Elon Musk’s recent interview with the New York Times has prompted speculation regarding his health status, with worrying statements such as “…his myriad executive responsibilities are taking a steep personal toll”, “…some board members have expressed concern…about his use of Ambien…”, my work “has really come at the expense of seeing my kids”, and he “alternated between laughter and tears”. Arianna Huffington has responded to this with an open letter extending concern and advice to Musk, and anyone that might be struggling with similar pressures.
While there is not enough information present in the interview to make any firm assertions as to whether Musk is burnt-out, suffering from a mental health disorder, using recreational or prescription medications, or anything else about his personal life, some of his claimed actions and statements are common indicators of burnout.

There is a lot of overlap between symptoms of burnout and those of other physical and mental illnesses, which is why it’s always crucial to see your doctor to determine an accurate diagnosis.

Disclaimers aside, examining the information presented in the interview and Huffington’s open letter is really useful for illustrating how burnout can present itself and affect life.

What can we learn about signs of burnout?

“…he abruptly declared on Twitter last week that he hoped to convert the publicly traded company into a private one…” — New York Times
“…events set in motion by Mr. Musk’s tweet have ignited a federal investigation and have angered some board members…” — New York Times

Several sources, including the New York Times interview, have commented on a change in Musk’s Twitter presence, with many asserting that the Tweets may be damaging to himself and his brand. When people become burnt-out, their brains draw them into unhelpful and damaging thought cycles, often leaving them consumed with worry, fear, and doubt.

If measures aren’t taken to address this, then over time they have a significant impact upon the ability to think clearly, plan for the future, make wise choices, and predict consequences. This can result in short-sighted, impulsive, and misguided decisions.

Unfortunately, the actions taken while in this state can have long-lasting and disastrous consequences. This inability to think clearly and make wise decisions isn’t limited to professional lives, but often also impacts relationships and other spheres of life.

Slider

“In an hour-long interview with The New York Times, he choked up multiple times…” — New York Times
“…Mr. Musk alternated between laughter and tears.” — New York Times

One of the signs that can indicate burnout is feeling unusually emotional. If you’re not usually one to display emotion, it can be quite unsettling. For some, these floods of emotion will occur privately, but for others there will be uncontrollable expressions of emotions in public. Expressing emotion isn’t a problem, and can be a helpful component of the vulnerability that aids recovery. But it’s a change in how emotional you are that indicates that underlying issues require addressing.

“…he nearly missed his brother’s wedding this summer and spent his birthday holed up in Tesla’s offices…” — New York Times
“…he spent the full 24 hours of his birthday at work. “All night — no friends, nothing…” — New York Times
“This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.” — Musk, via New York Times

Social isolation and withdrawal are common features of burnout, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: people are isolated due to the long work hours that often lead to burnout, and then the psychological challenges of burnout lead to a desire to withdraw socially. As the protective elements of social connections are lost, burnout worsens, leading to further withdrawal.

“… I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.” — Musk, via New York Times

Often it’s others who notice signs of burnout before the individual affected. Burnout can arise gradually and insidiously, making the changes difficult to detect. These issues are also so common that people can dismiss these struggles as “normal”, and not as something that requires addressing. 

“…he had been working up to 120 hours a week…” — New York Times
“…he held Tesla meetings late into the night.” — New York Times
“…not taken more than a week off since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria.” — New York Times
“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days – days when I didn’t go outside.” — Musk, via New York Times

Sustaining intense and long work hours requires a lot of resources, and there comes a point where you just don’t have enough internal or external supports to keep you going. Working late into the night means missing out on the essential rest required by both the brain and body. Sleep deprivation, which is a common part of burnout, can also arise from a reduced quality of sleep secondary to worry and anxiety. Prolonged insufficiency of sleep and rest has a significant effect on health and function. This leads to reduced productivity, which may drive a feeling of having to work even harder and longer hours.

“To help sleep when he is not working, Mr. Musk said he sometimes takes Ambien.” — New York Times
“…some board members have expressed concern not only about Mr. Musk’s workload but also about his use of Ambien…” — New York Times
“Some board members are also aware that Mr. Musk has on occasion used recreational drugs…” — New York Times

Increasing stress, sleep deprivation, and impending burnout often leads people to seek relief through avenues such as prescription and recreational substances. Sleeping tablets and alcohol and common culprits, and although they might provide some initial relief, they end up only exacerbating problems as well as creating new ones.

“Mr. Musk said he had no plans to relinquish his dual roles as chairman and chief executive. But, he added, “if you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.” — New York Times

The offer to hand over ‘the reins’ could be referencing to a desire to escape the current situation, if only circumstances would allow it. Although it appears that Musk has no plans for this, and intends to continue in his current roles, it raises an important point. This feeling of wanting to escape is a classic feeling experienced by people who are burnt-out. People feel that the situation they have found themselves in is all-consuming and overwhelming, and they can’t see a way to get out of it. The only immediate solution they can see is to escape entirely.

