ATD Blog

The Burnout Pandemic: Hiring a Coach Could Be Your Lifesaver

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Burnout is now the second pandemic. Consider this common story. A chief product officer (CPO) was tasked with transforming the company culture at a large software company. As they attacked this problem, the CPO described the following experience: “I was going 100 miles an hour, 12-hour days in the office. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. It took me a while to figure out that what [I was experiencing] was burnout.” In addition, the CPO described relationships on the executive team as “untenable.” Do you relate to these experiences? In my recent study, 94 percent of executives claimed that relentless job demands are their main contributor to stress. Secondarily, 82 percent of executives stated that relationships are the second highest form of stress.

Leaders at all levels and in all industries face stress daily. Relentless job demands and lack of job resources create work environments that put employees at risk for burnout. Burnout then leads to disengagement, impaired decision making, and decreased business results, which can cost employers 34 percent of the leaders’ annual salary.

Leaders can reduce stress and burnout through supportive relationships and intentional processes. Executive coaching is an up-and-coming resource that executives can use to manage their stress and prevent burnout. In my study on executive coaching, 94 percent of executives stated that coaches were a significant factor in their development of stress-coping skills. Why? Because coaches can listen to the emotions related to stress at work and identify strategies that executives can use to resolve daily stressors. The CPO mentioned earlier, after working with an executive coach, stated, “[My coach] could walk me through a stressful situation in an appropriate way. My coach reframed the stressful situation.” This helped the CPO clarify how to address the difficult relationships on the executive team.

What Coaches Do for Executives

Executives in my study identified the most beneficial coaching skills they experienced: (1) listening and reflection, (2) words of encouragement, (3) progress updates, and (4) role play. If you are looking for an executive coach, find one that excels in these areas.

Listening and Reflection: Listening is a core competency for exceptional executive coaches. As the coach listens, you can verbally process your emotional components of stress. Once the emotions of stress start to unravel, the coach can use reflection to help you explore options to resolve your stressful situation. One executive stated, “My coach was very helpful in just listening to download and talk through the stressful situation.”


Words of Encouragement: An exceptional coach observes your progress, success, and skills, and speaks powerful words to help you succeed. For example, one executive stated, “My coach would say, ‘You are 100% right. Stand up for yourself. Stand in your power and believe in yourself.’” You can then use this encouragement to make changes that will help reduce your stress.

Progress Updates: You may find it difficult to see progress or growth in your own life because you are immersed in the situation. An executive coach can see what you do not see by reflecting back the growth they observe between coaching sessions. For example, “My coach helped me emphasize and reflect on all of my accomplishments to build confidence moving forward.” You will be more likely to continue making progress if you can remind yourself how far you’ve already come.

Role Play: Find a coach who will help you practice difficult conversations during your coaching session. This will decrease your stress and increase your confidence going into the event. One executive shared, “We role-played in a couple of different sessions. After the coaching session, I had a very direct conversation with my client, and it completely transformed the relationship.” Role play can help you practice various outcomes in the safety of the coaching session. By practicing, you can become more confident in how to respond in any situation.


The Rest of the Story

How did the CPO’s story turn out? The coach asked the CPO to speak directly to their boss, outlining needs, wants, and boundaries related to the relationship. The boss initially disregarded the request. But with the CPO’s persistence, the boss eventually called the CPO back, stating that the CPO was right and that the boss would commit to making changes. In addition, the coach reminded the CPO that “It is possible that in this culture you will not be able to be successful.” In the end, the CPO saw modest improvement in the boss relationship but ultimately realized that they needed to transition to a better work environment. This forward progress was due to the excellent coaching that the CPO received.

Just like the CPO, if you are experiencing relentless stress, at risk for burnout, or need help recovering from burnout, executive coaching could be your ticket to recovery.

About the Author

Chris Bittinger, EdD, is a clinical assistant professor at Purdue University. He teaches leadership, coaching, and project management in Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute. Chris is also the owner and founder of Open Pivot Inc., which delivers professional training, coaching and strategic planning. Chris has successfully coached over 1000 individuals, focusing on executive leaders, emerging leaders and managers.

With over 20 years of business experience, Chris leverages this experience to consult with many types of industries including professional services, non-profit, legal, construction and manufacturing. His vision is to see students and leaders flourish and succeed.

Chris obtained his masters and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in the Chief Learning Officer program. His dissertation is titled “The Influence of Executive Coaching on Executive Leaders’ Ability To Manage Stress and Mitigate Burnout” Additionally, Chris obtained a BS in Education from Butler University and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University. In 2019, Chris received his Executive Coaching Certification from Columbia University.

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