What is burnout?
Stress is not burnout. In fact, stress is a positive thing in the right doses. Whether we view it as a positive or a negative thing can also have an impact on our experience of stress.
Prolonged chronic stress related to work, however, can and does lead to burnout. It’s the level and duration of the work stress that’s important here.
Depression is not burnout, although the two share similar symptoms and are linked. Extreme burnout has been shown to lead to depression.
Who is most at risk of burnout?
Anyone can suffer from burnout. Organisational factors play a much larger role in determining burnout rates than any individual factors to do with gender, personality or position.
There are mixed results in the research when it comes to gender and burnout. Previous studies had shown no discernible difference in gender rates of burnout, but more recent studies identify more women than men suffer from burnout.
Certain personality traits play a small but statistically significant role in whether you are susceptible to burnout.
Certain professions and sectors feature more prominently in the burnout statistics. For example, those in the human services, medical, emergency services, teaching and legal professions are over-represented in burnout statistics.
CEO- or owner-level burnout is an area worthy of further study, not least because the effects of a burned-out leader have a greater impact on an organisation than those further down in the organisational hierarchy.
What causes burnout?
There are six main causes of burnout. They are overwork, a lack of control, insufficient rewards, a sense of isolation, the absence of fairness and a values conflict between the individual and the organisation or team.
Any one of these causes can contribute to burnout, but when more than one is present, it’s likely to increase the chances of burnout occurring. There is an interconnectedness in these causes, and when they are intertwined, it creates a perfect burnout storm.
What we can do to address burnout
If the vast research pointing to the growing issue of burnout in our workplaces seems overwhelming, fear not. There’s a lot we can do to spot it, stop it and stamp it out, whether that’s at an organisational, leadership or individual level. That said, leadership — good and bad — is perhaps the biggest lever of all when it comes to addressing burnout.
There are four strategies that address burnout. They are recognise, destigmatise, socialise and organise. These can be applied whether you’re taking an organisational, leadership or individual lens. We cover these next.
The first thing we can do is learn to recognise the symptoms of burnout. Burnout can creep up on us — you don’t wake up one day flourishing and then the next day find you’re burned out. It’s a slow creep. It’s helpful to understand that there are three red flags or symptoms of burnout. They are:
- chronic exhaustion
- increased cynicism or depersonalisation, and
- reduced professional efficacy.
The main point is that when we see a combination of all three of these signs in ourselves or our colleagues, it is likely to signal burnout. There are also surveys like the Maslach Burnout Inventory that organisations can adopt to spot burnout trends within their organisation.
Like a lot of mental distress in the workplace, burnout is shrouded in stigma. Many who are suffering from burnout do not reach out for help but continue to battle burnout alone, for fear of negative consequences. It’s vital that we start to talk more openly about mental wellbeing in our workplaces and make it safe for people to speak up.
Leaders play a big role in doing this. And the more senior you are in an organisation, the more impact you will have. From having more ‘How are we going?’ conversations alongside the ‘What are we doing?’ ones, to leaders having the courage to speak about their own challenges and approaches to stress or mental wellbeing, we can make it safer for others to do so, too.
Organisations and different professions must also look at their systems, processes and culture through this burnout and mental wellbeing lens. Are we making it psychologically safe for people to be open about burnout? Or are we inadvertently pushing people underground when it comes to this and other mental distress? We cannot address an issue effectively if it remains hidden.
Social isolation, either perceived or real, is a big cause of burnout. And according to the research, we’re feeling lonelier at work than ever before. The third ‘-ise’ to combatting burnout, socialise, is to be purposeful in creating opportunities for social connection in our workplaces. It’s not enough to leave this to chance — or to individual employees. Again, leaders and organisations pack a bigger punch here, because they have greater power and influence over culture.
there are a number of ways you can encourage better and stronger social connection at work, whether that’s from a macro, organisational level, or from an individual leadership or employee level. One of the most important aspects is to create trust. Trust between the employees and the organisation, trust between a direct manager and their direct report and trust within teams are all pivotal to the socialise strategy.
When it comes to overwork, two big accelerants of burnout are conflicting requests and priorities — and ambiguity. How we organise and prioritise work plays an important role in safeguarding people from burnout. This involves things like involving people in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of their work, not just the ‘what’. It also includes ensuring people are not charged with a task without the corresponding resources to do it. It means being crystal clear on priorities and not having too many of them!
Clarity of communication, and priorities, are key to the organise strategy for burnout. Once again, individuals can take charge in the way they organise their work and employ strategies for influencing and negotiating their workload with their managers to prevent burnout.