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6 ways to grow as a leader without burning out

Too much work, a feeling of little control and mismatched values can lead to leaders burning out, but LaRae Quy offers six remedies.

11 min read


burning out

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LaRae Quy

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced burnout at some point. I spent the last four years of my career as the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. The news cycle doesn’t recognize weekends, vacations or time at the beach. I was on call 24/7 for the entire four years. By the end, I was irritable, impatient and without a support network because, guess what, I had no time for interpersonal relationships.

Burnout may be a bit like true love — hard to define, but when it smacks you in the face, you know you’ve been hit. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a phenomenon driven by chronic unmanaged stress. These are some of the more prominent signs of burnout:

  • Energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Mental distance from one’s job
  • Negativity
  • Reduced professional efficacy
  • Cynicism

Too often, self-care is touted as the cure for burnout. And while well-being is a good start, it takes more than yoga, meditation apps and gym memberships to address the burnout experienced by employees. Think about burned-out people as canaries in the coal mine. When the canary keels over, we acknowledge that the environment is hazardous — we don’t bury our heads and pretend all is well.

COVID-19 is blamed for most of the burnout we hear about today. By April 2020, 2.6 billion people had gone into lockdown, and 81% of the global workforce was fully or partially closed. A large number of people began to work from home. The pandemic revealed the truth behind the curtain: Things were not as they seemed in the land of Oz and hadn’t been for quite some time.

Burnout reared its ugly head long before the COVID-19 storm hit us. The concept of organizational burnout originated in the 1970s. The pandemic was merely an accelerant. 

Burnout is a growing problem

A 2018 study in the journal “Mayo Clinic Proceedings” found that the “overall burnout” rate among the general US workforce was 28%. By 2022 those numbers had ballooned to 53%, according to Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index, a global survey of workers across multiple industries and companies.  

Elon Musk tweeted that employees must work 80 to 100 hours a week. He further stated, “There are way easier places to work (besides Tesla), but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

A 2015 New York Times article about Amazon described “marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access while on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.”

With this sort of mentality in C-suite leadership, no wonder burnout has become a crisis.

Prepare for the next crisis

Any crisis is a test of our resilience, and now is the perfect time to develop the mental toughness to learn from missteps. We cannot afford to squander our hard-earned wisdom; we must implement burnout prevention strategies.

According to researchers, burnout has six leading causes:

  1. Workload
  2. Control
  3. Reward
  4. Community
  5. Fairness
  6. Values

Leaders should never assume they know the reason for their burnout. Pay attention when exhaustion and cynicism raise their ugly heads, because they are effective predictors of burnout. Fatigue indicates that leaders have difficulty keeping up with their personal and professional lives. Cynicism implies a need for more trust in their organization or C-level leadership. Both must be nipped in the bud as soon as possible before they develop into burnout. 

Let’s look at six practical ways to grow as a leader without getting burned out.

1. Unsustainable workload

I mentioned earlier the constant inflow of information and responsibilities as the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. Yes, it led to burnout, but guess what? I also loved being at the center of every big case in the San Francisco division. I was briefed on essential cases and had an inside track on the investigation. I retired after my four-year gig as a spokesperson. It would have been better for me to have moved on a year earlier because I was so consumed with my job and the relentless pace it required that I failed to take care of myself. 

Unsustainable workloads are the usual suspects for burnout. Research from Gallup has shown that burnout increases significantly when an employee’s workweek averages more than 50 hours and rises even more substantially at 60 hours.

Many leaders thrive in pressure cooker environments, but there comes a time when the continual workload is unsustainable for most people. Today’s leaders face two relentless sources of workload pressure. First, the demand to perform — to deliver excellent short-term results; second, the urgent need to transform — to design the future of your workplace.

There’s a plethora of advice designed to improve your workload — books, blogs, hacks and apps. But the reality is that they are unlikely to be effective because these tools assume a leader has the underlying skill sets that are needed before any tool or app can be effective.

What you can do now:

Research reveals three particular skill sets you will need to deal with unsustainable workloads:

  1. Awareness. Think realistically about your time and workload. Understand it is a limited resource, and you can’t do everything and still be the best. If a new task shows up, suggest a raincheck for when you have more control of your schedule. 
  2. Arrangement. Write down priorities for the day and week. When you write them down, your brain knows that you’re on it, so it doesn’t have to remind you at 3 am. Your brain loves it when you organize your daily activities, so a to-do list will help free up your brain to work on more complex issues that will confront you at work.  
  3. Adaptation. List your tasks and activities and prioritize each one.

2. Perceived lack of control

We perceive a lack of control when we don’t have the opportunity to make choices and decisions, solve problems and contribute to important decisions about our work. Workplace research by Christina Maslach shows lack of control is a crucial driver of burnout.