What can we learn about protective factors against burnout?

“[The Tesla board] would like to make clear that Elon’s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious. Over the past 15 years, Elon’s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.” — Tesla, via New York Times
“As you know, I’m a huge admirer of yours — both of you personally and of all the ways in which you are changing our world.” — Huffington

Having concerned and loyal friends and colleagues can help to provide the support needed during the hard times of life. We know that strong relationships are highly protective for both physical and mental health. All relationships require work, and they’re not always easy, but the investment of time and effort is well worth it. As people become burnt-out, they can be irritable, easily frustrated, and have a reduced capacity for empathy. This puts a huge strain on relationships, meaning that the stronger they were previously, the more likely they are to endure and be an asset to burnout recovery.

“For two decades, Mr. Musk has been one of Silicon Valley’s most brash and ambitious entrepreneurs, helping to found several influential technology companies. He has often carried himself with bravado, dismissing critics and relishing the spotlight that has come with his success and fortune.” — New York Times

Musk is clearly a highly capable, intelligent and resilient individual to achieve all he has done, and to persist over such a prolonged time. This is a great demonstration of the fact that burnout is not a sign of weakness or personal inadequacy. Every human has the potential for burnout given the right (or wrong!) circumstances. Burnout frequently leads to a feeling of low achievement and inadequacy. Although objective success may continue, the individual interprets their skills and abilities as reduced, and may even feel a failure. Having a strong team of colleagues who can remind you of your strengths and successes may help to lessen this key aspect of burnout. This is important, as a feeling of being able to achieve and perform then leads to a increased chance of this becoming a reality.

If, like Musk, you are positioned at the top of a large organisation, you may feel more lonely, and lacking an obvious group of colleagues to fill this role. It may be that you can create a strong and supportive environment with your advisory board, or other senior members of the organisation. Alternatively, it can be helpful to look outside of your organisation, and finding something like a mastermind group with others in similar positions for other organisations. Care must be taken in finding a close-knit, trusted, and supportive group so that members can be vulnerable and not concerned about personal information being shared outside of the group.

“…in the interview, he demonstrated an extraordinary level of self-reflection and vulnerability, acknowledging that his myriad executive responsibilities are taking a steep personal toll.” — New York Times

Insight, acknowledgement, and vulnerability, are the first steps towards recovery from any illness. No illness can be addressed until it is recognised, and burnout is a struggle that many people defiantly refuse to acknowledge until life hits breaking point. Growth and change come from a place of reflection, and the strength to address weaknesses, fill deficits, and seek help when required. A big barrier to acknowledging burnout can be a feeling of having to appear the best, and maintain an illusion of infallible intelligence, performance, and strength. The ability to focus on reflection and growth, including acceptance of flaws, can be learnt and fostered and help to prevent burnout.

“That morning, Mr. Musk…had an early workout.” — New York Times

Regular physical activity can be really beneficial for health, both mentally and physically. Often, when things get busy, and the exhaustion and loss of motivation that accompanies burnout sets in, exercise is one of the first things to go. The fact that Mr Musk has reportedly continued prioritising exercise is likely a factor that will be an asset to his health moving forward. Exercise can be a great opportunity for mental rest, spending time in nature, or socialising in a team sport or by exercising with a friend.

I’ve always loved how, whenever I see you, the first thing you do is … proudly show me videos of your adorable children and their latest exploits.” — Huffington
“You’re a person of incredible big-picture vision. Your genius and your passion for innovating and changing the world have always been informed by your passion not just for your children and friends but for what you’ve called “the scope and scale of human consciousness” and our longing for “greater enlightenment.” And you’re a big believer in the ancient Greek philosophy of first principles, which encourages breaking a problem down to its fundamental parts.” — Huffington

Musk’s persistence over his career indicates that he is dedicated to a strong mission and passion. Having a sense of what gives your life meaning and purpose is highly valuable for both preventing and overcoming burnout. It can help guide people through big decisions, and push them forward through great challenges and adversity. Having these foundational goals at the forefront can help people to let go of less important goals that are merely a means to an end, and refocus creatively on other avenues to success. Often people have competing big-picture passions, commonly including family and career. This can create a really difficult tension, as desire and reserves feel pulled in different directions.

“…don’t model that behavior for your employees.” — Huffington

In relation to Musk’s sleep deprivation, Huffington urges him to model healthy behaviours to his employees. Workplace culture and the behaviours of leaders has a huge impact upon the rate of burnout amongst employees. Healthy employees are more productive, take less leave, and ultimately contribute to increased revenue. For this to happen, it must be clearly prioritised and communicated in the workplace, and it must be modeled by those in charge. If you are in a position of leadership, you have a powerful opportunity to shape the future course of the lives of those around you. Your actions will drive culture, whether you create that culture deliberately, or passively without consideration.

