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The Dangers of Burnout in Leaders

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

By Jenny Tucker

Every work team is an interwoven web of feelings, thoughts and behaviour. When positivity abounds, the outcomes are rewarding; when the negatives prevail, they can spin a wide-reaching detrimental downturn. Each member plays their role in influencing the collective experience, but none more so than those in leadership roles, who tend to shape the mindset of their people.

So, it’s little surprise that when a manager or leader experiences burnout, the waterfall effect of those turbulent feelings trickle down through their team - particularly their direct reports. And because leaders are holding the proverbial fort, it is more difficult for them to admit vulnerability and seek crucial support. Plus, the further a person is up the professional ladder, research shows that internal guidance and feedback on their performance is less forthcoming. There is a preconception of them being able to cope – they are leaders after all – so when they do struggle, it’s often not recognised until the claws of overload pushes a person to their limit.

“I am so maxed out”

At Untapped.AI we often hear leaders using the ubiquitous phrase: ‘maxed out’, and data from our platform reveals that 62% of leaders experience feelings of burnout. Repeatedly, they talk about themselves, and their people, being overwhelmed and stressed – even, being in crisis. The damaging effect of the recent economic situation has put incredible pressures on organisations, with managers trying to cope with smaller teams and resources, higher expectations on them to reap results, an uncertainty about what is coming next, and a lack of ownership or risk-taking from their people when things get messy. This all loads even more burden on the boss.

Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast (2021) reports that nearly 60% of leaders say they feel ‘used up by the end of the workday’, which is a strong indicator of burnout. While at Untapped.AI, our data shows that four fifths of HR managers claim to be exhausted in their role. According to research by Slack Technologies’ Future Forum, middle managers are reporting the worst work/life balance and highest levels of anxiety. This doesn’t bode well for them striving to step up the ranks to an even higher position and even more overload.

“I’ve become detached in order to cope”

A knock-on effect of feeling overwhelmed is the decision to retreat from the front line. At Untapped.AI, we hear managers claiming they simply can’t deal with the pressures of their professional life, and so find themselves shutting down and choosing to simply show up rather than step up. This results in less confident decision-making, low innovation and poor engagement in the needs of their team. The result: an organisation which is fractured and stagnant, and workers feeling as though they toil in isolation. Our data shows 74% of users on our platform have noticed their manager is unavailable and often appears exhausted.

Lorraine, a CPO, at a marketing business, claims she knows she is disconnecting but no longer has the bandwidth to fulfil the expectations of her company. “It’s self-preservation. I am exhausted all the time, and I just can’t get my job done in the hours of the day. Rather than try to find a way forward, I’ve become detached in order to cope. I feel the pressure of being the boss, which means I don’t want to admit my failings. I can’t be honest about what is really going on.”

“Are you okay?”

We know at Untapped.AI that everyone needs support. Especially after the impact of the pandemic and the increase in remote and hybrid working (which creates detachment in more ways than one). In an ideal scenario, it’s crucial to catch burnout before it manifests – and that means noticing it early on. Empathy plays an intrinsic role in containing overwhelm; being sensitive to the behaviour of another person, understanding they may need you to listen carefully to their situation and feelings, or to show appreciation for the actions they take and the effort they display. The simple question: ‘are you okay?’ is a powerful acknowledgment of your true interest in another person’s wellbeing.

Employees look to their leaders for confidence and direction – but managers are human too and can only lead when they feel in a position of competency. At Untapped.AI we engage with leaders to intervene before burnout takes its toxic toll. As an independent and confidential support system, we are there alongside to listen deeply, contain anxiety and help seek solutions. Our experience shows us that if managers are managing, the trickle down effect is powerfully positive. It takes a robust and resilient managerial influence to build a united and progressive team, but every person is intrinsic to that collective, and however high up the ranks a person might be, they still need to feel seen, heard and understood.

Key Takeaways

• A boss isn’t exempt from emotions. It is a sign of strength to admit you need support.

• Being vulnerable allows others to be vulnerable too.

• Burnout is an economic disaster for organisations. Catch it before it strips a team of its talent.

• Work as a collaborative front. There is strength in unity.

• Take the time to ask if someone is okay. A simple - but extremely powerful -sentence.

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