How organisations should address burnout in the workplace

Business leaders can take to prevent burnout amongst their employees

Long before the onslaught of COVID-19, burnout was a rapidly progressing global epidemic of its own. So much so that in 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. According to a recent survey, nearly half of UK workers have experienced it.

Companies, teams, and individuals need to take this growing epidemic seriously. Why? Burnout can not only wreak havoc on one’s wellbeing, but it can also lead to increased absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, vulnerability to illnesses (including mood disorders), decreased morale, and increased mistakes. All things that will not allow for individuals, teams, or organisations to flourish in our new and ever-changing world of work.

So, what can businesses do to address this alarming epidemic? I suggest three key steps:

  1. Actively monitor levels of burnout at the individual and organisational level.
  2. Encourage a culture of open communication to most effectively address burnout.
  3. Equip your people with optimism, hope, and future-mindedness to promote organizational resilience.

Identifying burnout

To prevent burnout, business leaders must recognise one fundamental truth. It does not discriminate. It can affect anyone regardless of their seniority, industry or the size of the company they work in. So, they should avoid making assumptions about who is most likely to be affected.

The difficult thing about burnout is that it can’t simply be reduced to burnout or not burned out – it’s not an “on and off” switch. Burnout is far more insidious; it sneaks up on you bit by bit through corrosive drips of stress. Accordingly, like anything dangerous, it is important to proactively monitor for it rather than waiting until it is causing significant problems to address it.

Burnout tends to be the product of three interrelated components. It is characterised by exhaustion (immense emotional, physical and cognitive fatigue), cynicism (low levels of job engagement), and inefficacy (a lack of feeling of competence on the job).

Managers might notice employees becoming irritable or resistant to new requests. They may lose interest in their personal development, cancel line management meetings, or appear uninterested in developmental opportunities. They may become cynical about their role and employer, expressing negative attitudes towards company initiatives. Workers who previously performed strongly might suddenly appear underconfident.

Both leaders and employees need to monitor these components of burnout on a consistent, persistent basis. The sooner it can be detected, the greater the opportunity to course-correct early on.

Managers should be empowered with the tools and resources to talk with affected employees and build trusted relationships whereby workers feel like they can be honest about workload, stress and other issues.

Open communication and individualised, inclusive support

While research has revealed that it can undermine even the most ambitious employees–it doesn’t just result from working too much. That’s right; burnout isn’t simply a consequence of overworking to the point of exhaustion. While overwork and exhaustion are part of what can happen with burnout, it is not the whole picture. Research has found that burnout comes from six distinct mismatches between people and their job:

  • Work overload
  • Perceived lack of control
  • Insufficient reward
  • Breakdown in community
  • Lack of fairness
  • Values misalignment

Suppose employees don’t feel like they can talk about stress and other person-job mismatches that could be causing burnout symptoms. In that case, they are more likely to internalise their emotions, exacerbating hopelessness and exhaustion. Setting up team norms that promote psychological safety can promote open dialogue and prevent toxic positivity. Furthermore, the sooner communication around which of the six person-job mismatches may be contributing to their burnout, the faster you can help them course-correct and prevent harm.

Leadership teams must encourage managers to make a conscious effort to check in with their teams and understand more about workloads and potential stressors. Because burnout is multifaceted, “one size fits all” solutions don’t cut it. Instead, a combination of establishing an ongoing and personalised dialogue with staff, creating systems to act on feedback, and also empowering and providing support for employees’ specific mismatches creates a more comprehensive approach.

At the individual level, professional coaching and mentoring represent an effective way of equipping workers to buffer themselves against burnout. Coaches have proven to help individuals avoid burnout by helping them regulate their emotions, build resilience, improve their communication style, and achieve a better work-life balance.

When coaching is individualised and ongoing, employees get the support they need to plan for and overcome even the most challenging situations. There are benefits for managers, too, who receive advice on refining their leadership skills and creating psychologically safe work environments where teams feel recognised, empowered and valued. Overall, professional coaching can reduce workplace burnout by 19%.

Embracing a future-minded culture

Organisations should also recognise how managers can influence the experience of others.

Managers and people leaders are stewards of culture, social architects, drivers of change and become powerful wellbeing advocates. They need to be supported in promoting the right behaviours and mindsets across an organisation which can help to prevent burnout.

They have a pivotal role in building a more optimistic and resilient workplace. Individuals with a high sense of hope tend to report less psychological distress and have an increased level of job and life satisfaction. Promoting this outlook is crucial to strengthening psychological resilience.

Managers who adopt a future-minded leadership approach can foster a more hopeful approach to work. Future-minded leaders balance optimism with pragmatism to prepare for multiple possible futures, keeping in mind potential roadblocks and setbacks that may occur along the way. This isn’t predicting what lies ahead, and it’s more than just having a Plan B. It’s about using psychological, cognitive, and emotional resources to envision many different future states and possible paths.

Future-Minded Leaders report 34% less anxiety and 35% less depression. They’re more hopeful about the future, more productive and have greater job and life satisfaction. And their teams are much less likely to suffer from burnout.

Business leaders can encourage managers across their organisation to learn more about future-mindedness by equipping them with resources and tools that can assist and linking them with professional coaches who can nurture the qualities necessary to thrive in an uncertain world.

Addressing the problem early and often

Burnout is a complex issue to address. Every individual is different, and potential stressors can vary widely.

Yet there are straightforward steps organisations can take. They can pick up the telltale signs of burnout much earlier and make necessary interventions through better monitoring. By building more inclusive and psychologically safe working cultures, employees will feel more empowered to openly talk about stress, wellbeing, and pressure points. Finally, encouraging the right mindset can ensure that managers and employees are better prepared to deal with uncertainty and less likely to feel overwhelmed.

While moments of stress and anxiety will always occur at work, businesses can ensure that staff aren’t overwhelmed and can navigate difficulties and uncertainties with confidence, energy and focus.

By Dr Jacinta Jiménez, VP, Coach Innovation, BetterUp.

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