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DDI Study Reveals Leaders Are Struggling With Burnout, Which Could Create Retention Issues

DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 reveals that despite working in constant crisis mode and on the verge of burnout, leaders crave relevant, meaningful learning opportunities

An unprecedented year of ongoing change and a lack of confidence in current and future leadership could lead to retention problems within the next year. The lack of confidence is being fueled by burnout and a sense of constant crisis, according to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021.

Chart illustrating how burnout has impacted leaders.
Chart illustrating how burnout has impacted leaders.

These are just two of the findings from the study, which was conducted by DDI and HR analyst Josh Bersin. The study is the largest of its kind and includes data from more than 15,000 leaders and 2,102 human resource professionals. These leaders represent more than 1,740 organizations across more than 24 industries globally. The survey began in February 2020 and ran through July 2020, capturing many of the changes in leadership that occurred before and during the pandemic.

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“There are clear signs that the pandemic will lead to serious retention issues because leaders who are feeling burnout are nearly four times more likely to leave their positions within the next year,” said Stephanie Neal, director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research. “This could cause a lasting impact on current and future leaders, since 86 percent of high-potential employees are also feeling burnout, and they’re twice as likely to leave compared to their peers. There’s reason to be concerned about the future of leadership across the board.”

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The study found that leaders and employees are burning out at record rates. Nearly 60 percent of leaders report they feel used up at the end of the workday, which is a strong indicator of burnout. Feelings of exhaustion greatly increase the probability of leaders leaving for other opportunities. Approximately 44 percent of leaders who feel used up at the end of the day expected to change companies to advance, while 26 percent expected to leave within the next year. These numbers are significantly high compared to 24 percent of leaders who expect to change companies to advance and 6 percent who plan to leave within the next year.

“We’re in an extremely unpredictable economic climate that’s going to require leaders to be able to quickly adapt and embrace change if they hope to survive,” Bersin said. “CHROs are already preparing for continued uncertainty by revamping management training to address current workforce challenges while developing and upskilling employees and exploring flexible work arrangements. They’re also focusing on creating more diverse, equitable workplaces and strengthening leadership benches by exploring employees’ leadership aspirations and potential.”

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In addition to burnout and retention, the Global Leadership Forecast 2021 also revealed:

  • CEOs are most worried about quality leadership talent being in short supply. The top problem worrying CEOs is developing the next generation of leaders. This issue just outranks facing the global recession and slowing economic growth, which just narrowly eked out attracting and retaining top talent. CEOs revealed that only 47 percent of critical roles can be filled by current leaders and that they don’t have the leaders they need today or in the future.
  • Organizations are facing a significant leadership quality gap. Leaders and human resources are divided on the quality of leadership in their organizations. Forty-eight percent of leaders rate their leadership quality as high, while only 28 percent of human resources share the same belief. As current leaders struggle to meet ongoing changes, HR professionals worry that they don’t have the skills to meet future challenges.
  • Leadership bench strength hits an all-time low. In 2020, only 11 percent of human resources professionals said they have a strong enough bench to fill leadership roles. This lack of faith is caused by rapidly shifting markets and increased pressure to innovate and re-prioritize their needs.
  • The future of work has arrived, but executives don’t feel prepared for it. The pandemic forced most organizations to quickly pivot to virtual workplaces. Only 20 percent of surveyed leaders believed they were effective at leading virtually. Furthermore, fewer than 30 percent of leaders said they received development for leading virtually, and the majority felt unprepared to operate within a highly digital business environment.

“The pandemic has impacted everyone, and a lot of people are struggling since they’re being pulled in so many different directions to take on constantly changing objectives, markets and strategies,” Neal said. “Organizations have had to make drastic changes in the way they work just to continue to function during the pandemic. Many changes were inevitable, but with no real end in sight, organizations need to make adapting a priority to avoid a potential leadership and retention crisis.”

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