Managers are at high risk of burnout. Research from shows that managers’ risk for burnout is about 18% higher than for individual employees.
“Managers [have] to support their team members who are contending with existential issues such as war, increased cost of living and adjusting to the post-pandemic working environment, while also dealing with those same issues themselves,” says Michelle Huising, head of human resources at ecommerce software platform Sana Commerce.
Even in the best of times, managers and leaders often have heavy workloads, deal with constant uncertainty, and wear many hats. These long-term stresses and pressures frequently lead to burnout.
Manager burnout symptoms
US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy defines burnout as “an occupational syndrome characterized by a high degree of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (i.e., cynicism), and a low sense of personal accomplishment at work.”
According to Stephanie Larsen, owner and Licensed Mental Health Clinician at Restore Behavioral Health, burnout among managers can look like:
- Dreading going to work
- Decreased ability to have compassion for colleagues
- Decreased ability to regulate emotions
- Circular and obsessive thinking patterns
- Low motivation
- Generally not feeling like yourself
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to reach out to a trusted colleague, friend, or family member. Depending on the severity, consider seeing a mental health professional to help you manage and cope with burnout.
What causes manager burnout
Dr. Jacqueline Kerr, head of behavior science at executive coaching consultancy The Huuman Group, says detecting burnout starts with understanding the causes.
“Burnout can be caused by unhealthy work behaviors (e.g., working 24/7 and coping with drugs or alcohol), having personality tendencies that lead to overwhelm (e.g., people-pleasing or perfectionism), being from a group that is marginalized and not fairly rewarded for their work (e.g., women of color, mothers), and because of the conditions in the workplace itself (e.g., lack of autonomy, lack of equal rewards, toxic bosses, and values conflicts).”
Gallup’s research on the manager experience shows that the role has unique challenges that may exacerbate burnout, including:
- Unclear expectations: 40% of managers report having multiple competing priorities.
- Heavy workload: The average manager's workweek is half a day longer than the average individual contributor's, and two in 10 managers say they have too much to do.
- Too many distractions: Managers are 67% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree they have a lot of interruptions at work.
- Job stress: Over a third of managers surveyed agree they felt stressed “during a lot of my most recent workday.”
- Less focus on their strengths: Most of a manager’s time is dedicated to meeting the needs of others. And many don’t get to do the kind of work they do best.
- Unfair performance reviews: Only 8% of managers strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve, and many are skeptical about the fairness and accuracy of them.
New manager burnout
A Harvard Business Review survey of 1k+ first-time managers and their direct reports revealed that 65% of respondents felt uncertain or anxious about their role transition.
Laura Ashley-Timms, an executive coach, warns that going into a management role without adequate resources and support can be very difficult, and if those managers remain unsupported, burnout is practically inevitable.
This is especially true of “accidental managers”: those who performed well in a technical role and end up being promoted to a management position, as opposed to those with an actual aptitude or desire to be a manager of people.
To avoid burnout, Ashley-Timms says that new managers must stop adopting the “problem-solver” persona that may have served them well in previous roles.
“It’s a hard habit to break, especially if that manager has previously excelled by being the sort of person who is known for getting things done by themselves,” she says.
Instead of problem-solving and being reactive, managers need to unlock the creativity and combined talent of their teams. They should focus on engagement with their teams and work to “rehumanize” their management style.
Try asking intuitive questions that encourage others to solve problems more effectively themselves.
For example, “If time were no object, how would you approach this differently?” Or, “If you had a magic wand and could immediately change one thing about this situation, what would you change?”
How to deal with burnout as a manager
“The best way to treat and prevent burnout is to protect your energy and build resilience in the three key areas of well-being: physical, mental, and emotional,” says Janesse Bruce, CEO at digital coaching platform meQuilibrium.
Exercising regularly, eating well, and restorative sleep are foundational to stress management and good health. Create a self-care plan that makes exercise, sleep, and healthy meals part of your regular routine.
Schedule your workouts, grocery shopping, and bedtime like you would any other task. Make these habits second nature, so you aren’t tempted to fall back on unhealthy coping mechanisms when stress hits.
Feelings of brain fog — when every decision feels like a burden and you can barely concentrate on the task at hand — can be signs of burnout. Try to sit still and breathe for five minutes — you’ve just started a simple meditation practice that can help decrease the feelings of stress and overwhelm.
Managers can feel disconnected at work, distracted and drained of creativity; sometimes you might end up watching the clock instead of engaging with team members or the task at hand. Feeling uninspired doesn’t necessarily indicate that what you’re doing has lost meaning — it means you would benefit from mindfully reconnecting with what you do.
Instead of focusing on the small stresses of day-to-day life, take out a journal and write about how your work contributes to the big picture. Reflect on why you took the role, and how you can leverage it to help others. Go back and reread this entry whenever you feel burnt out.
Also focus on building a network outside of work — connecting with friends and loved ones can help ease emotional burdens and create balance in your life.
How to reduce manager burnout
There are a few things managers can do to reduce their chances of burning out, including saying no, reframing your thoughts, and reconsidering your role.
Take back control
Dr. Jacqueline Kerr suggests tracking your yeses and no’s and learning to say no without feeling guilty. Monitor all the work you do out of obligation that exhausts you and try to stop doing it. Start crafting a job that focuses on tasks that bring you energy.
Janice Litvin, a workplace wellness speaker, recommends remembering STOP. It stands for Stop, Take a Breath, Observe, and Proceed.
When you catch yourself developing negative feelings and thoughts, train yourself to interrupt those thoughts and ask, “Does this situation warrant this degree of angst and anxiety?” And if it doesn’t, choose to think a healthier thought.
Often, people have to leave a job because burnout is caused by the culture and expectations of the company.
“Finding a better fit for your values is important, but before seeking a new job, try quiet quitting so you can recalibrate and recover before looking for a new position. If you take your burnout tendencies with you, you will burn out again,” advises Dr. Kerr.
Employers can help prevent manager burnout
According to Dr. Murthy, burnout presents in individuals but is rooted in workplace systems. Companies must support managers in avoiding and recovering from burnout, “instead of pointing the finger at individuals to manage their own stress,” says Dr. Kerr.
Organizations can prevent manager burnout by offering subsidized coaching to support employees to prioritize their own needs and set boundaries. Companies can also agree on limited collaborative hours to prevent meeting overload, or offer four-day workweeks.
The National Academy of Medicine suggests that organizations tie well-being to a KPI (key performance indicator), ensuring a culture of learning and support, from the boardroom to the breakroom.