C-Suite Burnout Survey | Summary

What are the causes of burnout among executives?


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Last updated: September 18th, 2023

executive burnout

Last updated: September 18th, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is a summary of a 2013 survey conducted by Dr Srini Pillay, M.D. (www.drsrinipillay.com), who is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The research was released under his private consulting firm NeuroBusiness Group.

Sample Selection and Demographics.

NeuroBusiness Group surveyed burnout by asking US senior managers and C-Suite executives about the impression of burnout within their organisations, most of whom were from Michigan, Texas, Florida, California or New York.

  • 50.77% of the sample were women, and the majority of them were White (84.75%), with 10.17% being Black and the rest either Asian (1.69%) or of mixed race with some Hispanic component.

This bias probably reflects the positions held by the respondents and is not simply a selection bias.

The preliminary dataset consisted of 72 respondents who were randomly recruited via a LinkedIn survey from the LinkedIn groups of the CEO and EVP of NeuroBusiness Group.

(Related: Top Signs That Your Colleague Is Burning Out).

How Burned Out Were The People?

About half of the respondents believed that the CEO of their organization was somewhat to very much burned out, whereas the other half believed that their CEO was insignificantly burned out or not burned out at all.

When asked about senior managers, however, respondents said that 75% of senior managers were burned out. Seventy-nine (79.16%) per cent of respondents said that front-line workers were burned out.

There was some internal consistency in responses, as the total sample reported that 80.55% of the sample questioned was burned out:

  • 47.22% responded “somewhat“, and
  • 33.33% responded “very much

(The two highest categories).

Expert tip.

By the way, burnout is often caused by a stubborn refusal to leave a bad job. Knowing that your options are open is the first step in reducing this type of burnout. The second step is to begin applying for jobs. Unfortunately, the resumes of most busy executives are dull; after all, they’re too busy working! Ensure that you’re positioned for success and escape burnout by hiring Arielle Executive to craft your resume.

Causes And Stages Of Burnout.

Among those surveyed, the three top causes of burnout were work overload (69.44% said they were functioning at their maximum capacity), powerlessness and insufficient reward.

Most respondents said that the three most helpful things to learn would be knowing how to manage uncertainty, cope with stress, and lead more effectively.

Surprising Result.

Less than half of the respondents were clearly aware that burnout occurred in stages-and 56.94% of people had no idea of the exact stages.

Fifty-five (55.56%) per cent of respondents said their burnout has increased over the past year, and 29.17% said it had remained the same. Over the past five years, 66.67% of people said their burnout had increased.

Energy, Future Thinking, Cynicism And Job Security.

While the above findings seemed internally consistent, the following findings are at first surprising. Eight-eight (88.89%) per cent of respondents described their life energy as “high” or “medium”.

How could this be if 75% said that they were burned out?

When asked whether they enjoyed their jobs, 88.89% also responded with “very much” or “somewhat” as opposed to “very little” or “not at all.”

(Related: Employee Recognition Programs That Work).

This might, in part, be explained by the fact that 77.78% also said that they felt secure in their current jobs, a consistent finding with the fact that 26.39% of respondents had switched jobs twice or more than twice in the past six years, and 38.91% responded with “no” or “maybe” when asked if they would stay in their current positions in the next year.

However, this was inconsistent with the whopping 81.94% who reported a fear of failure.

  • That number rose to 80.56% when asked if they would leave their jobs in the next five years.

Also, although they describe high life energy and enjoying their jobs, 72.22% of the sample said that they felt cynical, and again surprisingly, despite this cynicism, 91.67% reported that they look forward to the rest of their lives with “somewhat” or “very much” positive expectation.

In fact, 84.73% reported feeling inspired about the future in the two highest categories (very much and somewhat), but 48.61% of respondents were bored.

Expert Tip.

The post-pandemic rise in hybrid workplaces may drive up employee burnout if they are implemented incorrectly.

Explaining The Contradictions.

So here we have a group of people who are burned out but positive about the future, possibly using positive future expectations as a way of escaping their cynicism and burnout.

It is unclear whether the high energy represents an effort to get out of the current situation (This would be consistent with the literature on cognitive control in high achievers).

(Related: How To Develop A Strong Executive Presence).

Feelings did not seem to correlate with revenue growth either. In fact, 63.64% of the respondents were making the same or lower than they had made five years ago, and 71.21% said that their market share was the same or less than it was five years ago.

Also, 74.25% of respondents were profitable at the same or lower level than the last five years, despite customer satisfaction being the same or better.

Conclusion And Discussion.

Overall, the findings illustrate that among this sample of US senior managers and C-suite executives, the level of burnout does not impact positive feelings about the future negatively, although burnout is significant when asked about it in the majority of respondents.

Despite reporting high levels of work overload, insufficient reward and powerlessness, a significant majority of respondents reported having high energy and positive feelings about the future (which conflicted with such a high percentage of people who were cynical and a very high percentage of people who were planning to leave their jobs in the next five years.)

Another Contradiction?

This makes one wonder if people look to the future and change their jobs searching for ways to reduce burnout, but actually deep down, feel cynical and are afraid to fail, as the report suggests.

As a gauge of the US senior manager and C-suite workforce, this raises the concern about what will happen when this energy runs out, or as they get older and approach mortality head-on.

(Related: How To Write A CEO Resume).

Given that few are aware of burnout happening in stages, and even fewer of the actual progression, this study may signal that awareness of burnout is important and that one should have an eye out for declines that are being defended against with pseudo-positive attitudes (a sign of burnout itself.)

Comparing This With Earlier Findings From A Survey In Greece.

These data are interesting considering some preliminary data obtained from CEOs only in Greece before the financial collapse (January 28, 2010).

Here, NeuroBusiness Group collected data from a sample of 72 leaders who attended a workshop on fearless leadership. In this audience poll, most CEOs reported very little conscious fear (0-25% of the day in 71.8% of the audience). However, 65.2% of the sample failed a test of sufficient conscious thought control by being unable to suppress a memory response.

Also, in this sample, 100% of the audience endorsed at least one of the five burnout symptoms, and 67.4% of the audience endorsed signs of “early burnout” while 64.2% reported signs of burnout in the more advanced stages without knowing that these were signs of burnout.

  • 46.9% of the audience reported overlooking dissatisfaction because of wanting to solve problems. Again, in this sample, the presence of burnout left them unperturbed but suffering from cognitive dysfunction about which they seemed unaware.

This cross-sample comparison suggests that US senior management and CEOs might benefit from examining their compensatory responses to burnout, as studies do suggest that although high achievers exert themselves more to overcome “brain fatigue”, they may eventually succumb to this.

Simply avoiding burnout with “positive thinking” about developing resilience may be helpful only if people who are burned out recognise the need for intervention.

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