Last updated: June 4

CEOs, and the loneliness of burnout—knowing when to leave

Burnout: When is it time for a change?

The emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that burnout brings heightens the thought of ‘is it time for me to go’? Burnout is common and it can feel hopeless. Consider this last year and a half alone — COVID-19 has disrupted the life of so many.

This blog doesn't discuss COVID-19, specifically — adding to the nonstop chatter of burnout. What we will point out is that in some cases and for some people, Covid has been a blessing in disguise — the final straw for an already challenging reality.


Stressed CEO


Disclaimer — this blog offers experiences and perspectives surrounding burnout, based on our experiences. We are not suggesting our readers leave their employment: We hold the stance that this decision is ultimately up to the individual and their family.

We are also not mental health experts and we encourage individuals to pursue assistance with the appropriate professionals.

What does burnout look like?

Burnout will feel different for everyone. That said, we believe many CEOs find it difficult to ignore because it generally doesn't start and end with work — even though it may start there. 

Christina Caron from New York Times wrote, "A survey of over 5,000 employees conducted last year [2020] by the advocacy group Mental Health America found that 83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from work and 71 percent strongly agreed that the workplace affects their mental health."

This is obvious to me. How about you?

Christina quotes Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis: “Everyone has some awareness of their baseline functioning at work,” said Dr. Jessi. "So if you start to notice you’re losing interest in your job or your productivity plummets, it’s an indication that something is off.

For example, you might notice that you dread starting work each day, or you feel so anxious that you have trouble thinking about everything that you’re supposed to do. Perhaps your emails are piling up and you aren’t communicating with people as much as you typically would. If you’re feeling ineffective in your job, you may also start to engage in more negative self-talk, like: 'I’m no good at my job anyway. I’m useless,' Dr. Gold said.

An even bigger warning sign that work is affecting your mental health is if work tanks your mood to the point that it starts to damage your personal relationships. For example, you might find that you’re picking more fights with your partner, becoming more irritated by your children or avoiding social activities in ways that you normally wouldn’t."

Source: Christina Caron, When Your Job Harms your Mental Health, New York Times, June 2, 2021.

Unhappy at work
Determining if it’s a phase, situational, or simply your reality

There could be many reasons for your sense of unfulfillment and/or stress around work. A good way to nail down the problems is through process of elimination. Consider all of the components in your work — commute, culture, community, responsibility, budget, restrictions, compensation, health care, etc. — and determine which ones you don't have angst around. Eliminate those. Once you are left with a list of the problem areas, you can start to determine if it is something you have control over or not. You can also rank the problems to help you decide if it is something you can live with or absolutely not.

If it is a phase or a specific situation, a conversation with your board and/or team can be helpful. If it's just the reality of the company and it isn't something in your control, it might be time to begin planning your exit. 

Rachel O’Meara from New York Times wrote, “Although I was burned out, I thought I was doing a good job. My manager felt otherwise and tried to give me constructive feedback. But my ego just wouldn’t allow me to hear what she was saying.

Finally, my manager took me aside one day and said: “You are not a fit for this role. You should think about what’s next for you.”

You might think that this story ended with me leaving the company. But fortunately, Google is one of a minority of companies that offer unpaid leaves of absence not related to family or medical issues. After my manager’s accurate appraisal, I put together a case for the company to allow me a three-month leave.

The leave — or pause, as I came to call it — allowed me to reassess my path and take stock of my strengths and my goals. I returned to Google three months later with a new job and a new outlook.

Detaching from work is one way to pause but pausing is also a change in mind-set. I define a pause as any intentional shift in behavior.

My experience with taking a career pause made me realize how valuable it can be for both employers and employees.”

Source: Rachel O'Meara, Instead of Leaving a Job, Why Not Take a Pause?, New York Times, January 27, 2017. 

Is it something I can fix?

Evaluating your role in an unhappy circumstance is an important step. It will provide a sense of comfort if the ultimate decision is to leave because you have exhausted all avenues surrounding accountability. If it isn't a you problem and you've done your best, it will be easier to walk away without regrets and/or resentment.

Hare are a couple of strategies for assessing your part in an unfulfilling role include:

  1. Taking your performance review seriously. Constructive feedback is imperative in your professional development. If you are lacking purpose and focus in your current role, your team, coach, mentor, or leader may have some professional advice to help you make a necessary shift. You can ask for a performance review outside of the allotted, annual timing for such a discussion as well.

    Remember, you don't know what you don't know — meaning there might be a board opportunity or special project that your board is considering you for and that might be the welcomed change you're looking for.

