Executive brownout in a 24/7 world

phone at the beachTechnology is both one of the best tools and one of the worst problems for managing work and life commitments. Being connected to work 24/7 means we can check in on projects whenever and wherever we want. It also means those projects follow us, even during off hours.

Consultant Michael Kibler coined the term “executive brownout” to describe this situation. Writing for Harvard Business Review, he explains that many high-performing employees are “operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm” with symptoms such as:

  • Negative health effects due to lack of sleep and self-care
  • Strained relationships with family and friends
  • Weakening of non-work personal interests
  • Diminished ability to concentrate in non-business conversations

At first these may look like personal issues, but Kibler believes that they become toxic, eventually leading to disengagement and loss of the very passion that caused people to work so hard in the first place. He cites the example of Mohamed El-Erian, who resigned from a high-profile investment officer position due to executive brownout. As El-Erian explains in this interview, his work-life balance had gotten “way out of whack” and he realized he had to do something when his daughter presented him with a 22-item list of important events he had missed in her life.

Blurring of the lines between work and home life impacts many workers, not just executives. The European Union Working Time Directive  guarantees employees the right to a daily rest period of at least 11 hours and a break of at least 24 uninterrupted hours each week. While the reality varies from place to place, it’s clear that many employees are saying “enough is enough.”

As leaders, how can we address these problems for ourselves and our staff? One key is to recognize the problem and how we might be contributing to it. Does the workplace culture encourage down time, or is it common for people to work on nights and weekends? Are people encouraged to take vacations – and disconnect during them – or do they sometimes feel guilty for missing work? The tone we set and the behavior we model will make a difference.

Dee Anne Bonebright


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