Breaking the Burnout Cycle
Are we all doomed to reach our burnout destination at one point or another? burnout cycle
The definition of burnout has been defined by the World Health Organisation as an occupational phenomenon and is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It is characterized 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.
Organisations with top class cultures are not immune to the challenge of employee burnout and it has been proven that arranging a free lunchtime yoga session is not going to resolve the issue of burnout overnight. Instead, employees often feel like the good intention yoga session is just another obligatory task instead of a remedy.
Burnout often means that employees are running on autopilot whilst their tank is on low or even empty. When a team’s mental and physical energy is being drained before they are able to replenish their ‘coffee cup’ so to speak, it becomes a struggle for them as individuals or as a unit to manage stressors. It is no coincidence that burnout can have a domino effect, where one employee will suffer from the effects, and soon after others will experience similar symptoms too. For employees to perform at their optimum level, they need a full tank of mental, emotional, and physical resources. burnout cycle
IDENTIFYING THE BURNOUT VICTIMS
Many employees are functioning with their resource tank on empty causing a perpetual Burnout Cycle. At an organizational level burnout becomes indicative in the form of lower levels of performance, higher absenteeism, overall disengagement and turnover.
The effects of burnout can often manifest beyond the confines of the workplace as it is important to be reminded that employees are humans, and not merely human resources, who have personal lives that involve outside-of-wok obligations. Therefore, looking beyond the surface, employee burnout is not only attributed to stressors at work but is also compounded by personal challenges, like poor health, sleep deprivation, financial challenges, death of a loved one, overloaded schedules, changes in life stage, e.g. becoming a new parent, marriage, and more.
VICTIMS ENTRAPPED IN THE BURNOUT CYCLE
STAGE 1: HONEYMOON
Burnout can sneak in, and take hold without warning as the signs can be difficult to spot initially. Stage 1 is referred to the Honeymoon Phase. This term is fitting, since burnout often starts to set-in quietly when employees are a reaching positive turning point in their career, either working towards a potential promotion, starting a new highly anticipated project, or new role. Perhaps there have been major changes in an organization with promising opportunity. During this phase employees want to prove themselves, and take on more tasks.
Honeymoon symptoms mask any sign of potential burnout as they take the form of working 12+ hours without strain, high productivity and unwavering optimism. The symptoms of the Honeymoon Phase can often mask the underlying facets of burnout that compound to Stage 2 where reality starts to set in.
STAGE 2: WORK HARDER
This stage is referred to as the Work Harder Phase where the burnout victim may start to feel their stress levels rise, but they are managing it. During this phase employees keep trying to exert the same energy levels as before, but longer days become longer to deal with. Irritability, anxiety, difficulty focusing, less time for rest and fatigue are signs of Stage 2 taking hold.
STAGE 3: PERSISTENT STRESS
It is at Stage 3 of the Burnout Cycle when the Chronic Stress Phase rears its ugly head that the possibility of burnout starts to become apparent. No matter how much caffeine is consumed, or to-do-lists are made, the burnout victim realises their productivity goals are no longer sustainable. Increased stress, missing deadlines, chronic exhaustion, procrastination, headaches and high levels of anxiety are the classic indicators of Stage 3.
STAGE 4: BURNOUT
Stage 4 is where reality sets in. The Burnout Phase. The person the burnout victim once was detached from work and life with complete lack of control. Their tank is empty. There is no drive to pursue goals or do anything for that matter. More concerning is that mental and physical health starts to suffer.
STAGE 5: BURNOUT AS A WAY OF LIFE
The burnout victim is in a place of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Reaching this stage the burnout victim may experience continuous anxiety, depression, social isolation and completely neglect personal needs. These symptoms are often coupled with a strong desire to make a major life change, like change jobs or move to a new city or country.
Once the burnout victim decides to make this major life change, they might experience a renewal of energy and motivation, but it is not long before they will experience onset of the early stages of the Burnout Cycle once again. Following from this, burnout is experienced differently by individual employees and sending them on vacation to cure their burnout will not provide a long-term cure. In addition to the need of rest for recovery, there is also a need to change certain behaviours, or habits regarding their approach to work.
THE MANAGERS REMEDY TO BREAKING OUT OF THE CYCLE
1. RECOGNISE THE SIGNS
At a management level, it is beneficial to be aware of burnout both at an individual level and at the team level. In this way managers will be able to take charge and establish a game plan before any burnout situation, personally, with individual employees or teams reaches dire conditions.
Authentic 1-on-1 check-ins provide an opportunity to not get a task update but to really listen to your team members. Open-up the conversation in such a way that a platform is given to the individual to share any area of struggle. Bear in mind that not all employees are willing to share that they are struggling which may require more probing questions such as “What was a personal win this week, and what has been a challenge?”. When an area of concern is raised, remember to always take action, where possible, and follow-up with a potential resolution, otherwise they may feel undervalued.
3. DEMARCATE CLEAR GOALS AND TAKE STOCK
Burnout can stem from not seeing individual or team efforts reach anywhere and feeling stuck. Investing energy towards achieving set project or company goals allows employees to realise progress. Regularly taking stock of team accomplishments can foster motivation and momentum.
4. ADVOCATING FOR WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Life happens. There will be moments when employees will need you, as their leaders or managers, whether it be the loss of a loved one, or at home crises, these can be the most stressful moments of an employee’s existence and those in a position of power, most likely you, may need to be their courageous voice. Either by supporting or giving them the permission to attend to their out of work situation.
Establishing respect for one another’s time indicates a respect for work-life balance. When an employee goes on vacation, ensure that they can take a true break by reprioritizing or (fairly) redistributing tasks during their time away.
Moreover, practicing daily habits that promote wellbeing can counter the temptation to overwork. Simple balance routines can include ensuring that your team takes necessary breaks during the work day or logging out when the work day ends.
Giving your team the autonomy to say ‘no’ and being open to accepting ‘no’ as an answer establishes necessary boundaries. Although this may seem like going against the grain of managing people, allowing team members to negotiate work under reasonable circumstances gives them a level of control over their responsibilities, which effectively reduces stress.
5. WORK & PLAY
Play is not a ping pong table or happy hour, it is entrenched in a company’s DNA. Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, adopts the philosophy that employees come first, which he attributes to the group’s ongoing success. Further to this he holds the belief that play and work should not be separated, and that bringing out the best in each other means permitting teams to have fun at work.
Integrating the concept of play into the work day gives our minds and bodies the chance to pause and recharge. Employees who engage in short bouts of play return to their pending tasks more energized. Play can be included in the workday as small breaks. For example, if a task is completed, the individual or team can take some time to listen to a song or podcast, read, or a small activity that helps them distance themselves from work for a short time. Taking a walk or doing something physical can also be effective to tackle fatigue.
It is also possible to infuse play and work simultaneously, instead of only allowing play as an opportunity to pause from work. The answer here is varied as work and play can take the form of gamification, or the deliberate effort to increase engagement and make work fun through activities and rewards systems. The result? Emotional payoff and high levels of motivation.
Let's face burnout together!
Since we are working with individuals with individual needs, this is an ongoing process of trial and error. A sustainable Burnout Cycle remedy requires a shift in priorities, where humanity and productivity reach an equilibrium. Remember to safe-guard your mental wellness too by practicing what you preach to your teams.
Together, lets break the debilitating Burnout Cycle!