You can't treat burnout with bath bombs or beachside vacations
Burnout is the workplace injury of the 21st century. It's become a bit of a buzzword, but the ubiquity of the phenomenon in no way diminishes how serious it is. The stakes are high. When burnout is unaddressed, it has negative consequences for professionals, businesses, and the public at large.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is more than feeling occasionally stressed about your job. Psychologist Christina Maslach developed a three-dimensional framework for describing Burnout.
Emotional exhaustion. You feel chronically drained and emotionally tapped out. No amount of sleep helps you feel rested. You dread work and are preoccupied thinking about it. You may be consumed with anxiety or seem stuck in a low, sad, depressed state. You struggle with sleep. You are physically run down and may find that you are frequently sick.
Depersonalization: You develop a sense of indifference toward your work. Callus or cynical behavior may seep through the cracks. You phone it in or let things slide because you don't have the energy to care. Connections with colleagues and clients are detached and distant. Your interactions may be short, terse and devoid of grace. You stop seeing people. In their place, you see appointments or numerical metrics to plow your way through. It becomes next-to-impossible to muster sympathy and you have no conviction to practice empathy.
Diminished sense of personal accomplishment: You feel a sense of helplessness. It's possible you're working in an environment that sets you up to fail. You don't have the support or resources you need to succeed. No matter what you do or how hard you work, you believe you won't see improvement, progress or meaningful change. Caught in this cycle, you may start to doubt your own abilities. Eventually, you may reason, "Why bother?" Motivation morphs into apathy, and at some point you could decide to give up all together.
Who is flammable?
Anyone can experience burnout. How you work, how much you work, and the nature of your work will influence whether you experience symptoms of burnout and the degree to which they impact or impair you. The dose and drug matter. Professionals in careers where they are on the front lines of taking responsibility for the welfare of others are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. Jobs that are high-pressure, high-stakes are common culprits. If a human is required to function in overdrive for longer than the body is designed to be in a state of emergency, the unsustainable pace will take its toll.
Burnout is a serious problem that we can't afford to ignore or downplay. It hurts individuals and is bad for business. It is also a risk for the people you serve.
Burnout hurts individuals.
When someone is burned out, it's rare that problems at work stay at the office. The toll of this condition on your mental state has impact around the clock. When you're down, anxious, or pissed off about your circumstances, it's hard to be present in your life. Sometimes individuals experience dissonance because they sense that how they are feeling and performing is not who they aspired to be at the beginning of their career. A disconnect between "aspirational" and "actual" can breed shame and tank self-esteem. Burnout can rob individuals of meaningful relationships and can keep them from being the partners, parents, and friends they desire to be.
When it comes to stress, our bodies keep the score. In addition to the cost to a person’s mental health, burnout has a negative impact on people physically too. Stress leaves a body susceptible to illness and injury. People who are burned out often experience frequent bouts of sickness and have a hampered immune response.
When people push too far for too long, it takes more than a vacation to recover. In some cases, it may take require an extended period of medical leave. At times, it takes moving to a new job, company, or career for someone to find their footing again.
Burnout hurts businesses.
Some businesses adopt a burn-and-churn approach to managing personnel. In this model, employees are expendable, and the company squeezes as much out of them as possible before they leave. People come second to the bottom line. It behooves companies who are myopically focused on profitability to run the math on the price they pay for burning out their people. Deloitte research has revealed that poor mental health, which impacts absenteeism, engagement, and staff turnover, directly impacts employer costs to the tune of $59 to $62 billion dollars, per year. It takes considerable time and resources to attract and train top talent. It would serve businesses well to get serious about taking significant measures to improve retention. Burned-out employees eventually leave (or will need to be escorted to an exit). The damage that can occur between the onset of someone's professional decline and formally severing ties with a workplace represents a window of significant vulnerability for organizations. When burned-out people represent your company or brand, there is increased liability and reputational risk.
Burnout hurts clients.
Clients and customers deserve a professional's acumen and full attention. Professionals who are burned out are unlikely to be super dialed into what is happening in front of them. The consequences for lapsed attention or lack of follow-through can be severe. In some settings where burnout is rampant, such as healthcare, a patient's life can be on the line if a provider isn't sharp and tuned in. For professionals who steward and protect client resources, such as financial advisors or attorneys, errors can have far-reaching ramifications for the people they serve. People who are burned out can be unresponsive or come off as flaky—clients remember these interactions and disappointments. They talk to their friends about them, too. If someone is paying for your time, they deserve your presence. No one wants to be a customer of someone who isn't up to the task they were hired to undertake. We want to work with people who are competent and who care.
In my personal and professional life, I've watched many gifted people leave their professions because they were fried. It's a travesty, really, to think of what the world misses out on when qualified, exceptional individuals with years of training and experience step back because everything has been sucked out of them. It's time to take measures, both personally and as organizations, to protect top talent. Burnout is a malady that has to be addressed on both an individual and systemic level.
What can individuals do about burnout?
Boundaries. Boundaries are the antidote to burnout. Don't forget you work for a business. Businesses are designed to self-protect and prioritize profitability. Often, employers will take everything you are willing to give to your role. Don't hand over your entire heart and soul. Establish your limits, or the world will set them for you.
Sleep. Protect and prioritize your sleep. It's one of the most powerful amplifiers in your life. When shuteye is out of whack, the hard things are much more difficult. Sleep disturbance is often a sign and symptom that something is off. Pay attention. If you're struggling in this area and standard sleep hygiene recommendations aren't moving the needle, take action and seek help from a qualified professional.
