Focus on Executive Burnout
Feeling disenfranchised from your work or feeling that your identity is being negated in your current role are classic symptoms of executive burnout.
‘We are seeing more cases of burnout, but we’re not always identifying it,’ says Dr Richard Sherry of Addcounsel. ‘There is a presenting problem, too. We’re not always identifying it correctly as either an acute or chronic condition.’
One thing that hasn’t been given sufficient attention, he believes, is that there is a wide spectrum of burnout. ‘There is a gender variance in how some of these things are expressed in terms of risk-taking and also internalisation or depression. Classically, there is a difference between a male executive who is disenfranchised and losing interest in his work or family and a female executive. The spectrum ranges from persons going on cocaine and champagne binges to persons who are just veering slightly off the rails.
‘If you are a business leader who’s dysfunctional, it is going to trickle down and have this ripple effect on your organisation and family. If you sense that you’re beginning to lose interest in your work, that you’re not your usual self, you need to think about it proactively.’
Dr Sherry was born in the US, but has been working in the UK for 20 years. A consultant chartered clinical psychologist, he has six areas of expertise ranging from trauma through to executive coaching. He understands that business leaders cannot be seen to be weak or vulnerable, but he thinks ‘the Teflon notion of leadership and identity is beginning to change, for good reason. Mental health is supremely important. The more that we don’t have this notion that it is static and doesn’t fluctuate, and the more that we don’t shame or stigmatise sufferers, the more we will all benefit. We need to have an honest and compassionate conversation in which we change the HNW community’s hypernorms.’
The human waste involved, given how long it takes someone to train and to learn the organisational culture, should be enough to make any business realise that doing nothing about burnout should not be an option. ‘If a company does pastoral care correctly, it is less likely that dysfunctional leadership will create a toxic environment and less likely that it will lead to haemorrhaging of other skilled workers. If burnout issues can be worked through, the potential gains so far outweigh the challenges. The upside is enormous.’
Treatment depends on the specific needs of the individual, which is why Addcounsel uses a bespoke model. ‘You need the expertise to understand whether it’s an offensive or defensive situation. Is the person in meltdown and in desperate need of containment because of an addiction; or is it merely a situation where friends and family are noticing that things are a little bit off?’
Should an executive seek time off from work in order to address mental health issues? It depends on how bad things are, says Sherry. ‘I like to see if the person can work. I think a good Protestant work ethic is helpful. However, sometimes that’s not advisable. How do you “titrate down” if someone has a significant work addiction? You can have all sorts of addictions. Drugs and alcohol are just the tip of the iceberg. One can have a dysfunctional relationship with more or less any behaviour, including work. How do you manage the situation when it is not just a matter of the individual’s identity and wellbeing but also of their responsibility to their colleagues, on whom a dysfunctional leader will have a knock-on effect?
‘What we have understood is that a burn-out is not just like a star exploding, as there is a full panoply of different manifestations. We can reverse many of those issues, oftentimes to huge positive benefit.’
With manifestations of burnout involving drug abuse there is an additional fear of exposure that might cause the ruin of an individual’s business reputation and career. This, in turn, can generate massive anxiety and can sometimes paradoxically invite exposure in the form of a classic cry for help.
‘There are many ruptures or triggers – the loss of a parent, a diagnosis of cancer (even when not life-threatening) or an extra-marital affair. Burnout comes from so many different things. We need to understand the dangers of bottling things up and just getting on with it. It is far better to address the problem and treat it, otherwise worse issues are likely to arise. Having a pro-active culture is vital.’