How to Spot the Warning Signs of Career Derailment

New research on workplace bullying, burnout, and post-traumatic stress

Posted Feb 27, 2017

Sometimes high flying executives crash to the ground. This is referred to as executive derailment. Often it occurs midlife and at the peak of a career. Derailment is surprisingly common with estimates suggesting that thirty to fifty percent of high-functioning managers derail at some time in their career, according to research.

Sometimes it seems to come out of the blue. A recent high-profile case is that of Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri who was sacked despite being named FIFA Coach of the Year and leading the team to a surprise Premier League title.  But more often, the signs were there but not attended to. 

Melissa was an executive at a top London company. But over a period of several months, she was subject to bullying by her new line manager. At first, she thought what was happening was not real and that she was imagining it. It took some time for the reality to sink in. Then, she thought it would stop if she worked harder to please her manager. But it just continued and got worse the more she tried to please. By this time almost a year had elapsed and Melissa was at breaking point.

Bullying is one of the main causes of derailment. As an adult, it can come as a complete surprise to experience workplace bullying. But it happens all too frequently with serious consequences. 

Workplace bullying can manifest in direct or indirect forms. Direct forms include offensive behavior and spreading misinformation or malicious rumours. Indirect forms can include changing deadlines, deliberately excluding a person from normal work activities, withholding vital information, or deliberately changing work arrangements.

Burnout is often a consequence of bullying as the targeted individual strives to respond to criticism, self-doubt and confusion. Emotional exhaustion is the key symptom of burnout. Distressed and in a state of anxiety, Melissa sought help from her General Practitioner who prescribed medication. Melissa was certainly feeling burnt out, but as she discovered, she was also suffering from workplace-related post-traumatic stress. Constantly worried and thinking about work, not sleeping well, feeling unable to cope, drinking regularly to help the stress, are all typical difficulties.

Looking back Melissa can see that the warning signs were there for a long time but she didn’t take action quickly enough to deal with the situation.

Our recent qualitative study (McCormack, Abou-Hamdan, & Joseph, 2017) sought to explore the ‘lived’ experience of being derailed at the executive level.  Four participants were interviewed and the transcriptions of those interviews analyzed for recurring themes. The powerlessness of their situations, and feelings of being unsupported in the workplace, led to behavior that isolated the participants from their loved ones, and contaminated other areas of their lives.  Participants were not able to cope with the changes and felt that others did not understand what they were experiencing.  

On the upside, all were able to talk about how they got through the experience in the end, finding ways to move on in their lives. The recognition that personal and professional growth can arise following executive derailment is a novel finding with important implications. A positive psychological and growth-oriented mindset is likely to be helpful in harnessing change with executives following derailment.

But the main message is to be on the lookout for the warning signs. Don’t leave action too late. 

If you are feeling undermined and bullied at work, talk to someone about it. Check out the reality of what’s happening by comparing notes with colleagues that you can trust. Sometimes there are changes at work that we are slow to notice and adapt to, and actually, we do need to shift gear in some way.

If the warning signs are still there, consider approaching Human Resources and getting it down on record what’s happening to you.

Think about talking things through with a coach. A good coach can help you reflect on your situation and how to manage it.

If you are feeling constantly stressed, unable to switch off from work, emotionally exhausted, and feeling unable to cope, talk to your General Practitioner about how you are feeling.  But if you do, let them know about the bullying so that they know that what is happening inside you has an external cause.

Think about speaking to an employment law solicitor.  They know the ropes and have seen it before and can advise you on the steps to take.

To find out more about the research:


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McCormack, L., Abou-Hamdan, S., & Joseph, S (2017). Career derailment: Burnout and bullying at the executive level. International Coaching Psychology Review Vol 12 No 1, pages 24-36.