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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How to tell if your leaders need a burnout coach

The cumulative effect of the past two years is taking its toll.

How to tell if your leaders need a burnout coach
[ Krakenimages.com / Adobe Stock]

Heart disease is known as the silent killer because we often don’t see the effects until it is too late. Burnout operates the same way. We slowly yet consistently start working longer hours, dealing with more challenging setbacks, experiencing increased levels of exhaustion. We begin to feel overwhelmed and forced to tolerate ever-higher levels of stress. We begin to adjust our life to this work stress and its anxiety-producing effects, inviting it in like an obligatory guest at Thanksgiving and giving it a prominent seat at our dining room table. Then, like that one annoying friend or uncle, it won’t leave.

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The cumulative effect of the past two years is taking its toll.

Reports of anxiety, stress, depression, and other life-crushing effects are at an all-time high. In a recent women in the workplace study, McKinsey and Leanin.org polled more than 65,000 North American employees and found that 42% of women and 35% of men reported feeling burned out often or almost always in 2021, compared to 32% of women and 28% of men last year.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It is classified in the international classification of diseases in the chapter on factors influencing health status. The WHO notes that burnout results from chronic workplace stress, and that it is characterized by three dimensions:

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• Energy depletion/exhaustion.

• Increasingly negative feelings toward the job.

• Reduced professional efficacy.

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Workers in the healthcare industry have been hit particularly hard by burnout, as have those in a wide range of other industries that were also greatly impacted by the pandemic.

Some organizations are attempting to address the burnout issue with well-being initiatives that are typically broad-based and policy-driven. They provide gym memberships, access to meditation apps, statements about flextime, or other passive self-driven efforts. These are great additions to an organization’s offerings and helpful tools for those in a mentally healthy place to take advantage of these perks and use them well.

Here’s the problem. If you are already burned out and experiencing feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy, then you need outside intervention before you can even begin to think about taking advantage of these well-being perks.

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I’ve seen leaders put on their best Zoom face and hide their anxiety just to get through each day. These leaders are zapped of the energy, creativity, and courage needed to truly lead. When they can barely make it through the day, they are clearly unprepared to support their direct reports, who may soon also fall prey to burnout. And what about those leaders whose teams have been decimated by the Great Resignation? They experience even more stress and pressure when their best employees walk out the door.

If any of this sounds familiar, your key leaders may be in need of a burnout coach. We define coaching as a form of development in which an experienced person, called a coach, supports a coachee in achieving a specific personal or professional goal through a thought-provoking process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaching is a client-driven process that uses the model below to provide accountability for mindset and behavior change. This is distinct from other development efforts, such as counseling, mentoring, consulting, and training.

To create sustainable change, coaches follow a cognitive behavioral learning approach to coaching. This proven method helps a coachee explore situations with a new perspective, understand themselves in a new way, create new mindsets for approaching situations, and build new and more productive habits.

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Most organizations use leadership coaching to help a leader improve in a specific competency, such as collaboration, strategic thinking, or delegation. But this coaching framework and the expertise of experienced coaches can help a key leader overcome burnout, take control over their mindset and therefore their behavior at work, and become a more productive member of the organization.

Organizations that really believe in improving well-being look closely at the behavior of their leaders and ensure they are engaged, motivated, and healthy.

One activity I personally engage in to check for burnout is asking each staff member to rate two questions once a month. On a scale of one to 10, they rate whether they started the day feeling excited and whether they ended the day feeling accomplished. We then discuss the factors that impacted their excitement and feeling of accomplishment. If the score dips below a five, we have a real burnout problem on our hands.

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Consider deploying some form of diagnostic triage like this to assess work-related health. Internally, you can use these management conversations and access to your well-being programs to help those already fit to retain and grow their work-life alignment. But for those who are already burned out, you need a stronger, more targeted solution to get your leader back on track.


 Steve Dion is Founder and CEO of Dion Leadership, a leadership and organization development firm that builds strong leaders and cultures.

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