By Colleen Verriest, LCSW owner of Whole Heart Healing, LLC
Everyone has most likely experienced burnout at some point, whether in our careers or personal lives. In fact, a study by Haystack analytics found that 81% of developers reported experiencing burnout due to the pandemic. The study found that the top reasons for burnout included higher workload, inefficient processes, and unclear goals and targets. In 2019, the World Health Organization defined burnout as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Individuals suffering from burnout are said to experience feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance and motivation, and cynicism.
What are the Signs of Burnout?
Signs of burnout can vary from person to person, but some key indicators are:
- Upset stomach/stomach flutters
- Heart palpitations
- Physical and/or mental exhaustion
- Feelings of anxiety
- Lack of excitement, enthusiasm or feeling detached
- Hard time concentrating, feeling ineffective
- Lack of satisfaction
- Cynicism or unusual negativity
Contributing Character Traits
Some of us have characteristics that lead us more or less toward burnout. For example, if we tend to put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves, also known as the “heroes.” Not being a good delegator can contribute to burnout. Especially during busier seasons, if we just take it all on without compartmentalizing and deprioritizing, then we’re heading towards burnout.
If we are the type of person that needs a tremendous amount of reassurance – not to say that it is not positive to be giving out kudos in the workplace – there are times when the leadership is also very busy or overwhelmed, and they just may not be thinking in that way at a certain time. So if you need constant reassurance but are not getting it, you can start to feel as though you’re not getting recognized.
The need to have control in environments where things can kind of be unpredictable can also contribute. With all this in mind, the critical piece around our personality traits and burnout is understanding who we are and being honest with ourselves. Start by identifying what we can do to mitigate workload and the interplay of our individual characteristics – who we are in the workplace (and in life!). Ask yourself, how do I operate in the workplace? How do I show up in the workplace?
Contributing Cultural Aspects
We must also consider what kind of environment we’re living, operating or working in. What is this office setting? Organizational structure? How is the work-life balance? Is it a toxic work environment? Am I in a place where I’m being supported or where I can be heard? Some people can put on blinders at work– they aren’t tuned in and don’t pay attention to (or care) about what’s happening. Some team members just want to do their job, leave and go home. What’s toxic to one person may not feel toxic to another.
Being micromanaged can feel toxic to team members. Not having a sense of professional latitude where one can make independent and informed decisions can feel stifling. Obviously, any form of bullying in the workplace is certainly a sign of a toxic work environment. Another aspect of work culture that can lead to burnout is when there is change (or multiple changes) within an organization and leadership does not take the time to explain or communicate the change (to the extent possible). Allowing sufficient time to bring team members on board can prevent this from happening. Equally important is overall psychological safety in the workplace and a culture of respect. These are critically important and can help to prevent burnout and increase retention and staff cohesion.
What Organizations and Leaders Can Do
Employees are coming to the table with higher expectations of what a healthy workplace looks like, and rightfully so. It will be important for organizations to heed that call because retention will improve, you will see less turnover, and ultimately, less burnout. When people feel heard and supported, and feel they have the safe space to speak up, particularly when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed, that is a win! You will see they are going to show up in a new and even more committed way.
Organizations, if they haven’t already, can consider exploring the addition of mental health days to the overall benefits team members have. Differentiating paid time off (aka vacation time) from sick/mental health days is another option for organizations. Dumping all time off in one bucket can prevent staff from taking the time they need to address their physical and/or mental health. I have also seen the four-day work week starting to really take off in many companies. There are studies on companies that have four-day work weeks and productivity can improve. These are options to explore, and one size does not fit all companies or organizations.
From a leadership perspective, you have to be able to have the ability to confront when someone on your team is burnt out. You must check in to create a sense of trust with your team members. Ideally, any leader that notices changes in a team member should be checking in on that individual. It should be an expectation of leadership to be able to recognize and address these changes in a supportive, empathetic manner. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it alone, then bring in a colleague. This effort is the first step in a team member feeling recognized and validated. Noticing and openly listening when a team member is struggling can be deeply important and impactful for that team member.
For example, if you discover that this person has a lot going on outside of work then the next question is, how can I support you? Is there anything we can do? Can we shift here for the next week? Helping someone prioritize can be really effective. Sometimes in the midst of being overwhelmed and burnt out, reframing something by taking whatever those items are within someone’s work life and being able to look at it with a fresh set of eyes can be beneficial. It can also open up new possibilities and paths.
Monotony at work can contribute to burnout, there’s an importance to feeling like your work has an impact. It’s important to feel a sense of efficacy. It is also important to identify what fills us up as individuals–what energizes us, what satisfies us in the workplace–if you can find those things in your day-to-day, you can prioritize the things that energize you. Other things may be necessary parts of your job, but maybe try to shift them to a later part of your day, or complete them first thing. Look at your workday in a way where you can recognize the things that you enjoy, and then realize you’re not going to love every part of your job.
How Do You Avoid Burnout? Is it Avoidable?
Burnout is something we can mitigate. I don’t know if we can avoid it altogether. You might address various elements of burnout at different times. Maybe at one point in time, you may be experiencing the exhaustion piece, but you may not be so pessimistic about work. Pausing and taking breaks are critical. Boundaries are a key piece to mitigating burnout. When I am feeling burnt out, regardless of whether at work or home, I have the ability to say no. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable–for you and also for others–because we have now created a new pattern of behavior that those around us are not accustomed to. It can take some getting used to for you and those in your work circle. For example, stop responding to emails after 6 p.m. Once someone does that, it gives permission to colleagues to consider doing that too and can begin creating a culture shift. Especially if someone is not happy with their job, why would they want to spend any extra time engaging in a job that isn’t filling them up – even worse, after hours! It will ultimately lead to increased feelings of dread, resentment, and dissatisfaction.
Another example of setting boundaries is when you take time off, actually take time off. When you’re on vacation, this is quality time that you’ve now designated as such. It is powerful and critically important to unplug. Really take advantage of that break, because it will help you recharge and feel better. You will feel refreshed, you will feel a sense of separation from the workplace, which then can help with burnout. In addition, it sets an example. If my staff sees me answering emails my entire vacation, what message am I sending? As leaders, we have to walk the walk to demonstrate a healthy work-life balance.