One CEO's Story of Executive Burnout

Perez_executive burnout February 7, 2023 By: Angel B. Pérez

Reports of burnout at the top level of organizations are on the rise. An association CEO shares his personal journey of struggling with burnout and how he found joy in work and life again.

A fog descended upon me, like clouds forming above a seaside town when a warm day meets cool ocean waters. At first, I made nothing of it.

I’m probably tired. I should sleep more.

Maybe I need more iron in my diet? I should start taking vitamins.

Despite my efforts, the fog thickened. Every afternoon I felt an overwhelming exhaustion overtake me. I yearned to fall asleep on the spot.

I grew concerned. This was highly unusual. As a child, my parents nicknamed me “huracán,” the Spanish word for hurricane. A boss once gifted me a stuffed Energizer bunny as she joked about my incessant stamina. 

 I’ve learned that the most important thing I can do to lead effectively is care for myself.
So how is it possible that in my second year as a CEO my batteries would die? I loved my job. It brought me meaning and purpose. My team and I were leading organizational change, creating new and exciting initiatives, hiring outstanding staff, and successfully steering the organization through a pandemic. I travelled relentlessly, delivered speeches and media interviews, published articles, served on several boards, taught graduate school courses, and more. From an outsider’s perspective, I was thriving.

Yet, despite my passion for the job, all things that historically brought me joy faded. I continued to work hard, but I was going through the motions. I kept up my workout routine to muster up endorphins and still had little energy. What worried me even more was my lost interest in most things outside of work. All I did was go home, sit on the couch, watch TV, and do it all over again. The deeper my fog became, the more I worked; it has always been my coping mechanism.  I thought, this must be what a mid-life crisis feels like.

Looking for Answers

As a trained academic, I turned to the tools I know best: books, articles, podcasts, and lectures. I reviewed topics from spiritual development to depression, psychology to leadership development, and more.  The more I learned, the more I thought I discovered the cause of my fog. Perhaps I was languishing, as Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times. Perhaps I lost my hum, as Shanda Rhimes shared in her TED Talk. Perhaps I was in greater need of spiritual development, as Jay Shetty wrote in Think Like a Monk.

It wasn’t until I returned to therapy that clarity ensued.

“You are the walking poster child for burnout, which has led to a mild depression,” she said. 

“Burnout?  I don’t do burnout!  I’m the Energizer bunny, remember?”

In retrospect, I don’t know why it was a shock.  For the past several years, I moved at an unyielding pace. Work was the only focus of my life, and joy faded like a distant memory.

Workaholics tend to not acknowledge how too much of a good thing, especially work, can lead to a significant loss of joy. Even when work brings us meaning, an absence of balance makes it unsustainable. As restaurateur David Chang writes in his memoir, “Recovering alcoholics talk about needing to hit rock bottom before they are able to climb out. The paradox for the workaholic is that rock bottom is the top of whatever profession they are in.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. A recent member survey we did here at the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) revealed that the top concern for our members is burnout. I shared the data with our constituencies and attended meetings to plan how we could help bring relief. I presented webinars about the mental health crisis my colleagues are facing, and the burnout we must help alleviate. Through all these meetings, I didn’t consider that I needed relief as well. In fact, even NACAC’s board members told me, “You’ve been running a marathon at a sprint’s pace.”

In the face of our country’s racial reckoning, a pandemic, financial crises, political wars and more, leaders have been busy worrying about their members, staff, boards, and others. As a result, many have forgotten to take care of themselves. I’ve learned that the most important thing I can do to lead effectively is care for myself. Care means different things to different people. For me, it’s meditation, nurturing relationships, finding joyful things to do outside of work, and practicing gratitude. It also means saying “no” more, so I can say “yes” to a fuller life.

Finding Joy Again

The fog has finally lifted, but I know keeping it at bay will be a lifelong journey.  In the end, I realize I wasn’t having a mid-life crisis, rather a mid-life awakening.

I encourage leaders to embark on a journey of reflection to identify what their healthy work-life-joy integration could be.  It’s not only good for us; it’s good for our association.

As we embark on this journey, let’s also share what we learn with others. Many people in our organizations suffer in silence. When leaders share their own challenges, it gives permission for our constituents to tackle theirs.  Will this lead to some discomfort?Perhaps. Is it worth it? Yes.

Conventional wisdom may be to “never let them see you sweat.” Yet, a recent study found “that one reason leaders struggle is because they frequently choose to present their strengths and intentionally avoid disclosing their weaknesses.”

The world of work is changing, and our constituents no longer subscribe to the fallacy of the leader as perfect. They want leaders to be genuine, and they are inspired by those who bring their true selves to the organization.  Let’s lead by example and show the next generation that finding meaning and purpose at work matters, but when it’s not paired with joy and self-care, it will never be sustainable.

Angel B. Pérez

Angel B. Pérez is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Virginia.