Features 01.01.2023

CEO Burn-out: Half a Minute From Death

Burn-out is often a CEO’s dirty little secret. Eleanor Dallaway investigates

A combination of long to-do lists, increased risk and a specific personality type means that burnout can strike down even the most resilient CEO. Eleanor Dallaway investigates

“I was snorting coke off porcelain in a strip club at 5 AM, rocking straight up to work two hours later, and I still didn’t realise I was burnt out.” For obvious reasons, this British CEO wants to remain anonymous. “Why did I do it?” he smiles sadly, “because I thought I deserved it. I was working hard, so I played harder.”

Burn-out is no longer an alien concept, but it is often a CEO’s dirty little secret, a condition they’re more than happy to hide or bury, even from themselves.

Although it’s not classified as a medical condition by the World Health Organisation, it is named an occupational phenomenon, and in more extended form: “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO characterises burn-out by three dimensions: Energy depletion or exhaustion, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

Like many mental health conditions, however, the shades of grey are plentiful and burn-out means different things to different people. Speaking to ten CEOs for this article, the phrase “chronic stress” was batted around frequently, and exhaustion, brain fog, compromised immune systems, insomnia, weight gain, and anger issues were all symptoms touted.

Chris Federspiel is the CEO and founder of Blackthorn.io. “Burn-out is an over-investment in anything other than the self,” he summaries, “it means ego depletion.” Suppose you’re not familiar with the concept of ego depletion. In that case, you’re not alone, so to explain: Ego depletion is the theory that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once we run out of that energy, we’re more likely to lose self-control.

The loss of self-control often manifests and presents itself in anger. “When I was burnt out, I had a short fuse,” admits Federspiel. “Things that shouldn’t have bothered me really annoyed and angered me. I was really hard to be around.”

Thom Langford is CISO for DXC Technology. His own experience with burn-out and mental health was infused with bursts of anger. “I became numb to the things I should care about and overly passionate or angry about the things I shouldn’t. I used to think work was the most important thing, and everything became nothing or huge. It [burn-out] is the flipping of emotions.”

“I was snorting coke off porcelain in a strip club at 5 AM, rocking straight up to work two hours later, and I still didn’t realise I was burnt out” British CEO 

Many CEOs interviewed for this article confessed that they’d suppress anger and frustration in the workplace to then have it rear its ugly head at home and in their personal lives.

There’s one final piece of theory to take care of before we go back to the porcelain at 5 AM, and that’s the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe studied the links between stress and illness. They produced The Social Readjustment Rating Scale to measure the impact of significant life events. The scale is a list of 43 common life events, which are each weighted with a score. The higher the combined score, the more likely the patient would become ill. Of those 43 life events listed, nine are work-related.

Why burn-out strikes

If there’s one thing that was almost unanimously agreed on by all of the CEOs interviewed, it is this: CEOs and entrepreneurs, by their very nature, have a predisposition for burn-out. They’re high-achievers, always aspiring for perfection, striving for bigger and better, and more often than not, they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get there. Sadly, ‘whatever it takes’ is often the cost of their mental health, or at least a version of burn-out.

For serial entrepreneur Fred Schebesta, CEO and founder of global fintech Finder, burn-out is an inevitable part of his life, and he’s kind of OK with that. In fact, he’s more than OK with that. “I don’t think burn-out is necessarily a bad thing,” he muses, somewhat controversially, “I use it to push myself harder and create innovations. But I understand it’s not for everyone.”

“The positions we hold as CEOs and senior executives are high-accountability and high-consequence positions,” explains Nik Whitfield, founder, chairman and former CEO of an enterprise security company, Panaseer. “That’s what drives the level of stress,” he says. As CEO of a cybersecurity company, Whitfield understands the additional layer of stress that fear of cyber incident brings to the modern CEO (see box-out for more on this.)

“Being a CEO is the loneliest job on the planet.” These are the words of Anthony Webb, now CEO of BrainSparx, and former CEO of Cho-Yung Tea, a weight loss tea that made him a multi-millionaire. They could also be – and were – the words of many of the CEOs interviewed. “As CEO, you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable because you fear your staff will panic and leave, and you don’t feel like you can open up at home because your other half will say, ‘should you be doing this then?’”

Webb explains that humans are a tribal species, and our biggest fear is not belonging. “As CEO, you are the leader of your tribe, and there’s a strong fear of rejection from the tribe if you’re not seen as doing the right thing.”

