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Are You Addicted to Overworking? Why Self-Doubt Is at The Root of CEO Burnout

3 minute read

By Julie Smith, author ofCoach Yourself Confident: Ditch the self-doubt tax, unlock humble confidence

A study by Deloitte found that 70% of C-suite leaders are considering quitting their job for one that better supports their wellbeing. They are seeing the risks of burnout and looking for a way out. This is a startling figure, but perhaps not surprising when we consider their day-to-day experience: back-to-back diaries, global teams, 24/7 messaging.

And on top of the sheer volume of daily demands comes the weighty feeling of responsibility. It’s the executive’s role to ensure that customers are satisfied, employees engaged, the future of the business secure. All of this serves as an invitation to overwork, with permanently extended working days and the blurring – or collapse – of boundaries between work and home.

In my experience, there’s another factor to consider too: self-doubt, the nagging sense that we don’t have what we need. Whilst self-doubt is a normal, unavoidable, and in some ways useful, part of the human experience, an excess of self-doubt is a heavy weight to carry. ‘Self-doubt tax’ is the way that I describe the impact of carrying the heavy weight of oversized self-doubt. It’s the cost of giving too much power to our self-doubt, of unquestioningly believing our inner critic – that nagging voice that belittles and judges us.


Sometimes the self-doubt tax is levied in missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential – we stay small and safe, and we don’t put ourselves forward for the next challenge. In other cases, the self-doubt tax is levied in overwork, exhaustion and the risk of burnout. This is what I often see in C-suite leaders: incredibly successful individuals whose successes have partly been driven by their self-doubt. Their inner critic tells them that they are not good enough, or that they will be ‘found out’ and revealed as an imposter. This feels deeply uncomfortable, so in order to lessen their anxiety, these individuals push themselves excessively hard. Their antidote for a lack of confidence is hard work, over preparation and excessively high standards. Whilst this formula has delivered results, the cost is significant, leaving them teetering on the precipice of burnout.

In place of a well of inner confidence that’s based on an appreciation of their own capabilities, these self-doubt taxpayers have a bucket of achievement. It’s their bucket of achievement that reassures them that they are worthy, that they should be in this job, that they’re not an imposter. The problem is that the bucket has a hole in it meaning that it has to be continuously topped up. The individual cannot enjoy their achievements because they must always look for the next one, they must always do more. They are on the treadmill of hard work, chasing achievement in order to shore up their belief in themselves.

Do you recognise yourself in this kind of addiction to overwork? If so, I’d suggest that the solution to excessive hours lies not in time management or in prioritisation, nor in “getting on top of things” but in re-setting the way that you see yourself. If you can find a way to own your strengths and appreciate your capabilities, then you may just be able to step off the treadmill of excessively hard work.

Julie Smith is a sought-after leadership coach, author of Coach Yourself Confident: Ditch the self-doubt tax, unlock humble confidence (Practical Inspiration Publishing, £14.99) and founder of Talent Sprout, a highly respected leadership consultancy. 

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