Friday, January 7, 2022

Burnout-a reality employers can't ignore


                                                          Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

2021 has been an exhausting year. Employees are rethinking their relationship with work. According to an article in the wall street journal, a September survey by Think Tank the Conference Board found that more than three-quarters of 1,800 U.S. workers cited concerns such as stress and burnout as significant challenges to well-being at work, up from 55% six months earlier. Half said workload-related pressure was harming their mental health.

DDI's new Global Leadership Forecast 2021 research identified that 86% of high potential employees feel burnout. That rate has climbed 59% since before the pandemic.

Business success cannot be achieved by leaving a trail of dead bodies behind.

In the last few years (pre-pandemic and post-pandemic), many of my clients were high performers but unhappy at work. They were stressed out and burnout. 

Part of the stress was due to the uncertainty caused due to the pandemic. Work from home blurred the boundaries between work and home.

 Employees had to work long hours while working from home as employers expected them to be available on calls and zoom meetings at all times.

 Many of them were juggling between office work, child care and eldercare. And with the pandemic making it mandatory for kids to be attending online classes, parents had a tough time managing them and all other household chores at the same time.

 While researching workplace stress and burnout, here is what I found.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

According to WHO, "Burnout is an occupational phenomenon and is defined as a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Burn out symptoms are 

  • The feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one's job, feeling of negativism, or cynicism related to the job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

In 2019, WHO included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases.

 The difference between Stress and Burnout

 The terms stress and burnout are used interchangeably and can be confusing. Different people use the term to mean other things.

 We feel stressed when we have a deadline to meet. We also feel stressed when hosting a party or expecting visitors at home. Some of these could also be positive stress. Many believe that they perform well under stress. So not all stress is negative. 

We get stressed when we are pushed out of our comfort zone. So, stress connected with an event is a normal part of life, and we all tend to experience it.

But negative stress can be harmful. If there is a pushy and demanding boss at work in an organisation with toxic work culture, the stress can be felt for a prolonged period and can be severe. We may have no control over such a situation, causing us to be constantly stressed. 

One may begin to feel empty, lacking motivation, pessimistic, and generally not caring and hopeless about life. There will be complete disengagement from work. This is burnout.

What causes burnout?

Overwork or working in a toxic environment may not be the only cause for burnout. It could happen even if we are subjected to unfair treatment at work or under-challenged and not given enough work to quench our thirst for work to suit individual potential.

According to an article in HBR, burnout occurs due to the following causes

  • Unsustainable workload
  • Perceived lack of control
  • Insufficient rewards for effort
  • Lack of a supportive community
  • Lack of fairness
  • Mismatched values and skills

The big question is if the causes are due to organisations, their policies and culture, is enough getting done by the employers to alleviate these issues?

According to the Gallup report, 76% of employees sometimes experience burnout on the job, and 28% experience burnout often or always at work. Employees who experience burnout actively seek a new job. 

According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, workplace burnout cost companies $125 billion to $190 billion per year in additional health care spending. 

Burnout has worsened during the pandemic.

Burnout is not a win-win for an employer or the employee.

Creating artificial deadlines and building an unprecedented amount of work pressure on employees, companies rob employees of their time to do more focused work and concentrate on completing their tasks or generate new ideas and be innovative. This certainly is not a win-win situation for the employer or the employee. By creating a toxic work culture and a stressful environment, companies force employees to leave the organisation sooner than later. No wellness programs or perks can help alleviate burnout under such conditions. There would be no motivation to perform, and if the performance overall takes a hit, the organisation bottom lines will also get impacted. From lost productivity to reduced retention rates, employee burnout will turn all-important key indicators red and deliver a fatal blow to all prospects.

Burnout is not specific to any one industry but is felt across manufacturing, IT, construction, hospitality and more. Companies need a deeper understanding of what is causing employee burnout. Finding the root cause of this problem is essential and crucial if there is a serious intention to help employees with mental health issues. Quick fixes like sending people on holidays or asking them to take sick leaves, recommending yoga and meditation will not cure those showing severe signs of burnout.

Burnout causes a physical effect on a person's body. Research shows burnout affects brain function and can cause premature brain ageing and reduce cognitive function. Burnout can also cause coronary heart diseases leading to untimely death.  

Heart of the problem

"That's the great irony of allowing passionate people to work from home. A manager's natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren't getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn't sitting across from her worker anymore, she can't look in the person's eyes and see burnout."

Jason Fried

Management behaviour is one reason for the increased stress that employees feel. Those working remotely feel there is always pressure to demonstrate their productivity and let their bosses know that they are working.

Employees are tasked with too many priorities, and they are expected to use digital tools for multitasking. They are inundated with chat requests. Added to this is the expectation that they collaborate with different stakeholders and decision-makers. This results in endless meetings and conference calls, leaving less time to complete their work. Such excessive collaboration can be exhausting and stressful. 

One of my coaching clients shared what her typical working day looked like. She worked from 9 am to 10 pm almost every day. Her husband is an entrepreneur and works from his office. All the work related to looking after her ten-year-old son, managing other household chores and cooking was left to her. She handled all this along with her full-time job by setting up her office on the kitchen counter. She managed to attend conference calls, respond to instant messages, solve team member problems, and ensure that she responded to her son's needs while attending online classes or completing his homework. The demand on her time prevented her from attending to her personal needs. Barely a minute to catch her breath. "I have no time to do anything I enjoy," she told me. There were warning signs of burnout. Her nerves were frayed. Her only option was to let go of her job and take a break. Mental fatigue affected her health, and she was on the verge of depression.

"The reality is: there will always be more work. From our jobs and owning businesses, to being a manager of our families and our homes - there will always be more work. It never goes away. We never escape from the responsibilities that life presents us. But one of our main responsibilities should be ourselves, after all, there's only one of us anyway."

 ― Vanessa Autrey, The Art of Balancing Burnout

Employee burnout is an organisational issue.

What can managers do to help employees fight burnout?

A few suggestions based on my personal experience, having managed multiple global teams for more than three decades and having coached individuals facing work-life challenges.

  1. Invest in your team members through awareness, time and attention. Listen to their work-related problems and actively participate and support them in finding a solution.
  2. Build a trust relationship with the team such that the employees believe that their manager will invest time in their well-being and development. They need to feel that the manager genuinely cares for them; they will only share their concerns.
  3. Conduct regular one on one, performance reviews, coach and mentor them, celebrate their achievements. Never hesitate to have a difficult conversation whenever the need arises. Difficult conversations are not tough if you genuinely care for the person. Learn the skills to have conversational flexibility and not end up arguing. Converse with patience and empathy to make the conversation more effective.
  4. Help them find meaning in their work and explain the importance of their job. Team members will less likely feel burnout if the manager can show them how their contribution and hard work are connected to its mission.
  5. Create a positive work environment where team members can feel safe to share out of the box ideas, talk with respect, respect conflict and support each other in the team.
  6. Everyone is vulnerable to stress. As a manager, if you are stressed, you need to seek help and guidance immediately. While you need to be a role model of strength and confidence, be compassionate towards yourself. Don't try to be hard and beat yourself and let your personal well-being fall by the side.


   "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience." - Ralph Waldo `````Emerson.

Burnout is an issue that organisations can no longer afford to ignore. It is said, " Knowing is half the battle". If organisations know the crisis and pay attention, can we hope that this crisis will be addressed?

Business success cannot be achieved by leaving a trail of dead bodies behind.

This article is also published on LinkedIn and can be read here

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