back to blog

Is C-Suite Burnout Causing a New Wave of Resignations?

c-suite burnout

C-suite burnout is about to take hold of your organization. At least that’s what recent research indicates. Executives who have stuck it out over the past two years—remaining on the ship during pandemic turmoil while others jumped to safety—are ready for their lifeboats.

A recent Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence survey shows C-suite burnout is poised to become a real, measurable retention problem in the coming months. Among executives participating in the survey, 70% are considering leaving their current jobs for ones that might better support their wellbeing (in comparison, 57% of employees said the same). And about 81% admit that improving their mental health is more important than career advancement right now. The survey also uncovered a stark disconnect between executives and employees that is only exasperating the problem. Let’s dig in:

Exits Caused by C-Suite Burnout

According to the survey, executives outrank employees in feeling overwhelmed, lonely and depressed. Just as employees decided in 2021 that enough is enough (prompting the Great Resignation), it seems the C-suite is finally at the end of its rope. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. reports that by May of this year, CEO exits were up 52% over last year and reached the highest rate in 20 years. 

Executives in government, nonprofits, and technology are leading the race to quit, many due to C-suite burnout. As CNN Business puts it, “managers have been living in a pressure cooker [and] many have had it.” Top executives from DocuSign, Pinterest, Kickstarter, Jupiter Found Management, Amazon, Southwest Airlines, Under Armour, Starbucks, and dozens more are among them.

Perception Versus Reality

While the Workplace Intelligence survey uncovered that executives are overwhelmed and are ready to quit (if they haven’t already), it also revealed an ironic twist. These same executives are significantly overestimating how well their employees are doing. For example, 89% of executives felt that their employees’ physical wellbeing was just fine, while only 65% of employees felt that was true. When it came to mental wellbeing, there was a 25% discrepancy. Social wellbeing was off by 33%. Executives understanding of their employees’ financial wellbeing was abysmally 41% off base.

To this end, only 56% of employees think their company’s executives care about their wellbeing, while 91% of the C-suite think their employees believe they care about it.

Feeding a Basic Employee Need

Let’s step back for a moment. Psychological safety is a basic human need that fosters employee wellbeing (also innovation, creativity, productivity, and more). However, a recent McKinsey study found that few leaders display the behaviors that can instill psychological safety among employees. The study authors conclude that a positive team climate made possible through effective leadership is the magic recipe for fostering employee psychological safety.

How does this relate to C-suite burnout? According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a clinical condition, defined as a syndrome resulting from extreme, unchecked workplace stress. This disconnect with employees coupled with the prolonged and extreme stresses of the past two years is a perfect storm for burnout.

“Many executives can sense when things aren’t right—with their own situation, with their employees, with the workplace culture in general—but they don’t know how to identify what is wrong and what needs to change to make things better,” says The HT Group Director of Consulting Services Sam Wood.

Revisiting the Workplace Intelligence survey, we can see this play out. While executives are in the dark on how their employees view their efforts, 86% are on the right track by welcoming some type of support in making things better. How? Nearly half would like an executive training program focused on matters of health, 44% would benefit from seeing other executives prioritize matters of health, and 40% need more support from health experts within their company (e.g., a CHO).

Executive EQ Could Make Things Better

Supporting executives in the right way can improve their mental health while also giving them the tools they need to improve the wellbeing of their employees. It’s a domino effect. Thus, reducing C-suite burnout in this way can improve retention at all levels.

And at the heart of this effort? Emotional intelligence (EQ).

We asked The HT Group Executive Advisor Heather Ball for guidance in this area. Our first question for her: How can improving EQ among executives help reduce C-suite burnout?

“Becoming self-aware is key and the first step in developing one’s EQ. To address burnout before turnover, the executive must first admit that they are facing burnout,” she explains. “It’s been my experience that organizations bring in a coach to help them do that later than they should. It should be done at the first signs of C-suite burnout; the symptoms of stress that are no longer easily overcome.” 

This stress and resulting burnout, she adds, will always have relationship issues at their core. Improving relationships will undoubtedly reduce burnout; and it starts at the top.

“Highly developed EQ instills a confidence and interpersonal insights that are both inspiring and effective. Improved EQ at the executive level ALWAYS improves employee wellbeing and culture,” she says.   

The Journey to Wellbeing

Ball recommends first calling a coach to administer critical tools including C-suite burnout assessments and employee satisfaction surveys.  

“Knowledge in this circumstance is not only power but is critical for risk mitigation of the loss of experienced leadership,” she says.  

The coach can help your executive team assess their own stress levels and responses and evaluate the feedback loop that exists—or is needed—to allow employees and managers to anonymously report their satisfaction and wellbeing. A roadmap should take shape; one that starts with enhancing executive EQ and ends with improved wellbeing for everyone within the organization.

Every team, every organization will follow its own unique route through the roadmap, however. For example, Ball adds, sometimes nothing will do but a sabbatical—stepping away from a pressure-cooker environment to rebuild healthy habits and responses. Interim executives can play a vital role in these cases.

“You can hire an experienced c-level consultant and protect the firm’s investment in upper management by giving them the break they deserve,” she points out.

The HT Group can provide more on executive coaching and other C-suite services including interim executives. Feel free to fill out the form at this link, and we’ll be in touch.