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How to Prevent Executive Brownout

It’s easy to recognize the symptoms of burnout: slipping job performance, health issues, and an unbalanced personal life. But many executives experience a painful drop in engagement at work without exhibiting the telltale signs. In two Harvard Business Review articles, Michael E. Kibler, CEO at Corporate Balance Concepts, brings brownout into a larger conversation on executive performance and work-life balance. He defines brownout as “different from burnout because knowledge workers afflicted by it are not in obvious crisis.” In other words, the majority of Kibler superstar executive clients fulfill all their work duties while silently buckling under the weight of too much stress:

They seem to be performing fine: putting in massive hours in meetings and calls across time zones, grinding out work while leading or contributing to global teams, and saying all the right things in meetings (though not in side-bar conversations). However, these executives are often operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm, and the predictable consequence is disengagement.

Regardless of appearances, brownout can have an impact not only on quality of life but on neurological processes. According to a recent study cited by Business Insider, prolonged levels of work-related stress that lead to exhaustion, detachment and feeling of ineffectiveness can cause change in the “neural circuits in the brain.” This adjustment hurts an individual’s “ability to cope with stressful situations” and makes it difficult to process new stressors. In other words, stress begets stress, and brownout takes hold when executives fail to curb its exponential effects.

Kibler suggests that to prevent this downward spiral, executives learn to keep promises to themselves amid the high demands of their roles. “When you make and keep promises to self, you become a better, more fully realized version of yourself, which benefits not only you but everyone around you and your organization.” Kibler believes executives should start with one “small but exceptionally meaningful promise…and to stick to it with 100% integrity.” Following through on one thing builds confidence while being realistic about limitations.

Here some examples of promises that Kibler suggests to offset brownout over time:

  • To take care of yourself physically: exercise regularly, eat right, get enough sleep, and visit the doctor.
  • To pursue activities that will help to differentiate your skill set from others.
  • To spend time with your family and close friends.
  • To manage your personal finances with care and attention, and with long-term objectives in mind.
  • To spend time reflecting on what is most important to you in life and live and work according to your deepest values.
  • To participate in a community outside work that truly matters to you.