Uncertainty was a defining characteristic of 2020, and with it came it record-high levels of burnout. Failing to address burnout is costly for both individuals and organisations. In 2019, burned-out employees were href="https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx" rel="nofollow">2.6 times as likely to be looking for other employment. Researchers also estimate that workplace stress accounts for 8% of the national budget in health care. Yet many business leaders use flawed methods to identify it in their employees.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical or mental exhaustion. Organisations often attempt to gauge burnout with annual wellness surveys, which have several significant limitations. First, these surveys assess only the passive forms of burnout. Second, they capture a snapshot in time and might not be administered when employees are actually facing high burnout. Finally, we've observed that employees experiencing burnout often don't complete them.
Based on our research on employee well-being and conversations with over a hundred working professionals, we developed a more comprehensive model of burnout to help managers and their employees identify the early warning signs.
Passive indicators of burnout
There are two types of passive burnout. The most common form, internal passive, is the hardest to see, which is why companies often use surveys to detect it. The signs include weariness accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and sadness. Passive burnout can harm productivity by contributing to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. We all have setbacks at work, but for employees experiencing burnout, they can feel insurmountable.
These employees may disengage from work because they feel like a failure at everything they do. Be on the lookout for this despondency, which can manifest as gloominess, and for subtle clues in their language about their feelings of resignation — phrases that indicate acceptance of pain ("it's just the way things are," "working with them is like hitting your head against the wall," "why bother?") accompanied by a low tone, audible sighs and slight head shaking.
External passive forms of burnout can be easier to observe. Are your employees lowering their usual standards of performance, withdrawing effort, relaxing the rules, missing deadlines or expressing more cynicism? These are side effects of burnout-related apathy. If allowed to fester, burnout can result in extreme avoidance behaviours, such as sidestepping interactions with co-workers, not speaking up when they have an idea or when something's wrong, or letting problems slip by that they would usually address. Employees become dismissive as they become too burned out to help fix any more problems.
Active indicators of burnout
Burnout also lowers self-regulation. Internal active forms of burnout include negative coping tactics like adopting unhealthy eating and drinking habits or neglecting healthy routines like workouts and hobbies. These behaviours are challenging to spot in most workplaces, but they can result in easier-to-identify mental and physical impairments and absences from work. Pay attention to departures from routines.
The warning signs of external active forms of burnout include being easily annoyed and expressing impatience and discontent. For some employees, this conduct is standard fare, but they may indicate burnout in people who are usually patient and diplomatic. If left unchecked, this can lead to more insidious behaviours like incivility and blaming, and even angry outbursts or frequent, unprompted crying. Such behavior can generate even more stress for colleagues, severely damage work relationships, hinder productivity and lower team morale.
Avoiding burnout is often easier than bouncing back from it. The following strategies can help you identify it early, prevent it from getting worse and remedy it if it's already taken hold. As you embark on this process with your employees, be sure to put on your own oxygen mask first — if you're feeling crushed under your workload, it will be nearly impossible to effectively help others.
Spot the symptoms
Passive burnout often escalates into more active forms that exacerbate one another. For example, feelings of failure can lead to drinking, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to snipping at co-workers and then finally to an office blow up. Be aware of the subtle indicators and know your employees well enough to be able to recognize when they're deviating from their norms. Periodically taking employees' temperature by simply asking them about the one issue that's stressing them out the most may relieve some pressure.
Reflect before you react
When you do notice a potential indicator of burnout, ask yourself: What just happened and why? Stop and reflect on what role you might be playing in the employee's burnout. Maybe you've set unrealistic deadlines, or your own burnout is making you impatient and snippy. Then ask them: What just happened and why? What can I do to help? Take the time to respond to the small issues with more understanding to prevent the burnout from getting worse.
Practice and promote perspective-talking
Pausing to see the big picture is paramount in determining which actions to take. Assess which tasks and projects really matter and which are less important. Coach your employees on how to take perspective, reframe problems and choose which requests they can decline and which actions they can defer. Helping them develop this skill and giving them the freedom to do so gives them more control — the lack of which is a significant cause of burnout.
Support them in the struggle
Most solutions to burnout aren't one-size-fits-all. Knowing your employees well will help you work collaboratively to find ways to take the pressure off them. Maybe you can eliminate a particular source of stress, offload competing demands, offer suggestions for coping with pressure or simply share a laugh about an issue that's stressing you out as well. When you're unable to take action, offer emotional support in the form of empathy and deep listening. Well wishes like "have a nice weekend" and "get some rest" after you've just given them more work to do won't cut it — perceived inauthenticity of well wishes can actually heighten feelings of burnout.
Combat the culture of immediacy
Consider whether a tendency toward urgency or a focus on clock time may be creating unnecessary stress for your team. Maybe there are deadlines you can extend or projects you can defer. Can you create flexible schedules that relieve work and home-life conflicts? Can you rotate in staff to support overwhelmed areas and provide backup? Stepping back from the typical modes of operation and looking at the context with fresh eyes will help you identify specific actions that might make a difference for your employees' stress levels.
Burnout isn't a new problem, but as the pandemic that made it worse continues into 2021, it's critical that company leaders understand how to identify and mitigate it.
Written by: Margaret M. Luciano and Joan F. Brett
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