What I learned from surviving CEO burnout


Burnout is one of the few mental disorders recognised by Work Safe Australia as directly caused by too much work; and it contributes to a $20 billion “stress bill” businesses foot each year. Through the ubiquitous smart phone, leaders are always connected to work when at home, and when on leave.

In my role as CEO of a large community organisation I gladly spent myself, day and night, in the service of others. The organisation flourished, but I was increasingly spending too much time working and not giving enough care to myself or my marriage. My wife began to resent that I was often coming home late. On a day off I would be tired and have little energy for her and our family. Without realising it fully, I was saying ‘Yes’ to people in the work environment and ‘No!’ to my marriage and family.

It finally got to the point where I was unable to relax away from work. I felt restless and irritable, and forgot how to spend meaningful time alone. I was too used to responding to the needs of people. At the same time, I felt terribly isolated, and longed for deeper intimacy. Much of this I only understood later upon reflection. I was burned out to the point where I made some poor decisions that led to me needing to resign my position. I also lost my marriage.

As a burnout survivor (more than 10 years now), here are five lessons I have learned about burnout:

  1. Burnout sneaks up on you – It’s not obvious. I was functioning quite well outwardly. Colleagues did not discern there is an issue. I knew there were issues, but I did not think it was anything I could not handle. Looking back, I was in denial. It did not hit me all at once. I was just slowly caving in on the inside. [Antidote: schedule time for you every day – e.g. walk 5-10,000 steps, take a lunch break]
  2. It is cumulative – I worked hard, pushed through, and bounced back from setbacks, and disappointments. I learned I had to toughen up to be successful. However, I did not have any healthy way to process the growing toll on my emotions. Over time, my resilience weakened. [Antidote: set up monthly professional supervision for your role]
  3. Burnout is isolating – I became numb on the inside. My capacity for empathy and compassion was at zero. I just had no emotional energy left. I felt alone. And, the politics around my senior role made it very difficult to be vulnerable and share my burnout symptoms. I got to the dangerous point where I did not care enough anymore. [Antidote: Build a close circle of 2 to 3 friends who know you and can read you well, who will say it like it is]
  4. Making changes is hard – Because I was largely in denial, and felt unable to share my inner struggles with anyone, it was almost impossible to make the changes required to avoid a crash landing. This is why I now strongly encourage busy business people to engage an experienced mentor before you have a problem. A mentor will help you maintain clear perspective, to process painful decisions or traumatic events; and to assist you to discover and co-operate with your own natural life rhythms. [Antidote: hire a mentor]
  5. Burnout distorts your view – The dynamics of senior positions make perspective very difficult. We are most blind to ourselves, no matter how insightful towards others. Our identity so easily becomes entangled with our position. No job is worth losing yourself, your way, your values, your self-respect. [Antidote: get involved in an enjoyable activity outside work that keeps you grounded, e.g. team sport, bushwalking club, book club, et al]

In my new life as a Business Mentor, I’ve been doing things very differently. I still work hard, but my new wife and I have self-care strategies in place that protect us from hurting ourselves. I am seeking to cooperate with my natural life rhythms. I have people in my life who know me well and are empowered to ask me tough questions about how I am going behind the smile.

We can all still work hard and seek to make a difference, but we also need to take the time to look after ourselves.

About the author

John Drury is a Business Mentor, speaker and author of ‘INTEGRATE – why work-life balance is a myth and what you really need to create a fulfilling lifestyle’. To connect with John go to www.johndrury.biz and follow him on Twitter @JDBizMentor and Instagram @JDBizMentor