Are you choosing to burnout?

Last week, we introduced the subject of burnout, having looked at Elon Musk’s occasional meltdowns during an interview. We looked at a couple of my clients and some of the conversations we had around the very subject, and the constant state of denial or lack of awareness they were in.


When many of my phenomenally talented, ambitious, driven, bright and determined clients come to me for coaching, it’s usually around something practical and developmental. Such as improving their communication skills, presenting better, leadership skills, taking the business to the next stage, getting a promotion, managing team relations better etc. However, with the very nature of these individuals being driven, ambitious and talented, it does often also mean that they are more prone to overusing these strengths, which over time leads to derailment, which often can lead to burnout. In short, they never come to me, At least initially, to fortify their resilience and never to focus on improving their psychological prowess. It will never have crossed their minds that their mental, physical and emotional wellbeings are just as important to their professional and personal lives, as to their businesses. It is only after we start our work that these issues arise and become apparent.


‘There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations.’

S Altman, Y Combinator



A client recently talked about her need to progress within her firm and to keep getting promotions every two years. Aside from the arbitrary deadlines, there was little awareness of the learning journey, just a need to achieve for the sake of it. She didn’t think it was right to take holiday because people depended on her and she didn’t want to let the side down.


Musk himself confessed that he was unable to get away from his business because people’s livelihoods depended on him. Another client of mine swore that if he slept any more than 4 hours a night and that if he ate more than 1 meal a day, he would be losing out on business.


It’s lonely at the top – or is it?


We’ve heard it before and no doubt we will keep hearing this trope again and again. And whilst I can’t deny this is true, it doesn’t mean that it has to remain that way and that you don’t have outlets to help you in your quest. You can confide in a large variety of people – be it your peers, your board, or if neither of these are possible, close confidantes, mentors, coaches advisors. You don’t have to do it on your own!


Additionally, a responsible and forward-thinking CEO or team leader should build businesses that are sustainable for now and into the future. This means thinking and working strategically, setting up structures, teams and people who can help, support and enhance your business. As opposed to relying solely on you and your sheer willpower to see you through the days.


Me, myself and I


How does your ego fit into this? This is not easy to hear but many a leader cannot help but build a team or a business based on him/herself. Sure, of course the vision has to come from somewhere and mean something to the founder. However, as soon as you get your first client and/or you have your first workmate/employee, everything ceases to be just about you and your ego but it is now about your division or your enterprise.


Why do I talk about this? In the examples used above, and frequently when working with my clients, the subject of the ego arises time and again. Why is it that it’s so easy to comment on someone else’s success and failures objectively, but not one’s own?


The need to not show weakness is in equal measure about one’s ego - being too afraid to show weakness by asking for help. Despite the fact that the ego might in actual fact take more of a beating if one burns out and almost inevitably, the business fails. The assumption that you cannot take time away to relax and to become more productive and to improve your performance (through better health) amounts to your need to feel self-important and irreplaceable. Sleeping for 4 hours a night over several years and eating one unhealthy meal a day doesn’t make you Superman or Wonder Woman. It makes you that person who checked into hospital from nervous exhaustion and it is what kept you there for 3 months. True story.


Are you actively choosing to burn out?


Who on earth would actively choose to burn out? ‘Not I!’ you all shout indignantly.


The thing is, with all these clients, this is exactly what they were all doing. Their thinking, be they CEO of a business or working as a leader within a larger organization, the thinking is not so dissimilar to that of Ben Horowitz below.


“I have seen CEOs try to cope with the stress by drinking heavily, checking out, and even quitting. In each case, the CEO has a marvelous rationalization why it was OK for him to punk out or quit, but none them will every be great CEOs. Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweat, and what my friend the great Alfred Chuang (legendary founder and CEO of BEA Systems) calls “the torture.” Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”

Ben Horowitz — Loudcloud, A16Z


So here’s the thing. No one is asking you to quit, let alone suggesting it. The question we’re asking is,


What are you doing to ensure that you build a thriving and sustainable business?


Every time you ignore sensible and definitely not frivolous human activities such as sleeping and eating well, exercising, living a balanced and healthy life – you are actively and determinedly saying that you don’t want to build a thriving and sustainable business. You do not choose efficiency, productivity, innovation, clear and well thought-out decision-making, high performance and longevity. Your ego is getting in the way of your success and you can’t even see or accept it.


Take a really close and objective look of yourself. Which part of you is making the decisions? The bright, talented, strategic go-getter, or the ego? The decision isn’t binary – sleep or no sleep. Eat or don’t eat. Your professional journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Use that genius brain of yours and do the right thing for you and your business!


Some basics to help in the interim….




There is a reason why sleep deprivation has been chosen as a form of torture. These poor prisoners, already on edge and lacking proper nutrition, are delirious going on a little psychotic. That is what you might be like at work, whilst pretending to be Superman.


Sleep is hard for those who suffer from stress and anxiety. I’m no expert but I would say, little things to help you prepare for bed really help. These include stopping all work at least 2-3 hours before you head for bed. That means no phone, no calls, no reading for work-related stuff. Try and practise some mindfulness such as doing a body scan before you sleep, to further calm the mind. If you prefer exercising in the evening, do also try and do this at least 2-3 hours before bedtime. You don’t really want to be all pumped and hyped up before you try and sleep!




Eat badly and this will lead to unstable blood sugars which in turn will lead to fatigue, mood swings and poor concentration, as well as that pernicious diabetes which is just round the corner from you. Too much caffeine will lead to poorer productivity & concentration, as well as affecting cortisol levels in your blood stream. This in turn will exacerbate your stress levels. With all these really fun side-effects and with you being an absolute joy to work with, you might end up being even more constantly & gravely ill than the office hypochondriac.




The healthier your body, the healthier your mind. Aside from staving off that heart attack, physical exercise brings about clearer and more efficient minds as that healthy blood gets pumping round the body.


This triumvirate of basics will help keep that burnout threat away. Others include general relaxation, socializing, holidays and hobbies, as well as a host of diverse options. The question I ask is:


Why wouldn’t you want to be in peak condition whilst leading the charge?


Last week I wrote about some of the things you can do to help prevent burnout. I aim to start introducing some of these concepts to you on Wellness Wednesdays. The reality is that there are far bigger experts on this matter than I could ever be, so I will defer to them. Today, my aim was to offer some little tips and some food for thought.


Remember, every time you choose your ego, you choose to burnout. There are enough challenges in life – don’t let your ego add to that list!



Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive & business coach who has worked with start-ups and social enterprises through to large established corporates (including FTSE100 companies) across a number of industries including financial services, engineering, retail and media & communications. She also advises boards on their dynamics. Added to this, she spent almost twenty years working at a senior level in fund management. She also has a Masters in Organisational Psychology. For more please see here or contact her at:



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