The corporate cost of executive burnout is in the billions

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.

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This is no joke: Too much work leads to a serious, medical condition. Yet, all too many people seem to treat overwork as a laughing matter, seldom taking it seriously. Stress from overwork is treated a lot like the way smoking was treated once upon a time. Long before warning labels on the package, cigarets were commonly referred to as coffin nails.

We have a history of mocking and denying serious problems. Stress-related problems such as executive burnout are especially pernicious because there is a perceived cost to acknowledging the problem even to ourselves. There are a number of reasons why the problem is so difficult to treat, not the least of which is the diagnosis:

Diagnosing executive burnout

As with most medical conditions, we cannot rely on self-diagnosis. We have to be assessed by a professional. This is one of the major barriers to treatment. Getting anyone, especially an executive to see a mental health specialist is extremely difficult. To have such an appointment on one’s calendar, in some quarters, would be a sign of weakness. After all, the only people needing to see a mental health professional are the mentally ill. No executive wants to be painted by that brush.

Even if one were inclined to see a professional, there is a matter of recognising the symptoms. Executive burnout symptoms appear in everyone from time to time. There can be no executive burnout recovery without an accurate diagnosis. One executive burnout treatment centre lists the following symptoms in the form of questions:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Is it difficult to get yourself motivated to be at work or to function at your best once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable and agitated with co-workers, customers, or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be productive?
  • Has it become difficult to garner satisfaction from your accomplishments?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • And so on…

Everyone who has ever worked in a sales-based organisation can answer affirmatively to all of the above. These are not just symptoms experienced by executives, but by everyone in the organisation. Knowing when these types of symptoms have become a problem can be a real challenge.

The human cost of executive burnout

There are countless guides on how to keep work stress from ruining your family. The proliferation of such guides exist because the problem is so prevalent. Sufferers are advised to:

  • Assess life priorities.
  • Spend more time with the spouse.
  • Openly communicate concerns with the spouse.
  • Take time for one’s self.

While executive burnout is not unlike any other work-related stress, it can cost a company a lot more money, very quickly. Besides being generally aware of the symptoms to watch for, one suggestion offered by clinical psychologist Dr Simon Kinsella is to require top executives to undergo annual mental health checkups.

As a cautionary tale, never forget what happened at the end of 2011. Two RIM executives were under so much stress, they got violently drunk while in flight, and had to be restrained. After chewing through their restraints, they had to be subdued by passengers until the plane landed. That was definitely no laughing matter. It is past time corporations take this billions dollar problem seriously.