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A Twelve-Step Holiday Plan for Battling Executive Burnout 

A Twelve-Step Holiday Plan for Battling Executive Burnout 

December 2022


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It is the festive season, but many executive leaders aren’t feeling too festive. In fact, some are reluctant to take time off at all. 

Taking time off during the festive season often causes executive leaders to experience two types of anxiety, both based on resistance to change or concerns about transitions. 

First, there is anxiety about transitioning into the holidays, and second, there is anxiety about transitioning back to work after the holidays. The first instance is referred to as work separation anxiety. It involves letting go of work and embracing recreation. The second instance is back to work anxiety. It involves giving up your holiday routines to return to the office. There are two common statements that describe both of these anxieties: “I don’t want to go on holiday, I have too much to do!” and “OMG! I don’t want to go back to work!”   

You are at risk of experiencing burnout if you allow anxiety to dictate whether you take a break. 

Speaking of burnout, it has become a buzzword, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve our attention. After all, it is one of the first things we think about when we consider employee well-being.   

Organizations are honorably trying to avoid employee burnout. Despite this, executive retention is at an all-time low. In fact, the global executive turnover rate is about 18%. In other words, while executives are busy worrying about their employees’ mental health, they’re burning themselves out. 

Avoid Executive Burnout this Holiday Season 

Executive burnout is nothing new. According to the World Health Organization, burnout has the following symptoms:   

  • A feeling of exhaustion.  
  • Increasingly negative work-related thoughts and emotions.   
  • A reduction in professional effectiveness.   

A burned-out executive may also suffer from brain fog, problems with emotional regulation, irritability, depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms of stress, including headaches and a weakened immune system.    

Approximately half of corporate leaders will experience this phenomenon at some point during their careers. Executive burnout is thus a serious global issue.  

So, what is the big deal with executive burnout? Aside from the symptoms described by the WHO, it can also shorten your lifespan. Stressed CEOs, for instance, have a 1.5-year shorter life expectancy. For comparison, if you started smoking tobacco at 18 and stopped at 30, your life expectancy would only decrease by about a year.  

Executive burnout has serious effects, impacting not only the executive in question, but also their teams, their organization, their families, and friends.  

My 12-Step Guide to Executive Holidays

Taking a break is not optional. You read that right. The best way to avoid burnout is to take time off.  

These tips will help you take time off guilt- and anxiety-free this holiday season:   

