Executive Burnout – A Scientific Renewal Remedy

A global trend has emerged in which corporate leaders are exiting their positions before the end of their term. However to those involved in coaching leaders, this comes as no surprise. The phenomenon known as The Sacrifice Syndrome has been identified by Richard Boyatzis, an eminent professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve and Annie McKee Co-chair of the Teleos Leadership Institute.

Many modern leaders feeling the effects of executive burnout such as depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue etc., are either seeking alternative careers and or are taking the money and running. This unique and scientific study enables an in-depth understanding of executive burnout as well as offering pathways for renewal.

Gail Cameron an executive coach to corporate leaders in South Africa, for the last 27 years has become aware of the debilitating effects of executive burnout that may result in executives leaving prematurely, and or damaging the company and even in certain cases committing suicide.

As Cameron explains “However, not only can the syndrome be identified, and managed effectively, it is possible to uncover true purpose in a life changing way.”

“Boyatzis research shows how the Sacrifice Syndrome occurs. Executives begin to feel anxious, depressed and nervous. This leads to power stress, as they are in a leadership position and have an obligation to influence others. Next follows the neural circuitry of fear – finely mapped by neuroscientists, the circuitry first enters the brainstem via the senses such as hearing, feeling or seeing negative information. Next stop is the limbic structure, deeply embedded in the subcortex, where much of the emotional processing occurs. Here sophisticated computers compare this information to previous experiences. If no satisfying answer is received, the amygdala (also known as the emotional centre) hits the panic button. Neurons begin to fire on the right side of the prefrontal cortex (where we know negative emotions such as heightened anxiety, nervousness, anger, depression etc emanate from) This floods the body with bad hormones such as epinephrine and nore-epinephrine and also produces cortisol, the stress hormone that is responsible for suppressing our body’s immunoglobulin A, (our immune system) thus making you ill. This circuitry constantly repeated can result in aggravated forms of burnout and or even death as the entire world view reality of the afflicted person becomes distorted”

Cameron says “Boyatzis research set out in his book “Resonance Leadership” also offers pathways for renewal. Three pathways need to be opened. The first is Mindfulness – a heightened awareness of the person’s heart, mind, body and soul. Deep introspection is necessary in order to evaluate where this individual is in terms of the sacrifice syndrome (simple questionnaires are found in Boyatzis’s book) these explore personal vision, the legacy you wish to leave behind you, your philosophical orientation as well as identifying rhythms that have emerged in one’s life and career in order to manage change effectively.

Once a meaningful examination in this area has taken place, it is important to open the second pathway namely hope. As Cameron explains “We are, after all, the only species that require hope to flourish. This is beautifully illustrated in Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s search For Meaning.” Frankl was the Viennese psychiatrist who was interned in the concentration camps during the second world war. In his book, he relates the story of how together with his best friend, they had survived the most terrible atrocities and it was coming to the end of the war when his friend told him that he believed the Allies would break into their camp on the 30th March and set them free. Although his friend had the year right, he had the month wrong, as history shows that the allies broke into their camp in August that same year. So on the 29th March, his friend became ill, on the 30 March he lapsed into a coma and on the 31 March he died.From the outset, Frankl said it would have appeared as though he had died of typhus, however, Frankl said he knew he died because he had lost hope.

It is critical to keep the light switched on. To keep hope alive. The third and last pathway is known as compassion. And compassion is not feeling for someone else, it means acting appropriately. It can be small things such as standing in a supermarket queue with a woman holding a crying baby standing directly behind you. Allowing the woman to go ahead of you is considered an act of compassion. “Or” Cameron explains, “It can be something noble, like when one of my clients responded to the tragedy of a young clerk who was left a paraplegic from a vehicle accident. He raised the money to make the changes in this clerk’s house, so that he could get his wheelchair around and even funded the alterations to his vehicle, so that he could continue to drive himself around. Today this person is a committed partner in their practise.

Once these pathways are active and open, the same neural circuitry occurs, only this time, the neurons fire on the left side of the prefrontal cortex, (where the positive optimal brain states occur). Positive hormones flood the body known as vasopressin and oxytocin – these hormones suppress the bad ones and boost the body’s immunoglobulin A resulting in feelings of hopefulness, peace, excitement and looking forward to the future.”

As Cameron says “This repeated produces very resilient leaders capable of taking on a lot and still creating resonance (defined as driving the collective emotions of a team to a positive realm to add economic value)”

Cameron, has experienced the positive results of this research on many executive’s lives. “However” she adds, “burnout can be highly complex and recommends a combination of the above life coaching and practical stress management to tackle the problem in a multi-disciplined way. We have collaborated with multi-disciplinary specialists to offer a unique approach to Stress Management. We explore cognitive, physical and behavioural elements towards a holistic solution and aim to provide each individual with tangible management strategies.

Stress defined

The effect of stress is emotional, mental and physical. If these effects are allowed to prolong, the individual may amongst others, experience ill health, poor performance or frustration. The interpretation of any stimulus takes place in the brain. The response to stressors start on a nervous and an endocrinological level and therefore has to be managed on this level. Neurons function at different rates for different purposes. The functioning of neurons is referred to as the neuron firing rates of groups of brain cells. These firing rates are commonly thought to control mental states. Beta, alpha, theta and delta are terms that indicate the rates of brain cell firing and the corresponding mental states associated with them. The alpha mind state is that state commonly experienced while the body is resting and the mind is calm. The alpha state of mind involves frequencies from 8.0 to 12.9Hz. When experiencing stress, a person tends to have reduced his alpha state.


This stress management programme aims at teaching participants how to optimally manage their unique stress response patterns. Methods and techniques learned will address responses in the body and brain. Participants learn how to enter into a state of alpha (i.e. when the mind is calm) without losing concentration on the task at hand.


During these interventions, participants are guided through practical explorations to manage stress on a continuous basis. The focus is on learning skills to manage the mind body link when stress is experienced – inducing alpha while focusing on the task at hand. These sessions focus on Personal Uniqueness and employ approaches such as Neurofeedback, breath explorations, hands-on techniques and stress release techniques.

Cameron concludes: “Everyone, like it or not, will feel the deleterious effects of stress at some point in your life. However, today with all the amazing research and collaboration going on, help is close at hand”

Cameron can be contacted at (011) 781-1444 or view their website at My Pocket Coach https://www.mypocketcoachapp.com/