Skip to Content

What causes leader burnout?

Leader burnout is a concerning issue facing many organizations today. With increased pressures and responsibilities, leaders are at high risk for developing burnout, which can negatively impact their health, performance, and the overall organization. In this article, we will explore the leading causes of leader burnout and provide actionable solutions to prevent and address this pressing problem.

Defining Leader Burnout

Before diving into the causes, it’s important to properly define what is meant by “leader burnout.” Leader burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought about by prolonged or repeated stress. It occurs when a leader feels overwhelmed, drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As a result, they may begin to lose motivation, withdraw from responsibilities, and reduce effectiveness.

Signs of leader burnout include:

  • Exhaustion, lack of energy
  • Increased cynicism, negativity
  • Decreased productivity and performance
  • Lack of focus, inability to concentrate
  • Feeling little control or meaning in work
  • Disconnection from colleagues
  • Reduced satisfaction or sense of accomplishment

If unaddressed, burnout can lead leaders to eventually quit their positions, require extended absence, or deliver effectiveness far below their potential. Organizations should recognize these warning signs and take proactive steps to alleviate burnout in their leaders.

Causes of Leader Burnout

Why exactly do leaders experience elevated rates of burnout? Research has shown burnout does not happen in isolation – there are systemic issues that contribute to individual experiences of burnout. The main causes include:

Unsustainable Workload

Leaders often shoulder tremendous responsibilities and workload demands. According to one study, 90% of leaders feel they do not have enough time in the day to complete their duties. The sheer quantity of work, meetings, reports, and pressure to deliver results can simply be too much.

Lack of Work-Life Balance

Leaders may struggle to disconnect from the office and find work-life balance. With constant access to email on mobile devices and an “always on” mentality, work easily bleeds into personal time. Without sufficient time for recovery, leaders are prone to burnout.

Insufficient Support & Resources

Leaders need reliable support systems and resources around them to share duties and be successful. When leaders lack quality staff, technology, and systems to rely on, the burden solely falls on them – which quickly leads to burnout.

Unclear Goals & Expectations

When goals and expectations are fuzzy or constantly shifting, leaders feel added stress. Understanding exactly what success looks like and receiving input on changing priorities are crucial for leaders to manage responsibilities.

Toxic Culture & Politics

Navigating toxic or political workplaces quickly burns leaders out. Without the ability to be transparent, trust teams, and collaborate effectively, leaders must constantly be “on guard” – an exhausting way to operate.

Lack of Autonomy & Growth

Leaders need a sense of control and room to try new approaches. Micromanagement restricts leaders’ ability to work the way they want. And without opportunities to develop new skills, leaders feel staleness and lack of progress. This fuels burnout.

Insufficient Leadership Development

Being promoted to leadership roles without proper onboarding, training, mentorship, and developmental resources stacks the deck against leaders. Lack of leadership development leads to skills gaps, lack of support, and mismatches in ability – accelerating burnout.

Poor Self-Care Habits

Becoming overly focused on work while neglecting self-care, from nutrition and sleep to relationships and hobbies outside work, leaves leaders depleted. Self-care is often sacrificed, yet is so important for resilience against burnout.

Perfectionist Tendencies

Leaders with perfectionist tendencies who set unrealistic standards for themselves are prime candidates for burnout. Learning to accept imperfection and set reasonable goals helps leaders avoid pushing themselves to the brink.

How Burnout Hurts Leaders

Burnout not only damages leaders personally but also hurts their ability to lead optimally. The consequences encompass:

Physical symptoms Chronic fatigue, impaired immunity, headaches, insomnia, digestive issues
Emotional symptoms Depression, cynicism, anxiety, anger, low morale
Attitudinal symptoms Lack of engagement, negativity, reduced commitment to job
Behavioral symptoms Withdrawing from responsibilities, isolation, escapist behaviors like overeating or drinking
Cognitive symptoms Impaired concentration, indecisiveness, forgetfulness
Performance Reduced quality of work, lack of creativity, mistakes, missed deadlines

These outcomes impact leaders’ ability to inspire, make decisions, cope with pressure, relate to others, and deliver results. Thus, the whole organization feels the effects of leader burnout through disengaged teams, stalled progress on goals, and lack of innovation.

