Chartered Institute of Building Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building

Corporate burnout - stopping the downward spiral

Continuing our theme of wellbeing in construction, Dr Howard Awbery looks at corporate burnout, offering pointers on how you can spot it and tips on supporting those on the brink.

Dr Howard Awbery

Corporate burnout is an addictive, overwhelming exhaustion and a complete inability to function, get out of bed, or undertake work in any capacity. I have carried out an in-depth five-year study into corporate burnout and found that it affects around 20% of leaders.

Most commonly, corporate burnout affects high-performing leaders in the first 10 years of their career, and is often described as “overachiever syndrome”. The impact of corporate burnout affects individual performance and wellbeing, as well as team and ultimately, corporate performance.

I use the analogy of a downward moving escalator to describe the different stages of corporate burnout:

1. At the top of the escalator is the Resilient Leader

The performance of a Resilient Leader mirrors exactly the ever-changing organisational demands and they stay comfortably at the top. As the workload fluctuates, these leaders cope well with the changes of pace. The Resilient Leader experiences minimal risk of work-related stress, depression, anxiety, or corporate burnout.

Signs of corporate burnout

Some of the classic indicators of corporate burnout are:

  • Lower back or neck pains
  • Increased use of painkillers or caffeine
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Feelings of futility and alienation
  • Deterioration in performance
  • Short temper
  • Inability to “turn off”
  • Reduced immune system and memory.

Some behavioural changes that could signal depression resulting from corporate burnout include:

  • A systematic drop in levels of enthusiasm
  • Slow and monotonous speech
  • A lack of attention to appearance
  • Talk of “I’m letting everyone down”
  • Feelings that life isn’t worth living.

2. One third of the way down the escalator are the Self-Recoverers

These are leaders who are gradually carried down the escalator no matter how hard they work. However, they are sufficiently in control to understand the unsustainability of the situation. They step off and drive changes to their personal way of working, the performance of their teams, they re-establish “normal” hours, and often have difficult conversations with line leaders.

With these changes they are at low risk of work-related stress, depression, anxiety and corporate burnout and, in time, their situation is eminently recoverable.

3. Two thirds of the way down the escalator are the Assisted Recoverers, who require assistance to recover

Having travelled this far down the escalator, these leaders are completely unaware of their lack of performance or the impact they are having on their teams. They need a Recovery Buddy to point out the abyss they are heading for, and together, establish a personal recovery strategy offering the support necessary to return to the top.

These leaders are at very high risk of work-related stress, depression, anxiety and corporate burnout, but with help, they can recover completely.

4. At the bottom of the escalator are the high performers who are suffering from complete burnout

These leaders need very long recovery periods to overcome work-related stress, depression, anxiety or corporate burnout. They will require intervention and support over a long period.

What can you do to help tackle corporate burnout?

  • Review how your organisation monitors its workforce for signs of corporate burnout and mental health issues.
  • Identify and train individuals to be “Recovery Buddies” or “Mental Health First Aiders”.
  • Enhance appraisal/mentoring training to include identifying early signs of corporate burnout, performance issues and behavioural changes.
  • Consider your top 10 achievers and ask how the organisation would function if any of them were unable
    to work for nine to 18 months due to corporate burnout.
  • Review top 10 achiever workloads.
  • Provide flexible, annual work patterns based on operational demands, for example shorter summer working hours or study leave.
  • Consider if 24/7 communication is necessary.
  • Promote a well-being culture of healthy eating and exercise.
  • Immediately stop the practice of work-related telephone communication while driving.

Dr Howard G Awbery is MD and founder of Awbery, a company specialising in delivering high-impact leadership and management development programmes, HR and coaching solutions, and wellbeing strategies. For more information visit, Tel: 01283 703828, @AwberyTweet


A sobering article and one that should be on every leader's agenda. It's now on mine!

  • 13th Jan 2017, at 11:12 AM
  • David Benson

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