We’re hearing complaints about burnout more frequently these days. “He’s burned out,” is often said about somebody whose cynicism has risen while productivity and co-operation has plummeted. Or, tired and despondent, we wail: “I’m burned out.”
The emphasis is on the individual. But burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a mental illness, British clinical psychologist and occupational coach Michael Drayton stresses. It’s a state of “vital exhaustion,” in the words of the World Health Organization, and it occurs because of the individual’s circumstances in an organization.
“For every employee that goes off sick with burnout, there will be many others on the edge of burning out. Burnout is a symptom that something is going wrong in the organization – an underlying organizational ‘disease’ that has to be diagnosed and cured,” Mr. Drayton writes in his book Anti-Burnout: How to Create a Psychologically Safe and High-Performance Organization.
We need to see burnout as having three key components. The first is the individual, who may have a personality making him or her more susceptible to burnout or is perhaps under stress in their home life, with a sick child or financial worries. The second is the role the person occupies, which can be adding pressure – one of the most common factors contributing to burnout is a lack of clarity about what the person is supposed to do or achieve at work. The third factor is the organization, its culture and the external pressures it may be encountering.
Certainly, the individual must be helped. But the organization must act on the broader situation that led to burnout – without simply shifting the blame to the pandemic, which is easy to do because the words “burnout” and “pandemic” are almost always cited in tandem these days.
Burnout is a slow burn. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” New Zealand leadership development consultant Suzi McAlpine notes in her book Beyond Burnout. “You don’t wake up one morning feeling engaged and energized and then, the very next day, feel burned out. Just like a candle melting, burnout tends to happen slowly.”
The red flags that can signal burnout are chronic exhaustion, cynicism or detachment, along with a reduced sense of accomplishment and personal efficacy. Someone suffering from burnout is likely to display a combination of signs pointing to those factors. But it may not be easy to discern, for the individual or that person’s boss. “Looking back on my own experience, it was clear these red flags were furiously flapping in my face – I just couldn’t see them. And neither could Nick, my manager,” Ms. McAlpine recalls of her own burnout.
Leaders need to educate themselves on the signs of burnout. Look for patterns in your team as well as individual instances of greater exhaustion, absenteeism, increasing frustration or cynicism, or reduced personal inefficacy. Talk openly with your team about the signs of burnout in a way that is supportive and non-judgmental. Ms. McAlpine urges managers to even bring mental-wellness conversations into your one-on-ones. Ask: on a scale of one to 10, where one is terrible and 10 is awesome, how would you rate your wellness (including mental wellness) right now? I question how accurate the answer will be (nobody wants to tell their boss they are in less than perfect shape) but she is insistent that you must tell them you want to know – and, most importantly, you are there to support them, not judge.
Since burnout can be thought of as severe and chronic energy depletion, Mr. Drayton advises managers to pay attention to the four forms of personal energy: Physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual. Physical energy can be increased by rest, exercise and a good diet. Set clear boundaries at work, encouraging subordinates to take regular breaks – including for physical movement – and only work a reasonable work day. You can increase emotional energy by building a culture of appreciation and positivity. You can build cognitive energy by decreasing workplace interruptions and encouraging frequent breaks. Help your team increase spiritual energy by reconnecting with the meaning of their work.
Much of this never enters a manager’s mind, determined as they are to wring every last ounce of productivity from their team and have them ready to immediately answer every e-mail missive the boss sends to subordinates. But be aware how that standard attitude can contribute to the burnout commonly arising these days.
Ms. McAlpine says that an executive team’s organizational strategy and key priorities for the next two years will have an exponential impact on workload throughout the business. “Limit your strategic pillars or key strategic imperatives to three to five. If work doesn’t fit into these, don’t do it,” she says.
She urges top teams to reconsider work design, giving people more say in how work is carried out. Study organizational processes and systems to make sure people have the proper resources to carry out their job effectively. Eliminate bureaucracy and red tape. “Burnout is the insidious, misunderstood and hidden malaise that’s preventing our workplaces from being the places they have the potential to be,” she says.
Burnout hurts people. It hurts organizations. And it’s time for leaders to pay attention to their role in burnout, not to blame or pity those experiencing it.
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