Keeping the Spark Alive: How to Avoid Executive Burnout

By Susan Battley

Finding or otherwise buying “down time,” is one of the most common problems I hear from harried executives. Workload and the relentless demands of juggling multiple priorities and constituencies can be so extreme that serious “battle fatigue” ensues. Often, the first sign that something is wrong occurs when the person has an unexpected breather, and finds himself or herself unable to enjoy it.

That is just what happened to a very successful -and busy – VP of National Sales at a leading pharmaceutical firm.

“It was Saturday morning, a beautiful day, and I just felt like a zombie,” he told me. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in total brain lock. So I disappeared into my study, pretending that I had work to do. All I did was play solitaire on the damn computer. I could have played with the kids, gone jogging. . . really done anything I wanted. It was pathetic. Worse, I was pathetic!”

Burnout is often a “silent killer” of individual (and group) performance. The term is used to describe chronic feelings of fatigue, emotional numbness, and reduced productivity and satisfaction. Often, when we hear or use the word, we’re referring to transient states more akin to productivity “brownouts.” Indeed, these days many executives and managers routinely are in “brownout” state by the time Friday night rolls around. The “good” news about brownouts is that we typically recover with a day or two (or a week) off.

The plain truth is that brownouts are the price of success in today’s cyberspeed world. For some–those of the heroic, “fall on my sword for the good of the company” mentality–it is even considered a badge of distinction! However, I see more and more senior executives deliberately working smarter, not longer, and building in recharge time for themselves and their people. These are wise individuals.

Back now to those who are accruing a “brownout debt.” They’re at high risk of burning out big time because burnout is cumulative, pervasive, and often insidious.

Burnout is characterized by:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Negative feelings towards others and self
  • Reduced sense of personal accomplishment

The most common symptoms of burnout are:

  • Excessive fatigue
  • Psychosomatic complaints
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Escapist and/or self-isolating behaviors
  • Absenteeism
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Excessive drinking or eating

It’s important to know that burnout is the result of an interaction between situational (i.e., work-related) and personal characteristics. Put in other words, it is both what we do and who we are as individuals that determine our susceptibility to burnout. (Of course, this said, we need to acknowledge that certain extreme or prolonged situations would result in stress-related problems for anyone.)

Work-related burnout factors include:

  • Excessive workload
  • Unresponsive/unsupportive management
  • Inability to effect desired change or outcomes
  • Basic dissatisfaction with career or current job position

Personal characteristics associated with burnout risk include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Idealism
  • Conscientiousness
  • Heavy investment in one’s professional identity

Full-scale burnout takes months or years to develop. That’s the good news. Burnout is also reversible, though the pessimism and antipathy that are its hallmarks can require significant time to overcome.

Assessing Personal Burnout Risk

Executives who want to take a proactive, preventive approach to burnout should begin by understanding that self-awareness, self-honesty, and time are involved. Of course, here’s the first challenge and paradox: overcoming obstacles to self-awareness, self-honesty, and time.

For many of us, self-honesty–including overcoming denial– may prove the greatest obstacle, for if we truly examine our professional situations we may have to confront some unpleasant realities.
A personal assessment involves reviewing how well our needs are being met in the following areas:

  • Clearly defined work role and expectations
  • Commitment and support of direct supervisor and senior management
  • Acceptable compensation-benefits package
  • Manageable workload
  • Opportunities to grow professionally
  • Job security

Reviewing this list, and adding our own particular issues to it, is likely to create some frustration or anxiety, as we consider that neither we nor our jobs are perfect. Remember, though, that the purpose in doing this self-assessment is to evaluate burnout risk. In other words, it is important to identify what work-related factors are problematic–and perhaps toxic– for YOU. Are these intermittent or chronic in nature? Are they minor nuisances or major grievances?

Conditions that are chronic and major are most associated with burnout.

If you’re uncertain whether your self-assessment is accurate or not, consult a colleague, mentor, or counselor as a reality check.

Developing a Personal Prevention Plan

Doing a self-assessment forces us to evaluate our situations, which in turn gives us valuable information about what may need attention to optimize our performance.

Any problem areas around our professional needs should not be overlooked or minimized. Typically, these issues do not go away! Indeed, if left unaddressed, they can resurface when you are least prepared to tackle them.

A comprehensive, personalized prevention plan should incorporate a variety of strategies and techniques. Here are some to consider in developing your own plan:

Booster File

When we’re feeling emotionally depleted, a “booster file” can come in handy. This is a file that might contain thank you’s, evaluations, photos of supportive people in our lives. And don’t forget to review those plaques and certificates on the wall. Too often they assume a purely ornamental function. Review the inscriptions. Bask in the positive feedback!


Consider developing mental techniques (i.e., guided imagery) to detach from work at the end of the day and week. For example, mentally flipping off the “work switch” when we turn off the office lights and close our doors. With practice, rituals can facilitate healthy compartmentalizing and work-related concerns. This is especially helpful on Fridays (Saturdays?), to ring down the work week.


Gardening, golf, Goethe, gourmet cooking. . . really, any regular leisure activity. Hobbies are natural stress-busters. Our minds shift into “neutral” over the big things and instead take delight in the moment. Hobbies are self-indulgent, fun, and may seem silly or meaningless to others. But who says that play has to make sense?


The term here is used to describe a period of physical, mental, and spiritual recharging. While executives are constantly faced with breaking business developments, last-minute meetings, crises and narrow windows of opportunity, it’s important to treat vacations as business investments that pay dividends in terms of sustainable productivity, creativity and innovative reflection, and professional re-centering.

Personal Support System

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (6/25/97) described the positive health effects directly associated with having a broad social network. Cultivating friendships is an antidote to what the Wall Street Journal termed–tongue in cheek–“personal life deficit disorder.”

It’s important to have trusted friends or advisors to act as a reality check. Professional counselors can also be helpful in assessing negative factors of work performance and personal satisfaction.


An often overlooked consequence of the high tech revolution is that while we have created this phenomenal digital, networked world, our “creation” has also recreated us. The “24/7” economy and instantaneous flow of mind-numbing amounts of information have turned us into a rapid response society. Temporary deferral of one’s needs is a fact of life; chronic deferral or denial creates stress and tension (physical and mental) that kills executive productivity and–more importantly– the people themselves. Smart managers recognize the high cost of burnout, and lead by example. Business and career high performance is a long-term endeavor; executives need to model themselves after the marathoner and not the sprinter.

Copyright © Susan Battley, PsyD PhD. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.