Are business leaders in danger of burnout?

Report highlights sobering numbers around high-level managers and how they are coping

Are business leaders in danger of burnout?

We have all read the stories and heard from our colleagues that employee burnout during the pandemic is a real and measurable thing — but is this risk the same for managers?

Yes, if not more, according to the results of a LifeWorks Research Group and Deloitte Canada study that found 82 per cent of leaders surveyed have experienced a form of exhaustion that could manifest itself as burnout.

The research came about after surveys showed frontline managers, in many areas, were doing worse than the average employee, says Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president, research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks in Toronto.

“Their mental health scores were lower, which is different than it was pre-pandemic [and] they were feeling much more apt to want to consider leaving their organizations,”

The survey spoke with 1,158 senior leaders from 11 organizations in both the  public and private sectors, of which 66 per cent were from Canada.

For a senior member of Deloitte, the scale of the results was unexpected.

“Leaders are suffering from more stress and it’s flipped around from pre-pandemic — the triangle was inverted the other way,” says Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor, future of work, at Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

“We all have stress and lots of people have anxiety, but normally, because leaders have more control over their environments, they’re better than the rest of the workforce and this was actually not the case now. That inversion was a surprise to us.”

The report, Inspiring Insights: Wellbeing and resilience in senior leaders, also showed other alarming health statistics: 59 per cent of leaders said they cannot relax; 49 per cent have trouble getting to sleep; and 43 per cent feel more irritable than they were pre-pandemic.

‘COVID, that’s a perfect storm’

But why is this effect happening so acutely to senior leaders?

A lack of control and uncertainty could be two factors, says Glen Sollors, partner at Kwela Leadership, an executive coaching and training consultancy in Vancouver, citing the research of Gabor Maté, a physician based in Vancouver who researched how people process stress, and what happens to their bodies and immune systems.

“What he says is that stress is caused by a lack of control, that’s number one; number two is a lack of certainty, so things are uncertain and also not having a say in the matter of things. What I’m finding with COVID is that’s a perfect storm,” says Sollors.

While lack of control could be one of the main reasons causing burnout, the overwhelming “emotional exhaustion” also plays an outsized role, according to Allen.

“Leaders are suffering from more stress and it’s flipped around from pre-pandemic [when] the triangle was inverted the other way.”

“When you are in a state of strain for a long period of time, in the beginning, you can have adrenaline, but at a certain point, that adrenaline wears thin; you can’t sustain it, so you feel depleted, you feel exhausted. You haven’t lost motivation, but it’s harder for you to experience feeling motivated because you just don’t have that energy.”

Workload increased

Workload was also highlighted as a big issue, with 68 per cent of the leaders surveyed reporting an increase in the volume of work since COVID-19 struck.

“This then connects to one of our findings in the research, which is around the importance of peer relationships,” says Hirji.

The report found that 32 per cent reported deteriorated relationships with peers and, of those, 65 per cent said they had experienced worsened mental health.

“We’ve seen the relationships, the deterioration — and so how organizations actually think about that to go from… empathy, and whether it’s leaders or peers… saying, ‘OK, I understand that your workload is too high,’ but compassion is saying, ‘I understand your workload is too high and here’s what we can do about it and actually make it better,’” says Hirji.

Coming in just below workload as a top stressor was not being able to adequately support the workforce, as cited by 62 per cent of leaders.

“What’s happening as well is people want to be given the work. However, the leader might hang onto it because they want to meet expectations, [so] that’s also causing more stress for leaders... [whether it’s] an unwillingness to delegate or ‘I feel bad about my team, they have already have a lot of work, I don’t want to give them more work,’” says Sollors. “A lot of leaders are afraid to give extra work to their employees because they don’t want them to stress out.”

“Even the smallest things in communication through Zoom and Zoom fatigue and missing a whole bunch of body language — that can also have a huge impact on the leader. ‘Are they are they engaged? Are they doing other work? Are they really present?’” he says.

The added decision-making and the complexity of the decision-making add to the level of worry, which mirrors what caregivers have been going through, says Allen.

“They’re very concerned about the wellbeing of their people and the feeling that they need to support their people is correct, but they’re doing it in an unknown context because the strain is a lot higher. That kind of responsibility is similar to what we’ve seen with parents… because they’re also concerned about the wellbeing of their children and taking actions towards that and trying to mitigate that is similar with senior leaders in the whole workforce.”

Coaching, self-care

To help mitigate this stress on leaders, coaching and training is one of the better new ideas that is being employed, according to Hirji.

“Many organizations provide leadership coaching, which is like a personal trainer for leaders. I have seen some organizations [provide] personal coaching around work-life and helping people address concerns, make choices, helping them stay on track, keeping them motivated, recognizing successes and shifting some of their resources into that space — and they’re having some success with it.”

What would help many leaders, says Sollors, is educating them about new ideas on what makes a successful leader in the COVID world.

“There needs to be some sort of training around even having empathetic conversations: ‘How do I have a conversation with my employee [and] get to know them a bit better, understand what their struggles are?’ Even a certain element of self-compassion is really important, by taking it easy on ourselves, looking at what are those things that I really demand about who I am, having that self-awareness? How is that helping me during these times? How is it hindering me during these times? A lot of leaders like to be driven and like to control things but if all of a sudden, that’s not there anymore, you just don’t have the same means of doing, it can be very stressful because you’re losing a piece of you that you relied on in the past.”

And looking after themselves is also critical, according to Allen, especially in light of the finding that 55 per cent believed they would face a negative stigma around their own careers if anybody discovered they had mental health problems.

“A lot of leaders are afraid to give extra work to their employees because they don’t want them to stress out.”

“Self-care is important for these leaders as well because it’s hard for them to support anybody else without actually supporting their own mental wellbeing… a lot of these senior leaders don’t necessarily feel the permission to take care of themselves in the way that they’re supporting others. They feel that the rules are a little bit different for them, they feel that they will be subject to greater stigma, none of which is necessarily true, but it is their perception and it does shape behaviour,” says Allen.


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