“It’s a lonely job because you have ultimate responsibility: for the bottom line; for your team; for the shareholders,” agrees Whitfield. “The CEO only reports to the board, and looking after the CEO isn’t top of their agenda. We are programmed in education and industry to minimise personal issues. Good workers shouldn’t complain; they should never miss work. Yes, a good work ethic is important, but so is the awareness of how you are.”

“I use [burn-out] to push myself harder and create innovations. But I understand it’s not for everyone.” Fred Schebesta

“The loneliest part of being a CEO is when things look dismal,” adds Federspiel. “The building is falling around you, and you don’t know what to do – it’s your decision and yours alone.”

Federspiel recently entered a mini depression when, in the wake of hiring a VP of finance, “the last of the critical roles that needed to be filled” he found openings in his work calendar and an easing of pressure that left him feeling lost. “Suddenly, there were no meetings that I had to have. The CEO’s role is to find money, point the ship and then hire better people and get out of the way. I felt like I needed a new purpose; I entered a mini depression.”

Running from the fear of failure

There’s no denying that entrepreneurs and CEOs are highly motivated individuals, but there are two motivation drivers, fear and attraction, and only one of these serves people well in the longer term. Webb explains further: “I was running on fear motivation alone. As a kid, I had nothing. As I grew into an adult, I never wanted my kids to go through what I did, so I was living in fear of them (and myself) missing out. Every time I went for the next hit, be that a house, car or holiday, all I was doing was running away from the fear of failure.”

Fear motivation means you’re never set up to achieve what you want to because the fear is always there, meaning there is no sense of achievement, self-purpose or self-confidence. “Fear is only good for short-term motivation, the basic instinct is what keeps us alive, but it’s not a long-term strategy. Fear motivation is what burns us out,” continues Webb. His burn-out led him to a place so “hollow and dark” that he speaks of being “half a minute away from suicide.” Tragically, this isn’t the only dance with death shared during these interviews. Langford, too, shares his experience of ending up on a rooftop in Rome at 5 AM “incoherent with emotion, raging at the universe, and willing myself to jump off.” Thankfully, he was talked down.

It’s hard to see the red flag when you are the red flag

As is true of most illnesses and crises, the earlier the issue is identified, the higher the chance of prevention or remedy. So, what are the red flags of burn-out?

“When CEOs start slipping towards burn-out, they try to do more. Self-care starts to fall away, and the business starts to consume who they are,” explains Em Stroud, CEO leadership coach. “Often no-one will have asked a CEO if they’re burnt out, or even if they’re OK. Those without a coach or a mentor can go two or three years without anyone checking in on them.” No wonder it’s so lonely at the top.

Whilst mental health symptoms often go ignored, many CEOs describe themselves as having been “blindly unaware” of the severity of their burn-out, lacking any understanding of their state. However, physical symptoms can be harder to ignore, and Federspiel recalls getting sick “all the time” in start-up mode. “I’d get colds for weeks, get better for a few weeks, and then I’d be sick again. My eye constantly twitched when I was stressed out, and that was all the time,” Federspiel admits. He adds that he recently took his first week off in seven years.

If healthy mechanisms for handling burn-out aren’t implemented, then unhealthy mechanisms are developed. Examples of healthy mechanisms include exercise, sleep, meditation, downtime away from the office or any device that connects you to the office. Unhealthy mechanisms are typically vices, with a further concern of vices evolving into addiction. Drinking, smoking, excessive spending, excessive risk-taking, and a party lifestyle are all familiar mechanisms, with alcohol the most common. Of the ten CEOs interviewed, three have decided to abstain entirely from alcohol, recognising the damage it was doing.

If healthy mechanisms for handling burn-out aren’t implemented, then unhealthy mechanisms are developed.

Finder CEO, Schebesta stopped drinking three years ago. “I didn’t like the effect it had on me afterwards. I was dehydrated, had a lower mood, and was less productive the next day,” he says.

Langford, too, has embraced the T-Total life. “There was lots of alcohol everywhere. It was freely available: at the airport, on the plane, on expenses. Drinking was part of my mental gymnastics to justify my behaviour to myself.”

Em Stroud acknowledges that alcohol is often used as medication by Western leaders. “It’s seen as an acceptable crutch. It’s used as permission to disengage – if you’ve had a drink, you can’t send a work email, so it’s permission to self to switch off.”

