How CIOs Can Prevent Themselves From Burning Out

Chief information officers have dealt with staff burnout issues for years -- but what about their own?

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

September 21, 2022

4 Min Read
burned out matches
Jose Luis Stephens via Alamy Stock

It was the COVID pandemic that forced CIOs to find ways to combat signs of burnout in IT staff, but what about themselves?

Long hours, constant change, the ever-present challenge of trying to attract or develop new talent and expanding responsibilities in the business can lead to exhaustion -- yet, as leaders, CIOs know that they must continue to demonstrate drive, commitment, and positivity to those around them.

What if you find that you’re exhausted and losing enthusiasm in your work, but you must somehow keep going?

Recognizing the Signs

Like any physical illness, it’s important to recognize the signs of a potential burnout when it is still in early stages.

It’s also fair to say that there are few CIOs who haven't experienced signs of burnout at some point in their careers.

The signs of burnout are: anxiety, lack of sleep, fatigue, lack of creativity and purpose, emotional numbness and/or a cynical outlook. When CIOs begin to experience these symptoms, they can find themselves becoming impatient, losing their temper, snapping at employees, etc.

This isn’t a good place to be, but the good news is that many CIOs can recognize these symptoms before they become destructive patterns of behavior -- and they can do something about them.

Self-Managing Burnout

In acute cases of burnout, it might become necessary to step away from work and take some time off, but most CIOs choose instead to self-manage their own burnout so they can gradually overcome it.

Here are three strategies:

1. Revisit your daily priorities

Yes, there are some days when you need to work 10-12 hours, but on most days that’s not the case. If it is, you need to revisit your workload and commitments and discover exactly what is that is commanding all these hours -- and fix it.

You encourage your staff to make time for leisure, family and friends and work-life balance. You have to do the same for yourself.

If you are a hard-core over-achiever who lives by Gannt charts, due dates, calendars, and timeframes, you might have to “schedule in” your “off times” for family, friends, and activities that you enjoy and that can take you away from work and allow you to de-compress. I know of at least one CIO who did this --because there simply was no other way that he could arrange for R&R unless he hard-coded it into his schedule!

2. Delegate

While there are some tasks you must absolutely do in your job, there are also tasks that can be delegated to senior staff.

This might include assigning key IT leaders a role in reviewing or developing the IT strategic plan (e.g., what does the network manager feel that the strategies for network expansion should be in the next three to five years?). Other areas I have successfully delegated have been budget formulation (e.g., what does the network manager feel he/she needs in terms of staff, gear, etc., over the next fiscal year?); or the hiring and training of new personnel (e.g, the network manager advertises for new hires, interviews them, and develops training and orientation plans).

Delegating can lessen the stresses of your own workload. It also encourages loyalty and confidence in your staff because you're entrusting them with key responsibilities.

Nevertheless, there are many CIOs I know who admit that they need to always feel a sense of control. This prevents them from delegating because they feel the tasks that they are delegating might not be done to the level that they want them done.

One way to cope with this feeling of loss of control is to choose just one or two tasks to delegate initially. See how the individuals you assign these tasks to perform over a “pilot period” span of time. If the tasks are going well, allow them to continue. You can always step back in before work has gone too far.

3. For any behavior that you change, use a replacement and not an elimination strategy

If you plan to reduce a 12-hour day to a nine-hour day, find renewing and inspiring activities that can fill those extra three hours. For some, it might be meditation or reading; others might choose workouts and sporting events; while still others might choose family time, or fishing, cooking, or taking a class. If doesn’t really matter what you choose as a substitute for those extra work hours if they contribute to well-being.

The Defeat of Burnout

Burnout is real -- and there are many cases when it requires time away from work and/or therapeutic guidance.

But there are also many cases when it is possible to self-manage your way out of burnout, especially if you detect burnout right away and aggressively follow up with a plan that you stick to.

With purposeful self-management, CIOs and others can help “right the ship” and navigate themselves out of burnout.

Their IT staffs will appreciate it.

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About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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