A 2018 Gallup poll revealed 23% of the 7,500 full-time workers it surveyed feel burned out very often or always. Another 44% of those employees said they are burned out sometimes. That means people on your team, including you, could be battling with burnout right now.

Burnout: Taking its toll on employees and employers

According to WHO’s 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” or simply as a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.

While burnout is always caused by stress, not all stress leads to burnout. The intensity of the stress, its duration and how employers and employees handle it determines if it morphs into burnout. As lean organizations expect fewer employees to do more work and do it faster, the possibility of burnout is established.

Burnout causes problems for employees and companies alike. According to a “systematic review aimed to summarize the evidence of the physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout found burnout to be a significant predictor of conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, depressive symptoms, use of psychotropic and antidepressant medications, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and presenteeism. Burnout affects employee engagement, productivity, safety, and retention.

Changing culture by changing expectations

Being committed to addressing burnout means intentionally changing the company culture. Organizations play a massive role from a broader well-being perspective and managers should be trained to see the signals of stress.

But this isn’t always simple. Most signs of burnout are psychological and therefore not outwardly apparent. Often employees will hide their symptoms out of fear of repercussions. It really takes regular engagement and check-ins to stay informed about what’s going in their lives and how they are feeling to catch all the signs. A workplace culture that prizes kindness and emotional intelligence, sensitivity and openness will serve as a preventative measure against burnout.

When managers observe patterns of behaviour indicative of burnout — such as employees working longer hours or skipping lunch — the manager needs to step in. Supervisors should ask the employee about the behaviour, offer help and consider doing a work analysis to determine how to manage workflow and workloads.

Employers may want to incorporate a discussion of personal well-being into performance reviews. Just like you are reviewing whether this person is a team player or a problem solver or an effective communicator, you’re measuring things like, are they taking time to disconnect? Are they engaging in whatever self-care you’ve pre-identified as important to them? Are they doing things regularly to make sure that they’re being deliberate rather than reactive in the way they work and the way they live?”

To create this cultural shift, leaders must model the behaviour they want to see. If a supervisor tells a team to take care of themselves but sends emails at midnight, the supervisor is creating an unintentional (or worse — intentional) expectation that the team should respond.

What’s more, leaders can’t be fully engaged and present nonstop without contracting burnout themselves. If leaders fail to disconnect from work, they will inevitably hit burnout, and they won’t be able to heal unless they change the culture they work in.

Creating the best of both worlds

No organization wants to have its employees burn out, but with so much pressure to deliver results immediately, leaders may not feel they can slow down. Some organizations are finding it’s worthwhile to make the sacrifice. Certain organizations are starting to see that when they offer wellness support, they’re starting to find that even the highly analytical result-driven individuals are getting better results, higher quality and quicker.

Those who can’t slow down to change the culture still have options for improvement. Companies that focus on building resilience and a growth mindset can create little changes that increase employees’ sustainability, even when in a stressful environment.

Organizations can address burnout without sacrificing objectives. It is possible if you are conscious and deliberate in thinking about your strategy and what you’re trying to achieve, where you can deliver your goals as an organization and you can do it in the right way, where you are mindful of the well-being of your employees. But it takes effort, it takes focus and it takes the priority.

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