Lonely at the top

Let’s circle back to the concept of being the leader of the tribe and the stigma that the CEO role can hold. There’s an inherent pressure to be seen as the boss, the leader, the one in control.  Langford admits he was hyper-aware of that stigma. “I didn’t want anyone to think less of me or dismiss me as a professional. I felt like it would damage my reputation.”

“That CEO stigma extends into your personal life, too,” adds Webb. “Friends and family assume you’ve nailed life, and as such, it’s rare that you can have a candid conversation with a peer or even a friend. There’s just a pressure to be OK.”

Replacing stigma with the responsibility to lead by example would not only benefit the CEO but their entire staff and business culture. Tom Witcherley is the director and co-founder of Make Agency and believes that by looking after yourself, you look after your team. “As leaders, we are much more conscious about burn-out and its effects on our team and our leaders. It’s our responsibility to look after our teams, but also ourselves.”

“I was on a rooftop in Rome, incoherent with emotion, raging at the universe, and willing myself to jump off.”Thom Langford

Panaseer’s Whitfield led by example when he decided to pass on the CEO baton and switch roles to chairman. The decision was partly business driven, but also partly personal. “I was a single parent half the time in lockdown, and it was a challenge to do that [the CEO role] and look after my kids to a level I was happy with. I was travelling too much, too.” The interview with Whitfield has a hard stop as he is committed to the school run. “That’s just my boundary,” he explains, adding, “it’s a great example to set.

“I realised early on that I needed a lot of help, so pretending I didn’t would only end in tears. I brought in an in-house therapist who everyone at Panaseer can access once a month for free.” Whitfield is a fantastic example of leading by example and setting a culture with no stigma around burn-out; it’s OK not to be OK and to make adjustments as required.

The board and senior leadership team are the only people in a position to create a culture of burn-out, explains Stroud, which she strongly advises against. “As leaders, it’s your responsibility to find the lightness, levity, and space to stop people from burning out. Words are easy, but your staff will judge you by your behaviour. If you don’t take holidays, your team won’t. If you don’t walk away from your desk, your team won’t. Remember, productivity goes up when teams take stock and take breaks. The really smart leaders know to do things differently.”

Put your own oxygen mask on first

It’s one of those unfortunate ironies in life that when you need your brain the most, it shuts down. During stress, the brain shuts off the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, strengthening the emotional and habitual responses of the amygdala and basal ganglia. In other words, it’s often impossible to see a way out when you’re in the thick of burn-out.

Identifying burn-out, says Witcherley, means you are “already on the way to fixing the problem. Give yourself time to take yourself out of the situation and allow your brain to switch off,” he advises.

Webb expands on this, referring to the circle of awareness. “Awareness has to come first, followed by understanding, ownership, action and eventually change. GPs are often happy to sign off happy pills, but they don’t treat the cause.”

Boundary setting is one of the pillars of awareness. High-achievers tend to say yes to everything until they break, but with boundaries comes health. “I had to learn that it’s very rare that something needs to be done right there and then, no matter how much people scream and shout. Stop asking when someone needs something by and tell them when it will be ready,” Langford advises.

The ‘always put your own oxygen mask on first’ advice was given more than a handful of times, with CEOs recognising that often they’re quick to look after their staff and advise them to slow down, but not so good at following their own advice.

Whitfield’s advice is to retreat “and just do nothing.” A surprisingly tricky task, particularly for CEO types who are inherently productive, hyper, and with an excessive desire to achieve. “It’s hard to do nothing; the brain creates a sense of guilt or fear. Retreat, take time on your own, see what surfaces, be in nature, and find ways to express yourself. Journal, or cry; the body cries for a reason.”

The common denominator amongst the above advice is proactiveness. Stroud suggests that the business world needs to learn from the sporting world and “build support teams when not in crisis.”

Networking forums, WhatsApp groups and online communities for senior execs are invaluable to try and quell that feeling of loneliness at the top. The CEOs that belong to those groups had unanimously positive experiences with having a peer group to share experiences with, especially talking about challenges or, in the words of Federspiel, “support when the building is falling around you.”

Businesses worldwide are starting to introduce four-day weeks, unlimited annual leave is common (yet many argue it has the opposite effect), and some organisations set technology schedules so that emails and slack messages are only delivered during working hours.

If the stigma around burn-out has not yet dissipated, at least there’s awareness and acceptance that it exists.

The two CEOs who were brave enough to tell their story almost didn’t live to do so. By choosing transparency, they found strength in their vulnerability. Burn-out isn’t dirty, it’s certainly not little, and it should never be a secret.


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