How Executives Can Avoid Burnout


Executive burnout is ugly.

It’s different from a failed assimilation because it implies a period of apparent success before failure. That makes the meltdown even more affecting. It’s what happens when you’re beaten down by the grind over time, but you’re able to hide the cracks until everything goes wrong at once.

Burnout usually seems sudden. But there are always warning signs. 

The good news is that executives don’t have to end up burnt out. If you identify the factors leading to the wall, you can course-correct before the crash.

What Executives Have to Give Up: Control

To avoid burnout, executives have to be able to let go. Failing to give up control is one of the most common warning signs for executive burnout.

There a variety of reasons that giving up control is both difficult and necessary:

Control feels safe.

For one thing, people crave control because they associate it with safety. Being “out of control” has a negative connotation for a reason – it implies a lack of influence over outcomes that we’re trained to avoid. Giving up control is scary.

Control is satisfying.

Additionally, executives tend to be people who are unusually driven by achievement. They’ve gotten to the top by doing, and accomplishment brings satisfaction that’s hard to let go of.

Studies show that task completion is associated with a dopamine hit (especially for men). As an executive ascends their organization, there are fewer task-oriented things to accomplish. So, to compensate, they’ll hang onto old responsibilities when they move into a new role. The result is that they’re doing two jobs – a surefire recipe for burnout.

Control is impossible.

Full control is always an illusion. At the top of an organization, there are simply too many factors at play to wield an influence over every outcome. There’s too much to be done for one person to do it all and too many people to manage for one person to manage everyone. 

Overcontrol drives out talent.

A-players will never work for a micromanager. They’ll feel shackled. Even B-players will struggle with overcontrolling leaders. Clinging to control means losing good talent.

Letting go leads to growth.

Overcontrolling leaders confine organizational growth to their own limits. The best leaders, conversely, are really good delegators and talent developers. 

We like to have executives calculate how much they’re paid per hour, including salary and benefits. When you get a hard price for a calendar item, it’s easier to tell if it’s worth your time or not. Plus, delegating to a report helps that person to grow. It’s how organizations grow past their leaders’ limits, and it’s another way executives can avoid burnout.

What Executives Have to Get

So, executives have to give up control to avoid burnout – but it helps to get a few things, too. Most of these are practical, but they can still be difficult to focus on when the pressure of the role gets intense.


Sleep is the new coffee. Recently, the idea of forfeiting sleep for work has been glorified, but it doesn’t play out well – definitely not in the long-term, and in reality, not in the short-term, either. The most practical thing you can do to avoid burnout is get good sleep.


There’s plenty of data out there that supports this one. Exercise keeps people healthy. Cardio relieves stress. Weight-lifting boosts testosterone and energy. It’s worth it. A lack of exercise is a legitimate factor in burnout.

A supportive community.

We’ve written before about the loneliness executives face at work. The reality is that, without a supportive community in some capacity, executive burnout is inevitable. A healthy family life matters. Community involvement can help, too.

Avoid burnout. Take a new approach.

Seeing the signs of burnout? Take steps to avoid it before it’s too late.

At Emily Bermes + Associates, we’ve worked with executives across organizations from Fortune 100 companies to industry-shifting startups, with a success rate of virtually 100%.

Executive burnout doesn’t have to happen. And the good news is that most of the problems that lead to it can be fixed.

Executive coaching can help. If you’re ready for a new approach, let’s talk.