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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Leadership and Burnout

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #113
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In my earlier days as a High School Assistant Principal, during a post-observation conference with George, an English teacher with about twenty-five years of experience, he shared with me that he was feeling "burnout." At that time, in my mind, when someone said they were burnout, they couldn't do it (whatever it is) anymore and were planning to do something else. When I shared George's comment with the Principal, he said, " How can he be burned out – he has never been lit!" Although there may be a connection between feeling burnout and never being lit, for some, burnout is real. Now I understand that burnout occurs when a person is emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted, which is caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

I asked a superintendent colleague of mine, who had just announced his retirement, how he knew it was the right time. He explained that he felt completely exhausted and burned out; none of his usual optimism about the work remained; instead, he'd become negative and cynical. It was so unlike him - I wondered if something could have been done to prevent this melancholy ending to a career he had enjoyed.

Burnout Causes

Anyone in a leadership role can relate to feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. There are two significant aspects of leader burnout to consider: recognizing the symptoms in oneself and recognizing –and helping– those demonstrating signs of exhaustion. This article focuses on the leaders, but similar strategies can be used for others.

The following are some disturbing data:

  1. Most leaders--65% to be precise--rarely or never use their total holiday allowance.

  2. Most leaders--56%--aren't getting enough sleep, an average of seven to eight hours.

  3. Nearly half often don't have time for lunch or are too stressed out from work to bother.

  4. Almost half believe burnout has negatively impacted their relationships with others.

Job burnout can be caused by numerous things, like:

  1. No control over your job. Having no say in work hours, assignments, and workload could eventually burn you out. Likewise, having a lack of resources needed to carry out the day-to-day tasks.

  2. Unclear job expectations. Not knowing what is expected of you or your authority will make you feel uncomfortable at work.

  3. Workplace conflict. Having to deal with someone who bullies or undermines others or a boss who scrutinizes everything you do is stressful and impacts job satisfaction.

  4. Too much activity or too little. When a job is static or turbulent, it requires extra energy to stay focused, which can result in overworking and fatigue.

  5. Lack of support system. Without an adequate amount of socializing with colleagues and friends outside the workplace, stress naturally increases.

  6. Unbalanced life priorities. When most of your time and effort goes towards work, this can easily lead to exhaustion. ~ Mayo Clinic Research

Burnout Symptoms

Burnout Symptoms Self-Assessment

  1. Feeling utterly worn out and depleted: Weariness is one of the most common indicators of burnout, where people experience constant fatigue; even after sleeping properly, Leaders could find it tough to fire themselves up.

  2. Lessened proficiency: Burnout will usually lead to a drop in a leader's performance, productivity, and work quality. Their minds may drift, and they can become easily distracted or fail to make decisions.

  3. Increasing negative attitude: People suffering from burnout often appear more negative and dispirited. They may become despondent about their job or workplace and view their role as lacking value.

  4. Absence of drive: Burnout can cause a loss of enthusiasm for their occupation and decrease the motivation to complete tasks.

  5. Health issues: Prolonged stress can trigger physical ailments such as headaches, digestive problems, and insomnia. Also, burnout might cause nervousness, dejection, or other mental health difficulties. ~ Mayo Clinic Research

Preventing Leadership Buronout

My research highlighted a few key ways to prevent leadership burnout.

  1. Self-Care: Leaders must remember to care for themselves and make time for activities that bring them joy, such as exercise, hobbies, and loved ones.

  2. Setting Boundaries: Leaders should know their limits and not take on too much work. Learning how to say "no" and delegating tasks when necessary is essential.

  3. Time Management: Effectively allocating time helps leaders stay focused, avoid feeling overwhelmed by projects, prioritize tasks, and break large assignments into smaller chunks aids in this endeavor.

  4. Support System: Establishing a supportive network of family members, friends, or colleagues can help to ward off burnout. Seeking guidance from mentors or coaches is another valuable option to consider.

  5. Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices like meditation or deep breathing exercises help reduce stress and improve focus to prevent burning out.

I'm grateful to say that I never felt burnout throughout my career. However, I did become bored with the usual routines and the traditional ways of doing things; this could explain why I changed positions five times in thirty-five years. Now I understand that burnout is an actual thing that can occur as a result of leading others and organizations.

Leadership roles require one to always stay on top of their game. A successful leader can identify burnout early and take steps to mitigate it. Burnout and its related physical, mental, and emotional fatigue can be prevented. The effects of feeling stressed and exhausted will have a negative impact on both the leader and the organization. Self-care, setting realistic goals, delegating jobs, and seeking assistance from peers and colleagues can help avoid such circumstances.


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