We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle. The responsibility for managing Burnout has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization.
The Non-Classification Classification
The term “burnout” originated in the 1970s, and for the past 50 years, the medical community has argued about how to define it. The most recent WHO announcement may have caused more confusion than clarity. In May, the WHO included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and immediately the public assumed that burnout would now be considered a medical condition. “Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition… reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.”
Although the WHO is now working on guidelines to help organizations with prevention strategies, most still have no idea what to do about burnout. Since it was explicitly not classified as a medical condition, the case is less about liability for employers and more about the impact on employee well-being and the massive associated costs.
The Emotional and Financial Toll
Worldwide, 615 million suffer from depression and anxiety and, according to a recent WHO study, which costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.
If those statistics aren’t scary enough, consider the fact that companies without systems to support the well-being of their employees have higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs. Another study claims that burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
Obviously, this is a real problem. And it can feel like a herculean task for leaders to tackle perhaps because the concept seems too ambiguous or overwhelming. When experts still struggle to define burnout, how can we ask our managers to actually prevent it?
It’s Not Me, It’s You
A survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup found the top five reasons for burnout are:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication and support from their manager
- Unreasonable time pressure
The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.
While developing emotional intelligence skills — like optimism, gratitude, and hope — can give people the rocket fuel they need to be successful, if an employee is dealing with burnout, we have to stop and ask ourselves why. We should never suggest that if they’d just practiced more grit or joined another yoga class or taken a mindfulness course, their burnout would have been avoided.
As a leader ask yourself what is making my staff unhealthy? Why does our work environment lack the conditions for them to flourish? How can I make it safe for them to work here every day? We have to dig into the data and ask our people what would make work better for them. More generally, we need to better understand what causes people to feel motivated in our organizations, and what causes them frustration.
What motivates us versus what basic needs must be met in order to maintain job satisfaction? Satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not on a continuum with one increasing as the other diminishes but are instead independent of each other. This means that managers need to recognize and attend to both equally.
Motivators are different than hygiene factors. Motivation factors include:
recognition for one’s achievements;
the opportunity to do something meaningful;
involvement in decision making;
and a sense of importance to the organization.
On the other hand, hygiene factors include:
company policy and administration;
status and security.
Often, employees don’t recognize when an organization has good hygiene, but bad hygiene can cause a major distraction. The latter can come down to seemingly innocuous issues, like having coffee in the break room one day and no more coffee the next. People feel it. Burnout happens when these presupposed features in our day-to-day work lives are missing or taken away.
Leaders could save themselves a huge amount of employee stress and subsequent burnout, if they were just better at asking people what they need.
Ask Better Questions
When investing in burnout prevention strategies, it’s best to narrow the efforts down to small, micro-pilots, which mean a lower budget and less risk. Start with one or two departments or teams and asking one simple question: If we had this much budget and could spend it on X many items in our department, what would be the first priority? Have the team vote anonymously then share the data with everyone. Discuss what was prioritized and why and start working down the list. Employees may not have the perfect silver-bullet solution, but they can most certainly tell us what isn’t working — and that is often the most invaluable data.
A larger pilot can start with some critical but some simple tactics. For example, take a referendum on some of the annual events. Ask your employees if they like the holiday party or the annual picnic? What would they keep? What would they change? Or is there something else that they would rather do with that money? Digital tools and simple surveys are easy to use and deploy — particularly if you ask a simple question. The part critical to making this tactic successful is in how the data is used. Before engaging in a practice like this — or any employee survey for that matter — something has to be done with the information. If you ask questions and don’t bother with a reply, people begin to get wary and stop answering truthfully, or at all.
Organizations have a chance, right now, to fix this type of thing. Burnout is preventable. It requires good organizational hygiene, better data, asking more timely and relevant questions, smarter (more micro) budgeting, and ensuring that wellness offerings are included as part of your well-being strategy. Keep the yoga, the resilience training, and the mindfulness classes — they are all terrific tools for optimizing mental health and managing stress. But, when it comes to employee burnout, remember — it’s largely a leader’s issue.
For further advice & support contact https://eapassist.com.au/