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"My boss just gave a day’s notice and resigned. I knew she was burnt out, I noticed the signs a while ago, and had tried to tell her to get help..."

– Corporate Client

Regular readers would be aware that burnout impacts a large percentage of the working population, a figure that is on the rise in the last 18 months. Yet there is a still lack of early intervention and prevention and a pervasive national culture of overworking.

A global study analysing how white-collar workers managed working from home has revealed nearly four in five Australians suffered from burnout. What is concerning is that the average worker’s overtime increased from 236 hours to 436 hours in 2020, but they nonetheless missed one in four deadlines.

“In 2020, work about work has increased, creating chaos, confusion and rising levels of burnout [and] this misalignment has made it difficult for everyone to do their best work.”

– Adam Chicktong

What are some the consequences prolonged chronic stress and burnout if left unchecked?

  • Loss of overall vitality

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • High blood pressure

  • Vulnerability to illness

  • Mood disorder

  • Increased mistakes

  • Decreased productivity

  • Financial losses,

  • Accidents,

  • Absenteeism

So what is burnout?

According to the World Health Organisation “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Personally I do not find this definition very helpful for many reasons. The complexity of defining burnout lies in the fact that it is cyclical in nature and in a way negatively self-perpetuating. A person experiences prolonged stress, this leads to difficulty dealing with problems at work, leads to increase in burnout symptoms, leads to more difficult coping, leads to more stress. Thus the more a person becomes entrenched in burnout the harder it is to get out if it. In addition, the tendency to equate work with self-worth and thus any damage to that self-worth which may come from experiencing burnout is a cause of stress and burnout.

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

There is a myth that burnout is easy to detect, however due to its insidious nature, it is difficult to spot. Burnout sneaks up over time, and it is not until it is significantly impacting functioning that the signs become clearly apparent. In addition, there is a high level of individual differences in its manifestation. Early researchers identified the following components of burnout:

 

Exhaustion: Immense emotional physical and or cognitive fatigue. Not feeling replenished from sleep or a holiday or ever. Feeling emotionally drained from work.

Cynicism: Low levels of job engagement, especially in a person who was highly engaged. Lack of general patience, loss of interest in the job, the mission of the company, overly critical of ideas.

Inefficacy: Lack of productivity and feelings of incompetence.

Whilst contemporary researchers agree that exhaustion and a compromised work performance are strong indicators of burnout, they broadened the definition to include:

Loss of empathy: This may manifest in the loss of the ability to care for people

Impaired cognition: People report that they tend to scan, rather than read, that they can’t take in material, that their memory is compromised.

To further complicate things there are other pointers. Most people report pretty dreadful sleep and some depressive symptoms, although researchers argue depression is not the same as burnout. While those with burnout are likely to experience depressive symptoms, their presence is not of necessity indicative of clinical depression. In addition they may also develop anxiety and at times they will experience significant physical problems. Of concern, also is the common prevalence of social withdrawal.

What can be done?

Regular readers would be aware that there are primary secondary and tertiary responses to a complex issue like burnout. Both secondary and tertiary prevention focus on fixing people. Secondary prevention tries to help people manage or cope with worksite stressors, with the goal of reducing the prevalence of job stress (or burnout), and tertiary prevention treats people who are already suffering from exposure to worksite stressors, with the goal of reducing the residual deficits following stress or burnout. As an Organisational psychologist, my expertise and preference lie in the primary prevention space. Interventions that look at eliminating or modifying worksite stressors, with the goal of reducing the likelihood of new cases of burnout.

So how do we minimise the likelihood of burnout occurring?

Researchers have found that the following aspects of work create a foundation of employee engagement and wellbeing:

    • a sustainable workload;

    • choice and control;

    • recognition and reward;

    • a supportive work community;

    • fairness, respect, and social justice; and

    • clear values and meaningful work.

Other researchers have found that the “fit” between the person and the job is best understood in terms of the satisfaction of the following core psychological needs:

    • autonomy

    • belongingness,

    • competence,

    • psychosocial safety,

    • positive emotions,

    • fairness, and

    • meaning.

The challenge for leaders is to analyse and then design and modify work in ways that will support the satisfaction of these needs through the performance of the job. The following questions may serve as useful prompts. Does the job stimulate feelings of competence and mastery? What promotes a sense of belonging to the organisation? Are there opportunities for experiencing positive feelings and meaningful pride in one’s work?

What about the leader?

Researchers have found that leaders’ motivational approach is a significant contributor to provoking employee burnout. Specifically, when leaders prioritise personal effort, learning, and experimentation, stressing that trying hard and individual improvement are valued, and that experiencing failure is part of the learning process, minimise the likelihood of burnout. By offering time off to participate in developmental activities, and advising employees to implement newly learned skills on the job, and encouraging experimentation, provides employees with resources in dealing with setbacks. When the leader encourages their staff to perceive failure as useful information that can help them to achieve their work goal, they will build resources. In contrast if failure is perceived as a stressful situation, coping resources are depleted. As Organisations emphasise self‐improvement rather than self‐enhancement, amongst their leadership team and accept errors as part of the learning process then a psychologically safe work environment will begin to emerge.

My Final thoughts:

 

Despite my bias towards preventative approaches to burnout, there is a place for both secondary and tertiary approaches. Workplace stressors can not be always be avoided and they take time to modify and thus employees need to learn and access coping strategies. In addition, leaders should always keep an eye out for signs of burnout in themselves, their teams and their colleagues and seek professional support. (If you need any tips, Click here and here for my blogs on having RU OK conversations) While researching this blog I decided it was essential to listen to the songs in full, just to make sure the language was appropriate. Unsurprisingly, I got captivated by the beat and found myself dancing around my home office. While music is not a silver bullet, regular readers are aware of its impact on mood. (click here for my blog on Music and mood) So take a moment, turn up the volume and dance to your favourite song. Thank you Dave, Matt and Liam at FIT1 (www.fit1.com.au) for keeping me fit and shifting my music playlist out of the 1980’s to 2021.

Tamar Balkin

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