CEOs are quitting in record numbers – what can be done?

Research has found that senior leaders’ wellbeing is suffering, but there are ways businesses can better support their top bosses, argues Clare Roberts

Getty Images

For many organisations, it feels like the Great Resignation may finally be coming to an end. Recent research has shown that the number of employees quitting has fallen to pre-pandemic norms. However, the same can’t be said for leaders, where CEO departures have hit record highs according to a new report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. There have been many high-profile examples of political leaders departing to focus on their wellbeing, and it looks as though this trend is moving over to the world of business. 

A precarious position  

As leaders feel the weight of organisational demands and external pressures, it’s no surprise that they feel burnt out and their wellbeing is suffering.  

Earlier this year, PA Consulting surveyed more than 9,000 employees in organisations across multiple industries to understand their attitudes towards work and the workplace. Of the full sample, 1,689 people were CEOs or senior managers. 

These leaders felt more satisfied and motivated than the overall survey sample (86 per cent versus 66 per cent), more appreciated (84 per cent versus 65 per cent) and more supported (83 per cent versus 63 per cent). Leaders also reported higher autonomy – three quarters felt fairly or largely autonomous, compared to 57 per cent of the overall sample. The majority of leaders (83 per cent) agreed they were fairly paid, in contrast with 61 per cent of all respondents.  

These results aren’t surprising – leaders are likely to feel more empowered than other employees, they see the direct results of their efforts and tend to be higher paid. However, our research also revealed a concerning contradiction. Leaders also felt more burnt out, overworked and disengaged. More than half (56 per cent) felt fairly or largely burnt out compared to 39 per cent of all respondents, and the same percentage felt fairly or largely disengaged versus 31 per cent of the overall sample. When asked about feeling overworked, there were more than 20 percentage points between leaders and the whole sample.   

So, leaders are in a precarious position. They believe they are supported and appreciated, but they are still at greater risk of exhaustion and disengagement. As such, how can leaders build their resilience, and what guardrails can organisations and HR professionals put in place to help to support leaders in their high-pressure roles? 

Break the stigma 

Although leaders carry a heavy burden of responsibility, they frequently lack psychologically safe environments to share their challenges. Leadership can be a lonely place. In our work with the Ministry of Defence, we explored the cultural factors that underpin psychological safety. We found that leaders are critical in building psychologically safe spaces – however, this means leaders themselves must be able to disclose feelings and concerns. Conversations about leadership workload pressures and burnout at board level can help to break the stigma and challenge the image of leaders as stoic burden carriers.  

Invest in social support 

Providing mentoring, coaching and support networks for leaders, internally and external to the organisation, can offer an opportunity for leaders to reflect on and share their experiences and explore ways to mitigate the risks of overwork and stress. One of the ways leaders add value is through the quality of their thinking. But because of the pressures of their role, space and time to think are often in short supply. Coaching on how to protect capacity and thinking time, as well as effective delegation, can be invaluable. Knowing when to step in – and step back – is an important leadership skill.  

Offer tailored wellbeing programmes 

Employee support programmes are, perhaps unintentionally, often seen to be for team members who report up to leaders, rather than leaders themselves. Where leadership programmes do exist, they tend to skew towards performance rather than resilience. Employee support and wellbeing frameworks can be elevated to leadership level, with an emphasis on the unique aspects of leadership roles.  

Take a strengths-based approach  

Focusing on strengths can build leaders’ resilience by maximising their effectiveness, enabling them to major on what they are best at. A strengths-based approach is a mindset as well as a way of working that focuses on the positive aspects of an individual or group. A strength is something a person loves doing, is good at and is energised by. Leaders who know themselves and their strengths, and can play to them, are likely to feel more motivated and engaged. 

Organisations can protect leadership teams against burnout and disengagement by acknowledging the difficulties they face and implementing dedicated support mechanisms to address role-specific challenges. Stronger, better supported leaders will lead to stronger, better supported teams – ultimately building resilient organisations with engaged, healthy people.

Clare Roberts is a people and change expert at PA Consulting