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Viewpoint: Rethinking Workplace Burnout

A woman covering her face in front of a computer.

​Most of us are aware that burnout in the workplace is a growing epidemic—an issue we've analyzed and researched, talked about in the media, and written about in journals and books. Most of us are also aware that the epidemic is spreading broader and faster, as the current approaches to solving it aren't working. 

Although the term "burnout" originated in the 1970s, the medical community has been arguing about how to define it ever since. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), conveying to the world that burnout would be recognized explicitly as a workplace phenomenon. It may not seem significant to some, but this designation has the potential to dramatically impact organizations globally. Why? Because it finally acknowledges that burnout is a workplace problem, not an employee problem.

Most HR professionals are keenly aware of the impact burnout has on employees. "Burnout—a type of work-related stress—is evolving and is having an increasing impact on productivity, employee engagement and retention," said Celeste Warren, vice president of global diversity and inclusion at Merck in Upper Gwynedd, Pa. "It also affects the lives of employees, which impacts health care costs. HR leaders are uniquely positioned to provide managers and employees the tools and resources to identify issues before they escalate, to offer programs and resources to help them navigate and address the stressors and issues they may be facing."

What that means for employers is an urgency to develop burnout-prevention strategies that work. Although there are no specific labor laws that name burnout unequivocally, there are policymakers working to shape the laws that will make employee burnout a labor violation. This means that burnout is no longer about employee self-care, say experts. Nor is it a wellness strategy that places ownership for preventing and managing burnout on the individual. It also means that organizations—from startups to small businesses to Fortune 500 companies—will risk being liable if they mismanage burnout.

Company leaders need to get ahead of burnout for myriad reasons, experts say. One reason is that ignoring this pervasive and rapidly evolving problem has too many financial and human costs. But the main reason is that there are substantial benefits to a healthy, happy and high-performing workforce—one that is flourishing, not just surviving.

If you're a leader who has been battling burnout for years, you may be wondering how you can switch from putting the onus on employees to care for themselves to holding leaders responsible for stopping burnout before it starts. Here is a simplified, five-step process to reshape your well-being strategy and make burnout prevention a priority.

1. Recognize Burnout

Burnout is included in WHO's ICD-11 as an occupational phenomenon, defined as follows:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized 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.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. 

According to Gallup, these are employees' top five reasons for burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work.
  2. Unmanageable workload.
  3. Lack of role clarity.
  4. Lack of communication and support from the manager.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure.

2. Ask Better Questions

When creating ways to combat workplace burnout, it's important to put measurements in place. One option is to use the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which analyzes burnout explicitly.

If you have an existing survey with targeted questions about burnout, do those questions also ask for anecdotal feedback about what is at the root of the stress? If so, you're on the right track. If not, here are five steps you can take to start measuring burnout more effectively:

  1. Find an accredited, evidence-based questionnaire or hire a psychometrist to develop, deploy and analyze a survey from start to finish. Leaders and managers with no experience in building legitimate surveys typically are wasting their time. Experts are required to get to the correlations and causes of stress and burnout at work. Ensure the survey is short, since employees are less likely to complete long surveys.  
  2. Clearly define burnout for employees before asking them to identify it in themselves. With the help of the WHO explanation and clear examples of what leads to burnout, you should be able to plainly define the term.
  3. Provide an opportunity for employees to share experiences in their own words. This way you can track repeated themes and similar grievances. Anecdotal storytelling is often the most valuable data because it helps build a fuller picture of what is going both right and wrong inside the organization.
  4. Share the data with your employees as soon as possible, regardless of the outcomes. This transparency will go far in helping employees trust you with their stories.
  5. Test and test again. Use a short survey that you can ask employees to answer more often. By analyzing burnout over time, you'll be able to identify peak periods of stress and related burnout. It may help you prevent the cycle from repeating.

3. Pick Your Battle

Using the data more effectively is the next step to prevent burnout and improve your company's wellness strategies.

Once you have the data showing which group is collectively dealing with burnout at a higher rate than other groups, you know exactly where to target your efforts to address the small, daily pains that your employees are experiencing. This doesn't mean you won't address other groups in the future, but it gives everyone in leadership a starting point.

We handle burnout prevention this way because a one-size-fits-all approach rarely applies when addressing burnout. However, remember that no effort should come at the cost of maintaining overall wellness strategies. Optimizing workplace health and well-being must be ingrained in the core values of any organization. The best leaders are mission-driven to handle the overarching strategies while solving for the day-to-day issues confronting their workforce.

4. Enroll Your People

As you approach next steps, remember that the company's employees have shared their personal experiences and likely feel vulnerable. The choices HR makes next are consequential to the success of the pilot and will require emotionally intelligent leaders to see them through. 

  1. Select the right leader for the job. It must be someone who is empathetic and hopeful, can listen more than talk, can take and offer feedback throughout the process, and is comfortable showing when the process is tracking toward goals and when it is not. Humility, transparency and openness are critical attributes for the person who runs this pilot.
  2. Have the leader share the data with the employee group and collaboratively decide which effort to target first. An easy tactic for what may seem like a scary concept is to vote. For those who may feel frustrated with the decision, assure the team that you're starting with the first priority and will work through the list.
  3. Start small and get a quick win. Ask the employee group questions such as:
    • What would you do with $100 to improve this workspace?
    • What keeps us from leaving work on time each day, and how could we all work together to fix that?
    • What is one thing our manager could do to improve communication?
    • What is one way to change our meetings to make them feel more productive and less like time theft?
  4. Take the data, votes and feedback and come back with a plan. At this point, leadership needs to lead. Be ready to execute. Explain what success looks like, and be open about how you will get started and track progress.

5. Create a 'Culture of Try'

In software and technology organizations, you often hear sayings such as "failing forward" or "freedom to fail." This is in direct response to the hard-hitting truth that more startups fail than succeed. Foundering can be annoying when you're smack in the middle of it.

As employees change how they tackle burnout at work, it's necessary to create a safe space where people can fail forward. But this time, remove the word "fail" and boldly claim a "culture of try" instead. When you make that distinction, it creates a workplace full of self-compassion and empathy, traits found in the most successful and innovative teams.

The immediate goal is to make burnout prevention a priority and start to shape new ways of tackling the problem. With intention and commitment to preventing burnout, you'll likely repeat this first approach many times. As you evolve your well-being strategies and processes, remember that humans are not static or fixed, so why create a human resources strategy that is?

Jennifer Moss is author of Unlocking Happiness at Work (Kogan Page, 2016) and co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a research and consulting company in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


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