Person lying down with book on face. Is this how we imagine rest?

Burnout has become something of a buzzword these days. Are you feeling it; supporting someone else with it; or thinking about how to prevent it in your team?

If so, it might be helpful to start by reflecting on what it is we mean by the term.

In 2019, the World Health organisation designated burnout as a workplace syndrome, defining it as:

“a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and

reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Tiredness, cynicism, reduced efficacy. If we’re honest, isn’t this something all of us have felt at one time or another in our working lives?

Perhaps you can identify with Anne Helen Petersen, writing about her millennial generation, in the viral article that would become a book:

“Burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; it’s our permanent residence.”

The data support the idea of burnout being a hugely prevalent problem. By 2020, as the covid pandemic began its global impact, one US study suggested that 3 in 4 workers were burnt out.

So, what are we to make of this “epidemic” of burnout?

What does it say about how we live and work, and how can it steer us to a more effective, fulfilling – or at least less destructive – course?

Are we all burnt out?

Post-pandemic, the wave of burnout doesn’t appear to be reducing significantly.

As conflict deepens in the Middle East, the cost of living in many countries worsens and the climate crisis continues to deliver even bleaker headlines, the epidemic of burnout shows no sign of abating.

EArlier this year, a Future Forum survey of 10,243 full-time desk-based workers polled in six countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, found that over 40% said they were burned out.

Those figures increased to 48% of 18-29 year olds, and 46% of women.

With statistics like this, burnout can arguably no longer be seen as a rare or extreme syndrome. It’s something almost half of us – half your friends, team, colleagues – are experiencing at any one time.

How is burnout showing up in your world?

In diverse teams, it’s worth reflecting on your individual team members and how burnout is affecting them.

Do they have draining family responsibilities; a long commute; are they disadvantaged in visible or invisible ways?

In conversations, do they acknowledge their need for rest and prioritise themselves, or do they continue to pile on the pressure?

Is burnout something that’s talked about and supported in your organisation? Has it become a “badge of honour”, or is it a taboo that no one wants to mention?

There’s no “one size fits all” with a problem this big.

Being able to ask searching questions; listen well; and intuit the best way to support each person is critical to building a team that can be genuinely supportive, resilient and weather the storms.

Given the ongoing disruptions we face, perhaps what’s most surprising is how many of us are still managing to show up and engage.

What does burnout have to teach us?

So, what does burnout have to teach us?

Perhaps on one level, burnout asks us to challenge the narrative of “more, more, more”.

Just as with the earth’s systems, human beings have natural limits. The epidemic of burnout reminds us that pushing harder for results can rob us of our most valuable contributions: our energy, engagement and creativity.

Leaders must be attuned to the “tipping point” at which teams begin producing less and less effectively, as they succumb to burnout.

Burnout also reminds us that working to our full capacity, all the time, robs us of our ability to react to unexpected events – whether beneficial opportunities or devastating losses.

As we saw during the pandemic, people already strained beyond their limits are the least equipped to deal with an unexpected crisis.

Don’t wait until the next curveball to hit your team to begin mitigating and talking about the effect of stress and burnout.

What can leaders do?

A quick glance at recent research into burnout will reveal its prevalence at every level of organisations. It’s not down to one leader or organisation to turn it around.

Here are some ideas for ways to start taking a stand against burnout in your team:

  • Be aware that the cultural narrative of working to exhaustion, constantly improving & producing is strong. Rewriting that story takes active, assertive action.
  • Know what your own signs of chronic stress and exhaustion are and know what your teams’ are. Remember, neuro- and culturally diverse teams will have as many different signs as there are people.
  • Be open about your own challenges when it comes to setting limits around your work. Model behaviours eg. leaving on time, taking vacation, and be open if that’s a challenge or if you don’t manage to do it.
  • Get curious around your organisation’s culture. Are your goals possible without pushing your employees to exhaustion? What would shift if you prioritised wellbeing over other targets? How do you feel when you contemplate that?

If you’d like some support assessing your current culture, and shifting towards a more flexible, adaptable, human-centred way of leading and working – we’d love to hear from you.

Get in touch and find out about our programmes to transform your people, without pushing them beyond their limits.

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