What can we learn about burnout recovery?

“Tesla executives have been trying for years to recruit a chief operating officer or other No. 2 executive to assume some of Mr. Musk’s day-to-day responsibilities” — New York Times
Is there someone who can do the job better?” — Musk, via New York Times

Delegation can be a really valuable tool when it comes to burnout recovery. Often people become burnt-out because they have more required of them than they have the resources to provide. One of the things that prevents people from delegating appropriately is a perfectionist tendency. There is a fear that someone else won’t do the job well enough, and so they must continue to do it all themselves.

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside.” — Musk, via New York Times
“There’s no way you can connect with your amazing vision and creativity when you don’t give yourself time to reconnect not just with those you love but also with yourself and your wisdom.” — Huffington

Our brains thrive on having time and space to engage fully in the present moment, to savour moments of beauty and joy, and to display creativity. Overcoming difficulties such as burnout is not simply about getting rid of negative thought patterns. A huge component of recovery is deliberately creating opportunities for our brain to form and strengthen positive pathways. This helps us to be able to think more clearly, to plan better, improve our memory, and make better decisions. It also makes us happier, sleep better, improves productivity, and increases the quality of our relationships. If you work continually, and don’t take deliberate breaks that provide adequate rest, then your mind is missing out on nourishment and optimal function.

What can we learn about YOU?

Be Proactive

You, like everyone else in the world, could burn-out under the right circumstances. Don’t become complacent.

I know how hard it is to prioritise preventative activities when there are so many things calling at your attention to react to immediately. But some carefully-selected preventative strategies now, could prevent disastrous burn-out in the future.

  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and rest.
  • Don’t neglect friends and family – strong social networks will help you.
  • Make time for regular physical activity, and good nutrition for your body.
  • Know what big things give your life meaning and purpose, and make sure you keep them central and prioritised.
  • Foster a habit of self-reflection and vulnerability. Acknowledge challenges, and take active steps to overcome them.
  • Look for opportunities to contribute to a supportive, healthy, and sustainable culture in your workplace.
Watch for signs

Be on the lookout for signs of burnout. Pay attention to comments from others – they may notice it before you do.

  • Are you making poor decisions, getting increased complaints from clients or colleagues, or is your work performance dropping?
  • Are you more emotional than usual?
  • Are you becoming withdrawn, and socially isolated?
  • Are your work hours getting longer, and replacing your time to relax, connect with others, and focus on other things that are important to you?
  • Have you been using alcohol or recreational/prescription substances to cope?
  • Has your sleep been disrupted or unrefreshing?
  • Do you feel a desire to escape your life or work?
What should you do if you are burnt-out?
  • The first step is seeing your doctor. Symptoms of burnout overlap with those of many other illnesses. You must get the diagnosis correct!
  • I have compiled an introduction to five ways that can help you to begin overcoming burnout.
  • The best approach to burnout management varies between individuals, and a personalised plan should be sought from a trained health professional.
What can you do if you notice someone else burning out?
  • Reach out to them, show them you care, and extend the offer to speak openly.
  • Try to maintain the relationship, even though it can be difficult when burnout results in fatigue, withdrawal, and irritability.
  • Express your concerns about their health. Some people will be defensive in response, but it may prompt them to reflect and gain insight.
  • Encourage them to see their doctor to exclude other diagnoses. The symptoms of burnout overlap with the symptoms of many other illnesses.
  • Guide them toward some initial relief by delegating some of their workload, and by taking sufficient breaks from work.
  • Monitor your own health. Supporting friends or colleagues who are struggling can be exhausting and challenging. You should not take on responsibility for their health, but rather guide them towards appropriate health professionals to take on that role.

Whether you’re a successful billionaire business owner, or you’re employed at minimum wage, you are not immune from burnout. By proactively implementing some of the suggestions I have made here, you may be able to prevent burnout, or at least detect the signs sooner and recover faster. If you run a business, you have the power to reduce the chances of burnout among those who work for you. If you know someone who is burnt-out, you have the opportunity to show them you care and give them hope for a brighter future.

Don’t continue putting it off. Get started taking care of your wellbeing today.

Disclaimer: All advice provided through this website is intended as general advice, and not specific advice to any individual. Every individual is unique and has different needs, so please seek advice from your own health professional for advice tailored to your specific situation. I aim to provide high quality information based upon current research, guidelines and accepted practice. The possibility of error or omission remains, and I am not liable (including liability by reason of negligence) to the users for any loss, damage, cost or expense incurred or arising by reason of any person using or relying on the information and whether caused by reason of error, negligent act, omission or misrepresentation in the information presented or otherwise.