The term “burnout” has recently become part of our everyday language as more and more people report feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and exhausted. Coping with the prolonged and additional pressure of the Covid pandemic has contributed significantly to this. Many people who were already stretched to their limit experienced the pandemic as a turning point that disrupted an already delicate equilibrium and tipped the scales towards unsustainable levels of stress and anxiety.
However, it also important for us to bear in mind that burnout is not a new phenomenon brought about by the pandemic. In fact, the term was coined way back in the early 1970s by the American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, who used it to describe the consequences of severe prolonged stress in health care professionals. Eventually, the term burnout was applied to all spheres of work where the demands and conditions of the job exceeded the person’s ability to cope over a prolonged period of time. It is normally regarded as a work-related condition characterised by physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Burnout also includes a sense of intense alienation and lack of interest in work, and a significant drop in performance.
Unfortunately, people suffering from burnout are often misunderstood and misjudged. In some instances, burnout may be regarded as a sign of weakness, a lack of resilience or an inability to cope with the normal demands of a job. Sometimes, it is mistaken for clinical depression and while there are significant similarities between the two, they are not the same thing. It is therefore critical that we understand what burnout really is and learn how to deal with it effectively. Moreover, organisational leaders need to become cognizant of the causes and consequences of burnout and how it impacts employees, staff morale and organisational performance.
In most cases, the onus for burnout recovery is placed on the individual experiencing it. Lifestyle changes and self-care practices are recommended for individuals to “bounce back” and press their reset buttons. Certain psychotherapeutic interventions also help with the recovery process. For example, personality traits that are conducive to burnout, such as perfectionism, pessimism, over-ambition, excessive competitiveness, and the need to always be in control, can be addressed and resolved in therapy. However, while acknowledging the importance of individuals helping themselves, leaders have a responsibility to create working environments that are conducive to wellbeing and buffer their employees from the onset and incidence of burnout.
The following are six research-based practices that are proven to prevent employee burnout and promote good mental health and wellbeing at work.
There is a large body of research that shows that working excessively long hours is a main contributor to burnout. Over time, working long hours on a regular basis may have worrying consequences such as impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, increased errors, and heart disease. Employees who are overworked are also more prone to make mistakes, take bad decisions, make wrong judgment calls, and fail to regulate their emotions. Expecting people to work long hours pushes up rates of absenteeism and staff turnover. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to manage employee workload and work expectations if leaders want to retain their people and encourage them to do their best and be satisfied and fulfilled.
Another significant cause of burnout is excessive monitoring and micromanaging. The constant feeling of being controlled and watched closely puts unnecessary pressure on employees and makes them feel mistrusted and disrespected. Allowing employees as much autonomy over their work as possible gives them a sense of control and power that helps to protect them from burning out. This is because burnout is characterised by a sense of helplessness and lack of control.
People have a basic psychological and emotional need to feel valued and appreciated for who they are and what they do. Anonymity and being taken for granted frustrate this need and make people feel that their work is not valuable and that they are just a number. Simple genuine gestures of appreciation, gratitude and recognition can prevent this and instil a sense of connection and belonging which is instrumental in preventing burnout.
There is a strong body of evidence that shows how good relationships and connections with others are major contributors to physical and psychological wellbeing. One of the down sides of remote working is that it limits social contact and interaction between people. The social connection that is created between colleagues at work can be an important source of support and friendship that buffers employees from burnout. Leaders need to give this importance and make sure they create work practices ensure that people come together meaningfully on a regular basis.
Work policies and protocols that are perceived as fair and respectful provide a sense of psychological safety for employees and gives them the peace of mind that they are working in an environment that guarantees fair, just, and reasonable treatment. Leaders need to make sure that such work policies are adhered to and if they are not, this needs to be taken seriously and acted upon.
Finally, there is the important notion of the meaning and purpose that is derived from the work people do. Meaningless work can easily lead people to burn out because there is no solid purpose base that makes their efforts worth their while. Leaders who consistently link pay cheque to purpose, help employees see their work as important and meaningful for the success of the organisation and for their contribution to society.
It would be naïve of us to expect that stress and pressure will not always be an intrinsic part of most working realities. Businesses often operate in a cutthroat competitive environment sometimes facing serious challenges and fighting for survival. Even as we are emerging from a two-year pandemic, we find ourselves constantly inundated with tragic news of the war in Ukraine and the threats that this may have on our safety, economy, and wellbeing. Life constantly presents us with challenges that test our resilience and ability to endure physical, psychological, and emotional hardship. All of this makes us more vulnerable and susceptible to burnout especially when these stressors are prolonged. It is our responsibility to take our self-care seriously and invest in our wellbeing. It also the responsibility of leaders to create workplaces that are conducive to helping people thrive and flourish while driving business success.