CIO Leadership, IT Performance

Are you at risk for career burnout?

CIOs particularly at risk.

Blog-post by, ,

“Burnout happens, not because we're trying to solve problems but because we've been trying to solve the same problem over and over and over.”  -Susan Scott

Are you at risk for experiencing job burnout? If you are a senior executive in a stressful and rapidly changing organization, chances are you are. CIOs are particularly prone to stress and burnout because of the many conflicting demands that the job places on them. The demands to be both operationally and strategically focused combined with the rapid evolution of technology and the tenuous control that many CIOs have over their world make a fertile breeding ground for stress and burnout.

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

The following questions from the Mayo Clinic may help you determine your risk. Answering yes to any of these may indicate that you are at risk for burning out.  Answering yes to several may indicate that you are already there.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

Several years ago a friend and former colleague I will call Bob had a serious encounter with burnout.  Bob was the CIO of a large, multi-national manufacturing company. The problem began slowly following the completion of his company’s Y2K preparation.  His team had worked long hours to identify and correct his company’s systems in preparation for the millennium. The risk-averse nature of the company’s CEO and general counsel led to a more cautious and expensive remediation effort than was probably required.  In early 2000 after the company had successfully weathered the Y2K storm several executives including the CFO and the CEO began to openly question if they had spent too much money on the preparations given that nothing bad had happened to them or most other companies.  This didn’t sit well with Bob who felt that he was now being unfairly criticized for doing his job and doing it well. 

In the recession that shortly followed, his company had to downsize and IT was asked to bear an oversized burden in the layoffs as well as the budget cuts.  While Bob did his best he began to feel constant pressure to do more with his smaller and overworked staff.  To add insult to injury, many of his top performers began to leave for greener pastures.  Add to all of this the fact that the company’s other divisions began to look to IT to make them more productive in the wake of their own reductions in budget and staff. 

After two years of non-stop stress and anguish Bob realized that he had lost all enthusiasm for his work.  The one time high-energy star performer had become a tired, cynical and angry man. One Saturday as he sat at home having lunch with his wife he suddenly broke down in tears confessing to his wife that he simply wanted to quit. ‘I was spent,” he would later tell me, “I didn’t have anything left.”

Job burnout can result from several things either alone or in combination.  Most of these are probably familiar to CIOs.  Here are several that I have adapted from various sources.

Lack of control. For most people this manifests itself as the inability to influence the decisions that affect your job.  This may include things such as your schedule, assignments or priorities. So can a lack of the resources you need to do your work. In Bob’s case the constant demands from his colleagues to help them when he also lacked resources pushed him over the edge.

Unclear job expectations. If you're unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you're not likely to feel comfortable at work. Bob’s frustration at the conflicting messages from his CEO and CFO caused confusion about exactly what was expected of him.

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully, a bad boss or you feel undermined by colleagues. All of these can contribute to job stress.

A mismatch in values. If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch may eventually take a toll. This can be especially challenging if you are being asked to violate your core values.

Your job is a poor fit for your abilities. If your job doesn't fit your interests and skills, it may become increasingly stressful over time.  Working outside of your strengths is not only stressful, it simply isn’t fun.

Extremes of activity. When a job is always monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused. This can lead to fatigue and job burnout.

Lack of social support. Let’s face it; we all need a support network. As many of Bob’s most trusted employees and colleagues left the company he found himself increasingly isolated and lonely.

Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don't have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you may burn out quickly.  We all need time to recharge, reflect and refresh.

In Bob’s case, as with many others I have seen, the onset of burnout begins slowly and progresses steadily, sometimes quickly.

The fire starts with a spark. It usually begins with small irritants.  In Bob’s case it was the sniping after the millennium came and went without the disaster they worked hard to prevent.

Cynicism and pessimism fan the flames. These little irritants, combined with mounting frustrations in other areas, begin to breed pessimism, which leads to cynicism. These two poisons are like oxygen to the fire of burnout.  Bob found himself to be uncharacteristically angry and bitter.  He complained to anyone who would listen, something that was totally out of character for him.

Your energy, drive and passion get consumed by the ensuing fire. All of the things that made you successful, your drive, passion, energy and enthusiasm are consumed and disappear leaving you to wonder what is happening to you. 

Like a burned out building, what is left may not be recognizable. The man who broke down in tears that Saturday at his kitchen table was not the Bob most people knew and respected. Bob’s passion for his job evaporated.  “I dreaded getting up and going in in the morning,” he later told me.  “I was the guy who was the first one in, the one who couldn’t wait for Monday morning after the weekend.  This wasn’t me.”

Combating Burnout

If you think you may be heading for burnout what can you do? Here are four suggestions for dealing with the early signs of burnout that may help you avoid a complete flameout.

  1. 1. Don’t ignore the spark and the first smoke.  Recognize the early signs. Once you've identified what's fueling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues.
  2. 2. Find a trusted person that you can talk candidly with and share what is happening with them.  Sometimes simply having someone to talk with who can provide encouragement and support can put out the fire early.  If needed seek professional help.  Severe depression or anxiety may need medical treatment.
  3. 3. Find a secondary outlet for your creative energies.  Many people find that getting involved with volunteer work or some other form of service that allows them to use their talents to help others blunts the frustration they feel at work.
  4. 4. Keep your options open.  Sometimes moving on may be the best solution.

Bob sought professional help, which helped him weather the crisis.   Several months later his company offered a generous voluntary separation program as part of another round of downsizing.  Bob took the offer and took several months off to recharge and think about what he really wanted to do.  He subsequently took a job with a smaller more entrepreneurial company where he had the opportunity to be part of a dynamic leadership team and use his skills more effectively. 

Burnout is a serious risk for CIOs.  Don’t ignore the warning signs.  Extinguish the fire before the fire consumes you.

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John Dodge 1332 Points | Fri, 08/16/2013 - 17:40

This would be a great CIO Question, Joel. As a CIO or senior IT staffer, do you experience burnout at work?

Have you experienced burnout and how did you get over it, Joel? I did a couple of times, but at the peak of my career in the tech/business news business, it was always exciting with peaks and valleys during the week. 

Joel Dobbs 310 Points | Sat, 08/17/2013 - 01:38

It would be a good question.  I suspect that a lot of folks have experienced burnout.

Yes, I have had a brush with burnout which led me to take early retirement about 10 years ago.  The sabbatical did me good. I flunked retirement and went back to work after a couple of years.