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This blog is about

  • The misconception that self-care is the ready made solution for burnout
  • Understanding the wider picture of burnout
  • How to create a more effective burnout prevention strategy

Read time approximately 8 minutes.

Burnout Definition: A state of distressing emotions, stress, physical exhaustion, cynicism, psychological overwhelm, resulting in a decline in performance efficacy that a person exhibits in the presence of workplace stressors.

Today’s Burnout

Even before the COVID era, serious questions were being asked about burnout and the turn towards self care as the automatic remedy.

Before Government imposed virus restrictions, studies across the world had already identified the increasing levels of workplace overwhelm, stress, anxiety and disillusionment.

Self-care had become the antidote to promote in the workplace to relieve the heavy pressures of business life.

Despite forward thinking businesses adopting better care of duty for employees, there was also a sense the Self-Care v Burnout equation required greater scrutiny

For some employees, it was if organisations were suggesting burnout could be prevented if only they did yoga more frequently, hydrate and sleep better and took the breaks they were owed.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as that and then COVID came along to shake our already burgeoning bag of overwhelm, uncertainty, anxiety and fear.

recent report found that employee burnout is on the rise post restrictions: 52% of all workers are feeling burned out, up +9% from a pre-COVID survey.

Burnout is very real challenge and a threat to business performance and so perhaps we need a wider view to get to the roots.

According to the world health organisation $1 trillion is lost in global productivity each year.

In the relationship between productivity and burnout there are lower levels of team confidence, diminished employee engagement, that has a negative impact on job satisfaction, employee retention, hiring the best talent, customer relationships, and therefore overall success.

Burnout – What do we know?

Psychologists Christina Maslach and Herbert Freudenberger were some of the ‘Burnout’ pioneers (before the term Burnout was used).

They identified the challenges and effects on employees beyond just day-to-day aggravations.

According to their research burnout has three critical dimensions, each containing various symptoms and negative experiences:

  • Exhaustion Dimension: wearing out, loss of energy, depletion, debilitation, and fatigue
  • Cynicism Dimension: negative attitudes toward clients, irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal from professional obligations
  • Inefficiency Dimension: reduced productivity, low morale, and inability to cope

These three strands of burnout have since been complimented by more recent research that together concludes burnout has become a normalised part of business culture in many organisations.

Burnout often sits flourishing, supported by corporate dialogue such as, “We are a work hard, play hard culture”. “Keep pushing for results” “We don’t do breaks around here”, “I’ve still got lots of holiday time to take”

Burnout – The common mistakes

Often the direction of travel to remedy burnout has been towards highlighting the individuals response to workplace stressors.

This is understandable because we all have our own personal self-care challenges.  Ones that require tailored strategies that may not apply to others.

E.g. I might ruminate in future thoughts that lead me towards perpetual anxiety where as my team mate doesn’t. Instead he might give his power, time and resources away by not saying ‘no’ to others over seeking his expertise.

Yes there are specific instances in which everyone can learn to respond in ways that better protects them from burnout.

However, if we believe that burnout solely happens because of individual weaknesses, we are less prepared to assess work environments and cultures that consciously and unconsciously foster burnout.

We are less likely to want to measure the effects of unreasonable or poorly communicated expectations, ineffective leadership, inappropriate role-modelling, volume of work and psychologically unsafe work cultures in which to survive, employees have to keep their head down, ‘just in case’.

Today there are decades of research that conclude that work environments, not individuals have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout.

In our conversations with organisations, we find few people surprised by these conclusions.

We also encounter many hesitant or ‘stuck’ organisations. Caught in promoting self-care as the primary answer to burnout but not balancing this with better strategies in the day to day operation.Eg.  On one hand promoting self-care and on the other doing very little to redress excessive workloads.

Is there a hidden, root problem to burnout?

Like so many presenting problems there are often hidden issues that sometimes fail to get redressed. Resulting in a continuation of the presenting problem because the root cause wasn’t identified in the first place.

If that is true in your organisation you might detect a link between psychological safety (or a lack of it) and burnout.

When work cultures are psychologically unsafe, employees feel (amongst other things) that

  • They can’t speak their truth
  • They won’t be truly heard and acknowledged (in particular emotionally acknowledged)
  • Their contributions and challenges will be dismissed or given ‘lip service’
  • When things go wrong they have to place their energy into either avoiding blame or projecting it.

Other clues of a culture that unconsciously ignites burnout through a lack of psychological safety include

  • Excessive workloads
  • Lack of flexibility in schedule
  • Lack of worker autonomy
  • Destructive competition among co-workers
  • Getting shut out of opportunities
  • Loss of shared common meaning and purpose at work
  • Workers feeling they are not meaningful change agents
  • Fear (or “I better not ask…”) as the primary experience of work
  • Self-sacrifice promoted as the model of work
  • Inefficiencies in the workplace
  • Burnout is simply business as usual

What are the answers?

Most of the answers come from creating a collaborative environment that understands and prioritises well-being in its day to day operation.

(Below are a few pointers to take you in that direction)

Let’s also briefly look at the qualities of a well-being focused, work environment. Qualities will include

  • Compassion is role-modelled by the leadership
  • Strengths and appropriate praise are a continuous focus and spoken in the day-to-day, leadership narrative
  • Feedback is a day to day operational experience
  • Coaching is operationally consistent and human centred; not just performance centred
  • Expectations are clear and genuinely agreed upfront
  • The work environment honours the purpose and values of the individual and combines these with the organisations purpose and values

It’s all about prevention

Here are a few pointers to help ensure your organisation can implement strategies to prevent burnout.

It makes financial sense to invest in self-care as an organisational responsibility that supports growth and continued success.

Establishing the costs of not implementing a prevention strategy in your organisation will likely be a worthwhile investment of your time.

As well as being required to convince senior decision makers to take the investment.

Here are some general things that research has shown to prevent burnout in workers include things such as:

  • Set clear expectations to workers (threaded through from recruitment stage onwards)
  • Identify worker values and their specific autonomy needs
  • Encourage self-care through teamwork and appreciation of the power of ‘we’. (instead of a culture of individual ‘sink or swim’)
  • Design ideal work environments
  • Get real about the current and ongoing impact of workloads
  • Test the hidden root of burnout by establishing the current level of psychologically safety in your organisation

To conclude

We’ve shared the importance of shifting out of an individualistic interpretation of burnout and self-care.

Instead focusing on the realisation that burnout mostly comes from the environment and prevention comes via our collective anticipation and response to it.

No longer should individuals feel they alone should get better at self-care.  While in the background the organisation charges ahead with its goals, KPI’s and continuous demands for more. “Assuming that everyone will automatically get on with things”.

While those with better coping mechanisms stay silent, glad they can just about keep their head above water, while others struggle and pretend to cope in the overwhelm.

Together we can produce more collectively nurturing work environments. That in the end not only produce happier more capable workforce but ultimately shapes the long term success and reputation of the organisation.

Future Vision have more than 20 years experience working in the business and sports sectors.

Helping individuals, teams and leaders implement the strategies that create peak performance, consistently.

If you sense a synergy in our thinking, get in touch 🙂