Pause. Rest is not a waste of time. It's an investment in your future self. Your performance will improve if you can unplug, recharge, and renew yourself. Ambition and mental health are not at odds. If you struggle to slow down, step back and consider why this might be. Busyness is a powerful defense. In the quiet and still, you have to face your thoughts and feelings--a prospect many find nothing short of terrifying.
Clear your calendar. Busy is not a badge of honor; it's a sign you aren't managing your time well. Don't confuse busyness with importance. Take control of your calendar and build in more blank space. Focus on what's essential. What are the things only you can do? Even if you don't have much calendar control at work, use your agency to reclaim time outside the office. Where are you squandering your precious moments? Think twice about where you're giving your energy and attention away to someone or something that doesn't serve you.
Say no. What are the commitments you're making out of obligation, not because it's something you want to do? Write yourself a permission slip to say, "no" unapologetically. Do it without guilt or explanation. Be discriminant about when you give your "yes." Each time you say "yes" to someone or something, you say "no" to much more.
Make friends outside of your industry. Spend time with people who don't understand what you do. In these spaces, the things that are a Big Deal and all-consuming to you may be rightsized. Personal relationships help us maintain a healthy emotional distance from our jobs, so investing in connections outside the workplace is important.
Delegate & Disconnect. You are replaceable at work. You are not replaceable at home. We are all less important in the office than we like to think. In most jobs, work will never be done, which means there's never a perfect time to go on vacation or leave the office for the day. Brief periods of disconnection won't derail your career. Instead of telling yourself the story, "No one else can do the work while I'm away," focus on how you can delegate to, and empower the people around you.
What can organizations do about burnout?
Engage with empathy. It can be easy for a disconnect to exist between initiatives set in motion at the top of an org chart and conditions in the trenches. It's imperative for people in positions of power to take and seek the perspective of employees who will be responsible for executing someone else's plans. Check-in with them about how they're doing. Tune in when you sense that they may be struggling. Ask your team what they need to succeed. When they tell you, don't just listen–actively follow through. Choose empathy because it's the right thing to do. It will have a positive impact on innovation, engagement, and retention.
Set an example. Leaders can talk until they’re blue in the face about promoting a healthy corporate culture, but what speaks volumes to their employees is the example they set. When leaders have healthy boundaries with their own work, it gives the people around them permission to set similar limits. After TV writer and producer Shondra Rhimes had children, she updated her email signature to read, "Please Note: I will not engage in work emails after 7:00 p.m. or on weekends. IF I AM YOUR BOSS, MAY I SUGGEST: PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE."
Connect people to a sense of purpose. People want to be a part of something that matters. When professionals experience burnout, they often aren't tethered to a sense of purpose in their work. To support employees who are sick, tired, and apathetic, you must give them more than a job to do. Tasks don't light people up. Humans need an opportunity to make a difference.
Provide autonomy. Powerlessness is anxiety provoking. When we can exact a sense of control in difficult circumstances, it helps us breathe easier. It behooves employers to consider how they can create maximum flexibility without sacrificing the integrity of the organization as a whole. Within your company, consider where you can create more autonomy for employees. This will increase the likelihood they will feel understood and supported.
Don't recreate your own pain. Sometimes, established professionals look at the next generation of talent and think, "I had to suffer and struggle to get to where I am, so you should too." Instead of updating policies and improving conditions, the status quo is maintained as a sadistic way to have people prove themselves. Your office should not be the Hunger Games. Stop hazing others simply because you were hurt at some point on your own journey. Making things harder than they need to be for people who follow in your footsteps won't unwind your past. If you're hell-bent on making it hard for people rising in the ranks, take a critical look at what's happening in your heart. Are you threatened? Envious? Don't make others suffer because you won't address "your stuff." Deal with it. Then, start acting the way you wish people would have treated you long ago.
Support employee wellbeing practically. Championing employee health in your company value statement will fall short if it's not followed up with action. One-off yoga sessions or annual staff retreats aren't going to shift the tide of your corporate culture and move the needle on employee health. Consider ways your company can support employee wellbeing where it counts: Solid insurance benefits. Access to an EAP. Parental leave. Support and space for new moms who are pumping. Schedules that permit employees to attend psychotherapy regularly. Provide adequate time and resources to execute projects. Eliminate superfluous meetings so people can get their work done. Respect employees’ time and attention outside of regular business hours.
Talk to the manager. People don't leave companies—they leave bad bosses. New research suggests that for almost 70% of people, their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor—and it's equal to the impact of their partner. If you're a leader, you're right to find this data sobering. The stakes for leadership have always been high, but it's crucial that managers understand the gravity of how they affect their organization. The way you treat your people will make or break your business. Often, individuals are promoted into management positions because they have excelled in their craft. Having acumen in a professional discipline does not mean a manager is automatically a gifted leader. A manager with low EQ can quickly drive teams into the ground with little awareness or appreciation of the problems they are creating. Companies committed to caring well for their employees must invest in their managers. Toxic leaders need to be identified and culled before they infect the organization.
We won't get rid of burnout with bath bombs or beachside vacations. Health requires a commitment to holistic wellbeing on a micro- and macro-level. Individuals and institutions alike need to examine how they are complicit in creating unhealthy, depleting work conditions. Everyone gets burned when professionals don’t show up as the best version of themselves.
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