We’re talking about the ability of people to use their judgment when it comes to how they spend their time in their job. Leaders have been forced to lead with escalating demands with fewer resources.

What you can do now: 

President Dwight Eisenhower created an urgent vs. important principle that provides a way to organize tasks based on their nature and importance to help you improve a sense of control.

  • Important and urgent. Unforeseen tasks that represent a crisis, or you’ve left them to the last minute. Decide how you can schedule activities ahead of time so they don’t become urgent.
  • Important but not urgent. Activities that help you achieve your personal and professional goals.
  • Not important but urgent. Other people are usually the culprit here, so learn to say no when you need to focus on one of your priorities.
  • Not important and not urgent. Distractions that should be avoided.

3. Insufficient rewards

Nothing is more demoralizing than working twice as hard as a colleague and pulling in the same salary. FBI agents are paid on a tier system, so there are few bonuses for outstanding performance at the end of the year. But rewards are not always about salary. It’s also being acknowledged for your workload and the results it produced. So while I didn’t get an end-of-the-year bonus, I did receive praise from my supervisors, quality step increases and other perks like parking and office space. 

A McKinsey & Co. survey found that 35% of respondents left jobs because of uncaring leaders or a lack of career development. While salary was a factor in the survey, it ranked toward the bottom. There has been a shift in the way people measure success. Younger leaders seek job satisfaction, ways to contribute to society and personal empowerment.

What you can do now:

Successful people are not seduced into thinking that success and happiness are the same. Ask yourself these questions: “What will make me happy?” and “What will make me successful?” Do not mistakenly assume these two questions are the same.

4. Lack of supportive community

We have friends and family to whom we can confide, but burnout can occur when we don’t have ongoing relationships with other people in our job. Job-related relationships provide social support, a means of working out disagreements and more job engagement. 

A Microsoft study found that connecting with colleagues is a crucial motivation for working in person. Eighty-four percent of employees would be motivated by the promise of socializing with co-workers, while 85% would be inspired by rebuilding team bonds. Employees also report that they would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there or if their work friends were there.

Other studies show that religion or spirituality is another way people can bolster their well-being. Thirty-four percent of the people in this study indicated that worship and group events contributed to their emotional health. It connects them with a higher authority and gives them hope.

What you can do now: 
  • Create a personal board of directors, a circle of influence to help you identify and take advantage of opportunities. Doing this will allow you to strategically assess where you want to go, who can help and how to approach them.
  • Give yourself the time and space to pursue your therapeutic relationships.
  • Join professional networks where relationships can be created and nurtured. 

5. Lack of fairness

You are passed by for a promotion because the boss gave it to one of their favorites. A rumor about you is absurd, but your career suffers. A colleague takes credit for the hard work you did.

Fairness refers to the extent to which the organization has consistent and equitable rules for everyone. People measure their involvement in decision-making and use it as an index for their place in the food chain. Life is unfair, but you can’t quit whenever something unfair happens. Instead, rely on a solid moral compass and core values to push through your circumstances. Remember:

If there are no heroes to save you, you be the hero. — LaRae Quy

What you can do now
  • Keep your self-discipline and self-respect in check. Don’t lash out at others and launch a personal vendetta. 
  • Remember your worth. It’s natural to begin questioning your competencies and contributions to the organization. Go back to your moral compass and core values to remind you of what is truly important to you.
  • Look at unfair events as a challenge and a learning opportunity.
  • Keep moving toward your goals. There will always be other opportunities.

6. Mismatched values

Values are what matters to the individual in their work. In an ideal world, there would be consistency between personal and organizational values.

The pandemic shifted the ground under our feet. We are looking to understand our purpose in life better. Salaries pay for life’s necessities, but once those needs are met, we’ll never be satisfied or content until we connect aspects of our work with what matters to us. When there is a conflict of values with the job, employees often make a trade‐off between work they want to do and work they have to do, which can lead to more significant burnout.

Leaders risk experiencing moral injury when they face situations that violate their core values. Like cognitive dissonance, moral injury occurs when there is a disconnect between the ethical principles we live by and the reality of what is required of us or what we are experiencing. 

One research study indicates that burnout isn’t always the function of too much work but is more the result of work with little or no impact on the world. Few people want a job where they only need to show up. Most of us want to make a difference in the world. We want to increase influence and impact without clocking in more hours.

What you can do now:
  • Ask yourself how your job and career contribute to something for the greater good. What is your part in it?
  • Was your moral injury initiated by something you did or something that was imposed upon you?
  • Can you delineate between what a perfect response from you would have looked like and how reality made it messy?
  • Be specific about what was out of your control. Identify how the system created a response that could have been better.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

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