Why burnout needs a business strategy

One of the foundations of coaching is the belief that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. We have everything we need to find our own answers and create change. I’m always blown away by the things my clients achieve, despite a starting out belief that those things could not, or should not, be possible for them. It shows how one’s resilience, imagination, creativity and courage are an inherent part of the human experience. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of my work.  

Working with people burning out could not be further from this experience. It’s a state where little growth is possible. Problem-solving capacity is diminished. Creativity is narrowed. There’s limited ability to be present. There is weakened access to their empathy function. Edginess and defensiveness prevail. Overwhelm is common. Physiologically, people oscillate between sympathetic and dorsal vagal nervous system states, which plays serious havoc with energy levels, adrenaline overload and opens the doors to an array of negative emotions. Immunity is on a downward spiral with gastrointestinal issues, headaches, migraines, nausea and brain fog symptoms common.

I mean this is serious stuff. It needs a particular kind of coaching support because when one is in the throws of burning out, our attention needs to be with both the body and the mind to get back to a state of balance and positive wellbeing, where the growth work can begin.

What sits behind the growing numbers

"23% of 7500 employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always"

It’s alarming to see a recent Gallup survey reveal that a quarter of employees often feel burnt out. That is a staggering statistic. This dark side of human potential is sadly growing in numbers, affecting more people, of all ages, in more lines of work.

We’re at the point where we are seeing different types of burnout – representation burnout, activist burnout, entrepreneur burnout, Millennial burnout, overload burnout, under-challenge burnout, stretched superstar burnout, to name a few I’ve come across.

We’re so stressed out we don’t even take days off anymore. Sick days taken are at their lowest number since we started measuring this nationally. Yet at the same time, we’re seeing record levels of presenteeism and leavism which are being normalised. We’re building work cultures where it is becoming the norm to power on through regardless.

And work is all around us, all of the time. I’m old enough to remember the moment when work became an ‘always on’ thing. The day when we were issued with laptops and mobile phones and no longer had the valued distance between us and clients. Looking back, I recall the pre-tech joy in having space to think and create, control over your diary, the authority to respond on your terms with no baked-in expectation for immediacy. Not only that, but then we had the luxury of resources, working to a mantra of ‘do more with more’. There were healthy respect and availability of resources afforded to you to do your job well.

Trends like ‘Bleisure’ became how we described the apparent joy of being able to seamlessly blend work and life whenever we felt like it. It’s just that this invasion of work into our lives was a one-way deal, where we mainly got to work whenever we wanted, but the life bit did not have the same access rights. We’re still only at 15% of jobs offering any kind of flexibility. And work efficiency spilt over into how we managed our personal lives, shaping everything from how we approach wellness, to dating, to organising social lives.

Culturally, especially with the rise of entrepreneurship, we’ve seamlessly transitioned from seeking meaningful lives to mainly seeking meaningful work. And doing what you love has come to be seen as something that comes with trade-offs. People are even willing to earn less for the privilege of it. And to work harder for it, because 'no pain, no gain', right? A view which is being exploited by tech leaders and reinforced by the ever-present social media. It allows passion to be a thinly disguised veil for burnout. I see it often. It makes burning out be something that is endured and enjoyed, even. Because it’s a badge of kudos, a rite of passage as an entrepreneur, part of proving your creative self or demonstrating your commitment to your purpose.

And let’s not forget the expectations that seem to be ever-growing. The ‘You can have it all’ mentality was meant to be a thing that died in the 90s. Yet, all that died was the effort one was supposed to show in achieving that. Now in the vastly more visible world we live in, ideals for work, relationships, health, family, the environment, etc. are tantalizingly dangled in front of us, suggestively asking ‘are you enough?’, ‘are you doing enough?’. It creates a constant background feeling of anxiety in many aspects of our lives.

Why focusing on the individual won’t solve the burnout problem

The end of year business press has gone to town with a work wellbeing focus, putting yet more expectation on us as individuals to stop being so passionate, to have less of our identity wrapped up in our work, to find more ways to switch off, to stop avoiding life by burying ourselves in our work. And yes, this is part of the problem, but it’s only one side of the story.

Because we are in an age where we need our people to be highly engaged, to bring their best creative, resourceful and whole selves. We need people to care. And if there’s one unifying feature of every kind of burnout is that it happens to people who care. They care about making an impact. About doing things well. About getting things done on time. About standards of excellence. Of the quality of work. Of the happiness of others. Of making a difference and making it count.

“If you do not understand your role in the problem, it is difficult to be part of the solution.”

How our workplaces are creating burnout conditions

We need to stop focusing only on the individual at risk of burning out and start looking more deeply at the role of the organisation in fuelling the conditions for it to emerge in the first place.

Burnout is not a mental health issue. It is an occupational issue that creates mental and physical health issues. Specifically, the World Health Organisation defines it as a response to chronic work-related stressors that are not being successfully managed’. They recognise those stressors as coming from the workplace, amplified by a trend to ‘do more with less’.