Solutions to Prevent & Treat Leader Burnout

The good news is burnout is preventable and treatable with the right solutions. Organizations and leaders can take these actions to address burnout:

Set Reasonable Goals & Scopes

Make workloads and expectations realistic – don’t overburden leaders. Ensure leaders have enough resources and bandwidth to deliver on goals.

Allow Autonomy & Development

Give leaders latitude to determine how to achieve goals. Offer leadership development opportunities like training, mentoring, and new project assignments.

Foster Work-Life Balance

Encourage leaders to disconnect from work and avoid burnout-inducing behaviors like excessive overtime. Lead by example – don’t just preach work-life balance.

Open Communication & Feedback

Create open dialogue so leaders can get input on shifting priorities and give feedback if demands are unreasonable.

Limit Changes & Politics

Minimize needless change and aim for organizational stability. Establish trust and transparency to reduce political dynamics causing stress.

Utilize Support Systems

Provide sufficient administrative support, technologies, and systems so leaders don’t have to handle everything themselves.

Promote Self-Care

Share tips and resources for healthy stress management, from exercise to mindfulness. Avoid glorifying overwork behaviors.

Offer Flexibility & Time Off

Allow flexible schedules when possible. Encourage leaders to take vacations, mental health days, and extended time off when needed.

Provide Counseling & Coaching

Give leaders access to professional services like counseling, therapy, and leadership coaching to process stress and improve coping abilities.

Conduct Stay Interviews

Check in regularly with leaders about work-life balance, obstacles, and burnout symptoms so problems can be addressed promptly.

Warning Signs to Recognize Burnout

In addition to the solutions above, leaders and organizations should watch for these warning signs of impending burnout:

  • Declining engagement and enjoyment of work
  • Increased cynicism, negativity, or blame
  • Headaches, stomach issues, or other stress-related ailments
  • Worsening sleep quality
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Reduced connection with colleagues
  • Fatigue, low energy throughout workday
  • Feelings of hopelessness or lack of control
  • Delegating excessively to avoid responsibilities
  • Sacrificing hobbies and outside relationships

Intervening promptly when these issues emerge can prevent full-blown burnout down the road.

Creating a Burnout-Resistant Culture

For lasting change, organizations must build burnout-resistant cultures where leaders are supported, empowered, and protected from excessive stress. Key characteristics include:

  • Open communication: Frequent check-ins and feedback loops to stay aligned.
  • Work-life balance: No glorification of overwork; leaders encouraged to recharge.
  • Transparency: Goals and expectations are clear to reduce uncertainty.
  • Empowerment: Leaders feel trusted and able to determine how work gets done.
  • Developmental focus: Leaders are given opportunities to continuously expand skills.
  • Teamwork: Collaboration and support reduce isolation and burdens on any one leader.
  • Self-care: Healthy stress management is role modeled and supported.
  • Recognition: Leaders feel appreciated; their efforts do not go unnoticed.

This type of supportive organizational culture allows leaders to be resilient, engaged, and perform sustainably at their best.

The Critical Role of Self-Care

While organizations play a huge role, leaders also own responsibility for preventing personal burnout. Daily self-care habits are essential – they should not be sacrificed. Critical self-care practices include:

  • Reflecting on values: Staying connected to deeper purpose and meaning.
  • Setting boundaries: Learning to say no and determining reasonable limits.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Taking mindful breathing breaks and staying present.
  • Fueling well: Following a healthy diet with foods that provide steady energy.
  • Staying active: Getting regular physical activity, even just going for walks.
  • Recharging: Getting enough sleep and taking time fully off work.
  • Finding support: Tapping into mentors, peers, or coaches as sounding boards.
  • Making time for fun: Reserving time for hobbies and passions outside work.

Leaders who make self-care non-negotiable will sustain their physical and mental health for the long haul.


Leader burnout is far too common these days, fueled by unrealistic demands, lack of support, and cultures of overwork. However, with proper solutions – from adjusted workloads to enhanced development opportunities and cultivation of self-care – organizations can curb burnout and retain thriving leaders over the long term. This benefits leaders, teams, and organizational performance overall.

The key is taking proactive steps before burnout gains momentum. Leaders should remain vigilant for warning signs and speak up if they feel overwhelmed. And organizations must listen and intervene quickly when problems arise. With some foresight and proactivity, leader burnout can be avoided.

Leaders play critical roles in organizations – their health and wellbeing must be priorities. Protecting leaders from burnout through supportive conditions, systems, and policies will enable them to bring their best selves to leading others and creating positive impact day after day.