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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

8 causes of cognitive burnout and 6 top strategies for recovery and prevention

“I just cannot say no, even if I am full of tasks.”

“I need to decide soon, but it seems like I am paralyzed.”

“I have so much to do, but I don’t have the energy to do anything.”


These are common sentences from people who could be experiencing cognitive burnout, a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. The impact of cognitive burnout transcends the individual, as it can also have significant implications for the teams we lead.


A group of upright matches with red tips on a pink background, with one match in the center burnt out and bent over, symbolizing burnout or fatigue amidst others who are not affected.
Cognitive burnout is a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion

Why do we feel burnout?

Many aspects, including socio-demographic, personality, socio-environmental, and working factors, can cause burnout. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll focus on the latter.


According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, there are six leading causes of burnout in the workplace:


  • Excessive workload: consistently heavy workloads, long hours, and intense intellectual demand without adequate breaks or support.

  • Lack of control and autonomy: Feeling a lack of control over your work – such as the inability to influence decisions that affect your job. This includes limited flexibility in work schedules and tasks.

  • Insufficient Rewards: Monetary, institutional (like benefits), or social (like recognition and support) rewards do not match the effort and time put into the work.

  • Lack of community: Isolation, conflict, or a lack of support in the workplace.

  • Absence of fairness: The feeling of being treated unfairly – be it in workload distribution, promotions, or feedback –impacting trust, openness, and respect.

  • Mismatched values and skills: A mismatch between job demands and an individual’s values, skills, and interests, causing a profound disconnection with work.


Based on my experience in the Navy and as a Coach, I have noted two additional causes of cognitive burnout, mainly affecting leaders:

  • The fact that we are constantly connected to work, with no distinction between job and private life and therefore with no rest time;

  • We are bombarded with a sheer amount of information that needs to be processed, absorbing mental energy for each decision leaders must make.


A person in a modern office setting, sitting at a desk with their hands on their head, visibly tired and overwhelmed, showcasing the theme of burnout
Burnout impacts individuals on many levels

What does it mean to feel burnout?

According to “The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, “Leadership is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” This analogy is apt to understand how leaders and individuals must learn to manage their mental battery to sustain prolonged pressure.


Take an average startup founder: they usually are totally invested in their endeavor, holding multiple positions in the company. There is no balance between work and anything else. No time to recover. No time to rest. The most common justification is that the stakes are high: they fully invest their time, money, and mental and physical energy to create a successful business.


However, most founders and business owners fail to see that what and how they deal with work is setting them up to flop. Indeed, burnout is one of the causes of failure. Talking about numbers, 48% of entrepreneurs experience burnout, with an additional 32% experiencing depression and 56% facing decision fatigue (Founder Burnout Rates Are High: What’s the Solution? - AllBusiness.com).


If this is not alarming enough, there is more: 30% of startups fail due to the emotional state of their founders.


On a personal level, cognitive burnout can lead to a decline in health, strained relationships, and a diminished sense of purpose. Leaders may question their capabilities, leading to a drop in self-confidence. Team members may feel demotivated and resort to quiet quitting, absenteeism, or changing jobs. As Daniel Goleman points out in “Emotional Intelligence,” self-awareness is a critical component of emotional intelligence, which is essential for everyone. The lack of it, as seen in burnout, can severely impair relationships and effectiveness.


Impacts in the physiological sphere are not unheard of. Chronic stress and burnout can lead to cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension and pain, sleep disturbances, and more.


Unfortunately, it can go further. Burnout could be the cause of suicide, especially when it is compounded by other factors such as mental health conditions (like depression or anxiety). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the category of health workers has been subjected to incredible stress and pressure, resulting in an increased risk of suicide (Frontiers | Suicide in Healthcare Workers: Determinants, Challenges, and the Impact of COVID-19 (frontiersin.org)).


If we zoom out, the impacts are more far-reaching. Cognitive burnout can impair judgment, reduce empathy, and diminish the ability to inspire and motivate teams. It can create a ripple effect, lowering team morale and productivity. At the organizational level, it means damages to reputation and even financial losses and failures.


In Jim Collins’ “Good to Great,” he emphasizes the need for leaders to be a source of energy for their teams. Burnout, however, turns leaders into energy sinks rather than sources.


You don’t have to take my word. Hear from the experiences of others. In his book “Lost and Founder” and various interviews, Rand Fishkin, the founder of the SEO company Moz, has been open about his struggles with depression and how the pressure and burnout affected his decision-making and leadership at Moz. Danielle Morrill, the co-founder and CEO of Mattermark, wrote explicitly about her experience with burnout in a blog post titled “When You’re the CEO, Everything Is Your Fault.” Justin Kan, known for co-founding live video platforms Justin.tv and Twitch, and the legal tech startup Atrium, has often discussed the importance of mental health and how ignoring it can lead to severe consequences.


It is essential to add that every person has a different mental and physical resistance to burnout. I know people who can work almost 24/7 and don’t pay much attention to anything else – family, friends, selves. Others feel the need for a break.


A woman resting peacefully on a grey couch in a sunroom with large windows overlooking a serene, tree-covered hillside, symbolizing relaxation and recovery as a natural solution to burnout
You can sleep your way to the top

What can you do when you feel burnout?

“We are going to literally sleep our way to the top” - Arianna Huffington.

The quote comes from a famous TED Talk titled “How to succeed? Get more sleep.” Let’s add a little background.


Arianna Huffington is the founder of The Huffington Post and one of the most followed people on LinkedIn. She has been very vocal about her collapse from exhaustion and sleep deprivation in 2007, two years after founding The Huffington Post. This incident led her to reassess her life and work balance, eventually leading her to write the book “The Sleep Revolution” and found Thrive Global, a company focusing on health and wellness.


If sleeping more (and better) or resting generally is not what you seek, here is a list of other things you can do to recover from burnout.


First of all – as always – you need to build self-awareness. Recognize the signs of burnout early, and assess your mental and emotional state regularly.


Secondly, you can think about sharing and delegating tasks. The positive effects will be double: on the one hand, you reduce your workload. On the other, you are empowering team members.


You can also set boundaries, balancing professional and personal life more effectively. At a personal level, it can imply setting aside time for the aforementioned rest, physical activities, or hobbies that rejuvenate the spirit (I dive deep into music or readings). At the organizational level, it means advocating for policies that promote work-life balance and recognizing the importance of mental fitness.


Talking about self-care, meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness can also help manage stress. I invite you to read the book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, “The Science of Meditation,” to learn about scientific evidence of the positive effects of meditation.


Professional support can undoubtedly support your recovery from burnout. For example, coaching can provide you with new perspectives and coping strategies. If you need it, I can recommend a great coach for you.


You can do more: joining a peer network can be a powerful antidote to burnout, offering a sense of community, shared wisdom, and mutual support. If you are interested in this approach, email me (stefano@masteryoursea.com) and stay tuned. I will write more about it.


Conclusion

Being the founder of a startup, a business owner, a CEO, or a team leader does not mean you have to suffer from burnout. As Brené Brown wrote in “Dare to Lead,” “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.


This means that addressing burnout is about proactive emotional management.

Understanding its causes and implementing effective strategies can enhance leaders’ ability to lead with vigor and empathy.


The true Masters of their Sea know that leadership lies in steering the ship and ensuring that the captain is well and capable of leading the voyage.


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