Across all industries, burnout is at an all-time high but is especially prevalent for female executives. With fewer role models at the senior level to help guide you, many women struggle to transition from mid-level management to senior leadership. And while a tendency to overwork may have helped professional women establish themselves in the junior years of their careers, it is also a key contributor to executive burnout.

According to recent studies, 60% of leaders report feeling “used up” at the end of the workday. This is a common warning sign of job burnout. Let’s look at what causes burnout and how to prevent it. 

What is Burnout?

With a relentless schedule of back-to-back meetings being the norm at the leadership level, it should come as no surprise to learn that burnout often comes up in relation to work-related stress. However, while it may have some of the same symptoms, burnout does differ from daily workplace anxiety and requires different strategies to effectively overcome its effects.

The World Health Organization recently defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

In short, burnout is specifically related to a work context, not other life or personal factors. Yet, the symptoms of burnout, which can manifest as emotional and physical health problems like exhaustion, reduced professional efficacy, and negative mental health definitely impacts your quality of life. 

How to Recognize if You Have Executive Burnout

You know you are in burnout when:

You dream of escaping

 For example, you might look out the window and wish you are the window washer on the office building across the street instead of sitting in your corner office. Another common fantasy is to wish you had a minor illness; nothing major,  just sick enough to give you permission to stay home for a few weeks and get a break from the pressures of your professional life.

You feel apathy

 Once burnout becomes entrenched, apathy sets in. Apathy can manifest in a number of ways. You’ll notice you start declining meeting invites or skipping meetings unannounced. You may come to work late and leave early. Or when your phone rings, instead of jumping to see who called, you shut off the ringer and allow it to go to voicemail.

You start to settle

As burnout becomes more intense, you may begin to rationalize that churning butter in the woods or becoming a kayak instructor are better options.

Or your self-talk starts to normalize walking away with statements like “simpler will be better” “I don’t need all this” and “the money isn’t worth the trade-off”.

But let’s say you put your fantasy into action. Now you’re escaping the problem. 

And when you walk away for a “simpler life” there is a real risk that you may wake up down the road and feel panic at the hard-won success you’ve lost and resentment for those who continued to advance past you in a career you actually loved.

Executive Burnout 101

While our understanding of burnout is evolving, the concept of executive burnout was first explored in depth in a popular Harvard Business Review article in 1981. It found that most executives who were experiencing emotional exhaustion were overwhelmed with tasks that offered little reward or a clear path to success.

The article also outlined some common symptoms of burnout in executives, including

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Anger at those making demands
  • Self-criticism
  • Cynicism, negativity, and irritability
  • A sense of being besieged
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, and a weakened immune system

This information still holds true for executives experiencing burnout today. However, they are also facing new challenges in recent years. Today, 37% of executives work longer hours than they did before the pandemic. Even more alarming, 75% report mental and physical health concerns related to their job.

How to Overcome Burnout at Work

Most executives who struggle with burnout think they have a work-life balance problem. However, how to overcome burnout at work is more complex than simply “finding” work-life balance. And often the recommended strategies include working less or walking away from high-pressure roles. For executives who love their careers, there shouldn’t have to be a trade-off between your career and your personal life to alleviate burnout.

It’s completely possible for executive women to overcome burnout without the need for a drastic career change or sabbatical. Here is how executive women can overcome burnout:

  1. Play to Win: Women in leadership have a common fatal flaw; they are killing themselves trying to prove they deserve a place at the table after they already have a place at the table. This culturally ingrained behavior sets women up to fail instead of win. Recognize that you are valuable for who you are and instead of working ten times harder than your colleagues, simply show up and be authentically you. Believe it or not, that’s why they hired you.
  1. Protect Yourself: At this level, it’s your job to protect your well-being. This means you must be alert to your physical, mental, and emotional health and make sure you are taking steps toward filling your own cup. Otherwise, you’ll risk decision fatigue, imposter syndrome, and anxiety. You don’t have to adopt an all-or-nothing approach. Small, yet significant strategies that meet your needs are more than enough to keep you operating at a peak state.
  1. Resource Yourself. Whether that’s a career coach or a network of other executive women, it can be helpful to have a community that understands your struggles and can support you with proven strategies to protect yourself and your career. 

Learn more about overcoming burnout and how to revitalize your career in our latest masterclass.