beyond just exhaustion; it's not just "I am tired." It's more of "I have no mental stamina left." Burnout involves 3 dimensions:

-       Energy depletion/exhaustion

-       Increasingly negative feelings toward the job

-       Reduced professional efficacy

Stress, uncertainty and endless work hours may leave us feeling less passionate and enthusiastic than before, and perhaps we have become more withdrawn from life. We may find it harder to show up for work each morning as nothing seems really exciting or inspiring anymore. Burned-out leaders become slow and indecisive when faced with important decisions, and feel less confident in their choices. This can result in poor decisions and missed opportunities, as well as lowered employee morale and engagement.

If left unchecked for too long, burnout can impact entire companies and spill over into family life and relationships, creating a ripple effect of damage. 

Most common sources of leadership burnout

Feelings of isolation

Leadership can be a lonely and stressful experience. You are privy to information that cannot be shared with other staff members. You have the benefit of context and framework for situations and challenges that elude most people. The feeling of isolation, pressure and weight of the load can be overwhelming. It can lead to a sense of hopelessness as well as anxiety and tension. The primary source of isolation is not so much the frequency of interactions as the lack of meaningful connections with others. A solid network of supportive peers can be of great help in these situations.

Managing People is stressful and exhausting

The difficulty in managing people is the constant climate of tension that it creates. The leader must deal with the least competent workers, the depressed, the suspicious, the rivalrous, the self-centered and the generally unhappy. He/she must succeed in reconciling these conflicting personalities into a motivated and cohesive work group. 

Next, he/she must define the group's objectives and rally everyone behind them, set priorities, defuse and resolve conflicts, and handle the frictions that arise from this constant interaction. Dealing with people is a daunting challenge, and with it comes inherent frustrations. These frustrations can – and do – drive many leaders to burnout.

Being forced to cut back on staff and demote subordinates can compound a leader's sense of burnout. Finally, employees are increasingly demanding more rights. Leaders often realize their inability to meet all of these demands, but must still respond.

The complexity of modern organizations favors ineffectiveness

The sheer complexity of modern organizations adds stress to work. The larger and more intricate organizations become, the greater the number of organizational processes and the more time it takes to get things done. Consider how frustrating it can be for a motivated manager to discover that every person or office their project passes through brings up new issues that further delay the completion of their work. When executives fail to recognize that organizational factors contribute to burnout, they run the risk of perpetuating the problem.

As companies grow, merge or undergo reorganizations, a number of executives may find themselves adrift. The sacrifices they have made in service to the organization may well prove to have little enduring meaning. As an organization's values change, a manager's commitment and desire to contribute may also evolve. The threat of obsolescence is another aspect of change that can compound feelings of burnout. When a new position or assignment requires already overworked managers to develop new skills, they may feel overwhelmed.

Talking about burnout is the best prevention 

Burnout is widely stigmatized. A 2007 study found that stigma is one of the greatest barriers to addressing mental-health issues; another, from 2020, noted that some of the perceived stigma may stem from the assumption by most people that burned-out individuals are less competent than those who are not.

CDC data show that women are much more likely to talk about mental health and seek treatment than men – exposing them to this myth of competence. Yet, even when individuals speak up and are taken seriously, the mechanisms and resources to support them often do not exist.

This lack of institutional support means workers can find themselves on the brink – especially those who are not in a position to walk away from their jobs, or seek help from their superiors.

Final thoughts

Burnout has disastrous effects in all areas of life and its detection is essential to mitigate the damage. Denial is a catalyst for burnout. Yet, mental and physical exhaustion can exacerbate denial. Seeking help is a sign of strength and good leadership practice, not a symptom of weakness. You can't lead effectively with an empty cup.

Allow yourself time to remember why you are doing what you do. What is your purpose? Why is this work so important to you? What do you hope to achieve?

For some observers, Ms. Ardern's resignation may be a sign that the discourse is shifting: leaders are now recognizing the importance of their mental health and that of their employees as a key priority.

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