Yet this occupational phenomenon gets very little organisational attention. 1 in 6 UK organisations does nothing to support worker wellbeing. And whilst wellbeing initiatives are starting to become more common-place, they are most often ad-hoc, reactive and not tied to the wider business strategy or cultural practices.

What is lacking is an investigation, at an organisational level, into how work itself, work relationships, cultures and systems play a role in fuelling burnout and chronic stress growth. There is significant and growing evidence that work environments have a lot to do with it. In 2019, 43% of employees said the main cause of unmanageable stress was poor management style. In fact, there have been recent calls for Physician Burnout to be renamed ‘Moral Injury’ because it is a direct result of being injured by an overstretched healthcare system.

The organisational indicators of burnout

The most authoritative on this topic is Christina Maslach, whose decades of work firmly puts the work environment, and one's relationship to that, at the heart of burnout. Shining a light not only on the underlying causes but also gives us diagnostics for solutions too.

The 6 burnout risk factors are:

1. Lack of Choice or Control

This is not only about autonomy. It is about having the ability to voice your needs or concerns and have them heard, to be participatory in decisions that impact your work, to have access to the resources you need to do your work effectively, to be able to manage your life. It’s control over decisions, choices and solutions to problems. It, therefore, speaks to the 71% of millennials who feel they have no control over their career right now. Feeling stuck, stagnating, frustrated, under-stretched, over-stretched or seeing no clear way forward can all contribute.

2. Absence of Reward

This is not just about renumeration. In fact, the burnout risk is higher when there’s a lack of being valued through social, than financial means. Without being recognised for the work you do, the work and the people delivering it, are devalued. It’s one of the quickest ways to create a culture which lacks confidence or is riddled with negativity because the impact of lack of reward is highly contagious amongst people.

3. Unsupportive or Toxic Community

This refers to our work community – colleagues, bosses, clients and customers and how supportive they are to us and our work. This can start out as being minor stressors that with consistent exposure build up over time to be big issues. Unresolved conflict and tension, passive-aggressiveness, micro-managing, avoidance, poor communication, undermining behaviours, lack of pastoral care and at worst, toxicity. It can live in a culture or be a single relationship that damaging. It’s hard to call this kind of thing out without leadership support and intervention.

4. Unfairness

This crosses many different aspects of work. Being clear about expectations of the job role, what good looks like, how one can progress, fair reviews of performance, equal treatment of different team members, if we have policies, then following them fairly. Burnout risk lives when we see exclusion, glass ceilings, unfair treatment of individuals, different rules for different people, discrimination or bullying or limiting access to opportunities. In one of Maslach’s studies, improving this one dimension alone reduced the burnout risk of a whole business, indicating its importance as an indicator.

5. Unsustainable Workload

Long working hours are an indicator, but the risk is where the amount of work to be done in a given time feels almost impossible to achieve. It speaks to ongoing workload pressures where there is minimal time for rest, recovery or getting balance back. It also talks about the kind of emotional load that comes from feeling like you’re not making a difference, no matter how much effort/time you put in.

6. Misaligned Values

When people feel they are making a trade-off between the work they want to/thought they would be doing and the work they actually are doing, it’s an important burnout indicator. That notion of ‘selling out’ is growing as people’s personal value systems become more critical in the workplace and feel like an important one to start to get right as more questions are asked about what we believe in, what we stand for. This can also arise as people work in environments that say one thing, but do another, or where behaviours of an organisation compromise personal values of its people.

A new frontier in strategic wellbeing support

I’m advocating an approach to burnout that is strategic, and brings together personal and organisational dynamics so we look at the whole eco-system of how we can help people bring their naturally creative, resourceful and whole self.

This is a leadership issue, which needs to start by building awareness of what burnout is within businesses and taking more responsibility to own the organisational dynamics that have a significant role to play. We cannot ask people to ‘do more with less’ without strengthening the support we put in place too. That support should begin at the mid-level of an organisation, where the frontline strain is felt most strongly.

It requires a shift away from wellbeing initiatives being stand-alone, presented as an optional, one size fits all ‘perks’ people can participate it. Wellbeing support that feels separate to the business of work and people's real lives simply cannot have an impact on burnout prevention. People don’t need more stress management courses, they need meaningful support to remove the barriers stopping them from being their brilliant best self.

It needs us to ask for a different kind of partnership from employees, where they are actively engaged in identifying what is needed to do their best and be their best at work. And to feel confident to share insight into what is truly holding them back. The risks that face an individual who is genuinely burning out - reputation loss, visibility of performance issues and even job security - need to be recognised as barriers to people coming forward. To create opportunities for safe open conversation, so workplace stressors can be helpfully untangled and bravely talked about by all of our people. We need to help people detach the stigma of ‘not being able to hack it’ and to give them confidence that sharing their struggles is not filled with risk, and instead will be met with options and support.

You’ll be surprised by how much can be achieved when both the organisation and its people share a united goal to bring the best of themselves. Don’t continue to passively normalise the high levels of stress as ‘just the way it is’. It isn’t OK. And it’s up to all of us to be part of the solution.

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