    In our work with our clients, we provide a 360Reach survey to help collect constructive feedback on CEOs' behavior and performance. It's entirely anonymous (and candid) which provides comfort to both the giver and receiver of the honest feedback.

  2. Behavioral assessments can also be crucial in determining whether the issues at work are within your control or not. Sometimes there can two brilliant individuals who have a lot to offer the company, but their personalities do not fit well together. Awareness is key here — understanding the root of the problem will provide insight into next steps.

    We use DISC with our clients to help determine their adapted behavior compared to their preferred (comfortable) behavior. We use it in the early stages of working with clients to get a better understanding of who they are, how they react, and what they respond poorly/well to. This gives insight into which roles, companies, and environments they would work best in and feel happiest to best support their family and their organization in the long term.
thoughtful executive
How do you know it’s time to go?

Here are a handful of questions you can ask yourself as you evaluate your next steps:

  • Has a new board member or chairperson created an uneasy culture?
  • Are you asked to execute on plans you don’t agree with at a personal-values level?
  • Are your decision-making and level of authority being undermined?
  • Do you feel there are market-facing risks (potential data breaches, evironmental non-compliance, or employee safety) the board or investor is ignoring putting you, your employees, or your customers at risk?
  • Has your career become cumbersome to you? Are you still being challenged in the ways that count?
  • Are you receiving credit where credit is due?
  • Are you being given access to appropriate budgets for landing your targeted goals?
  • Have you been denied your retention bonus?
  • Have you been in the same position, giving it your all, for too long?
  • Do you have work-life harmony?
  • Has your family life become strained due to your current role?
  • Are your skillsets and abilities being put to good use?
  • Are you happy?
  • Sometimes, it's just time to go.

    We work with many executives who have been in the same role for "too long" and are ready for a change. Leaving an organization that has been good to you, but you have simply outgrown is a difficult decision to make.

    You may feel guilty at the thought of leaving your organization, your board, and your team after a long and once-happy career. Deciding to stay or deciding to leave is a service we help our clients decide, and we’ve written about Loyalty and the CEO Job Hunt based on the experiences of the thousands of clients we’ve served over the last decade.

    Planning your exit is an important strategy and can impact your relationship with your board and your team in the long term and impact your career brand. We’ve written about exit strategy recently!

    Mitigating the fear in making the decision to leave

    Take comfort in knowing this is more common than you might realize. Westgate has seen it time and time again. The good news? It isn’t forever and we can learn from others because it is so common. We provide career management services that will help you in not just this transition, but also future transitions. In other words, our programs have a long shelf-life. 

    While we, and anyone else cannot make the decision for you, we can offer our opinion — that of which is based on client success in our own firm. Create a plan.

    We always tell our clients, “work on your career while you are in your career”. Once you hit a point in your current role where you’ve either outgrown it, given all you have to it, or simply don’t enjoy it anymore, you need to have a plan in place.

    There is a future opportunity for you somewhere else and you need to be well positioned for both finding it and landing the position.

    Case study

    Simon worked for the same company in tech for nearly 10 years. What had originally started out as a great step in his career, quickly began to unravel as unfulfilling through lack of recognition, proper budget plans for his targeted goals, and movement for overcoming developmental challenges.

    Finally, after hearing not only that he was once again denied his proposed budget, but also not receiving a bonus (part of his overall compensation package) despite hitting his targets, Simon decided to make a plan.

    Through the Career Navigator program with Westgate, Simon is targeting a new role with a new company. He is focusing on his branding (most importantly, his value proposition) and all of the assets that come with that, behavioral assessments, leveraging his network, and targeting companies that fit his ideal company profile.

    With the support of our coaching and strategic career marketing, Simon will continue to work in his current role, while making plans behind the scenes allowing us to do the heavy lifting to mitigate risk of instability, uncertainty, and burnout.

    If you are facing uncertainty in your career, contact us today for a complimentary no-strings-attached conversation about your future (maddison@westgatecareercoaching.com).

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    Maureen Farmer

    About executive resume writing author 

    Westgate - Maureen Farmer

    Maureen Farmer is the Founder & CEO of Westgate Executive Branding & Career Consulting Inc., an international personal branding and career consulting firm delivering premier executive branding and career consulting services for high-profile leaders. Author of The CEO Script Vault: Job Search Scripts for Busy Executives, Maureen believes that when we’re doing work aligned with our values, everyone wins. Using the law of attraction to identify quality employers utilizing the hidden job market is a cornerstone of her career management strategy.

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