  1. Prime yourself for the holidays. 
    Try to finish as much of your pending work as you can, but don’t let it exhaust you. Getting work done is good, but it goes without saying that the key to a smooth transition to the holidays is to avoid a massive burnout before starting your vacation. The more stressed you are in the lead-up to your vacation, the harder it will be for you to relax once you are on vacation. To make the most of your time off, prepare yourself for relaxation success in the days and weeks leading up to your holiday. 
  1. Take a minimum of eight days off.  
    In 2012, The Journal of Happiness Studies published research that supported the idea that humans needed to be away from work for at least eight days to fully recharge and reset.  
  1. Plan ahead and inform the key players in your organization that you will be taking a break. 
    When you feel executive burnout sneaking up on you, it may be tempting to take a leave of absence right away. In reality, you may feel even more stressed out while on holiday if you do not have time to properly prepare your organization for your absence. Key players, including other executives and senior managers, should be notified in advance of your absence. However, it is also a good idea to notify lower-level employees to establish the hierarchy that will be in place while you are away.   
  1. Do not get involved in any hands-on projects before going on leave. 
    A big project can be hard to resist, especially if it is something you are passionate about. Despite wanting to participate, it is a good idea to avoid large projects that may reach a critical point while you are on vacation. Getting involved in one will probably mean spending your vacation working, regardless of whether that is what is expected of you.   
  1. Elect a stand-in in your absence.
    During your absence, this person will handle all communications, issues, and opportunities normally requiring your attention at work. A fantastic way to prepare your succession pipeline is to ask one of your potential successors to stand in for you.   
  1. Be clear about when you should and should not be contacted while on vacation. 
    Inform your fellow executives and senior managers to only contact you under specific circumstances, and that anything else that arises should be handled by them or by the person who is standing in for you. You should make it clear that you do not wish to be called, emailed, or CC’d on any emails unless it is an emergency.  
  1. Stay away from email and virtual workspaces like Slack and Microsoft Teams while on vacation. 
    No matter how strict your instructions were to your colleagues and managers not to disturb you while you are on vacation, you will not succeed unless you have the self-control to stay away from your inbox and virtual workspaces like Slack or Teams. To avoid being distracted by incoming notifications, I recommend removing these apps from your smartphone while on vacation (or muting your notifications) and asking your colleagues to call you in case of an emergency.   
  1. Do not let anxiety get the best of you while you are on vacation.
    Do not ask your teammates or senior managers how things are going while you are on vacation. Trust them enough to be okay in your absence and to contact you in the manner you specified in case of an emergency. Be strict with yourself and avoid browsing financial news sites or checking your organization’s stock performance while on vacation if you find that checking either tempts you to contact your colleagues. A healthy dose of self-discipline is necessary to truly relax.   
  1. Fill your holiday schedule with things you enjoy.
    Staying busy is the best way to avoid checking your emails and worrying about your organization while you are away. Make sure to plan your holiday activities ahead of time and fill your days with things you enjoy. Surfing? Hiking? Cooking? Writing? It is all fair game while you are on vacation. Doing things you enjoy will reenergize you.   
  1. Make time for rest.
    Participating in activities you enjoy is important, but do not cram your schedule with so many events and activities that you forget to relax and unwind. Ensure that you have some quiet time too, in which you can nap, read, meditate, or enjoy some other leisure activity.   
  1. Make your back-to-work transition a gradual one 
    Any relaxation you may have had will quickly disappear if you return to work too abruptly. Going back to work is indeed the most important transition related to the festive season. Remember the tip about finishing up pending work before leaving? Well, now you’re returning to a clean slate, so avoid cramming your schedule with new tasks and meetings, at least for the first couple of weeks. Don’t overbook your calendar, schedule fewer meetings, and schedule some fun activities/lunches/dinners to keep that holiday feeling alive. The transition will feel more gradual if you do so.  
  1. Pass on the baton when you return to work.
    It is important to do two things when you return to work. Firstly, set a good example for your employees by discussing your vacation and how you made sure work stayed out of it while you recharged. Ensure they are also given the option to take a break if they need it. Secondly, if other senior executives or managers need a break, encourage them to take one too (and to completely disconnect from work). Prioritizing your well-being and mental health permits others to do the same, and that is a beautiful thing.  

Good Leaders Prioritize Their Mental Health and Wellbeing

As the Roman poet, Ovid, once said, “Take rest. A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”  

If you still dread returning to work despite following my tips, relaxing as much as possible, and leaving your company in the best hands while you were away, then it is time to take stock and do some introspection. You need to reevaluate and examine the nature of your work, your mindset at work, and your work environment. Ask yourself which of these three things contributes negatively to your mental health. Often, negative feelings are nothing more than the spark we need to ignite a change in ourselves or our circumstances. 

We hope this piece will provide you with the tools you need so you can take a well-deserved vacation.  If you are unable to take a break because of a vacancy in your executive team, you can reach out to one of our consultants for guidance.   

Being healthy and in a good frame of mind is the key to leading well. It is important to invest in yourself by taking a break every now and then.  

About the Author 

Rose Hindy is a Consumer Products and Services Principal, Partner, and Executive Coach at Stanton Chase Dubai. She is also the Global Sector Leader of Media and Communications. She was named one of Disruptors Magazine’s Top 30 Unstoppable Women Entrepreneurs of 2022. 

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