"I felt like I slammed myself against the wall," says Jan Byars, Ph.D., president of LeadSync, which provides professional training and coaching. "I just kept pushing through, even to the point of my legs feeling numb." Soon after, Byars says, she couldn't push forward any longer. It was more than exhaustion; there was a disconnect that was impossible to see. It was a hidden problem burning inside of her—and burning her out.
"Now that I've been through it, I see it developing in many of my clients," Byars says. "It's actually built into our culture."
Buildings typically have firewalls designed to prevent the spread of a fire should one break out in part of the building. However, most organizations don't have protections in place to prevent burnout from spreading from one person to the next.
Tamra Perry, human resources coordinator at Blazer Industries Inc., a modular building manufacturing company based in Aumsville, Ore., recalls her concern that a previous organization had become so large that it lost the "team" aspect and was vulnerable to burnout. The community that had once been able to look out for and support its members just wasn't the same.
Burnout impacts us on multiple levels. Personally, people struggle with the physical and psychological symptoms. Organizationally, burnout prevents engagement, teamwork, productivity and employee longevity. However, this doesn't have to be the case: Burnout is avoidable, and if employees are already there, it's reversible.
The Cost of Burnout
The cost of burnout to the organization is seen in increased turnover and lower productivity. While estimates vary on the impact to productivity, there is clearer research about how burnout impacts turnover. First, voluntary turnover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 26.9 percent in 2018. According to Josh Bersin, an independent analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, the cost to replace an employee is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 times their annual salary. That means that the average cost for voluntary turnout in an organization is somewhere between 40 and 54 percent of the organization's payroll. Burnout only increases this cost.
Gallup's research finds that 23 percent of employees report being burned out often or always. Their research also shows that these burned out employees turnover at 2.6 times the normal rate. If the 23 percent of employees that are burned out turnover at 60 percent per year, they're costing the organization somewhere between 21 and 28 percent of their annual payroll or 12 to 16 percent of all payroll in the organization.
Compare this to the more widely reported improvements possible for improving employee engagement. Gallup research on engagement reports that 85 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their jobs. Further, organizations with the most engaged employees see turnover rates 59 percent lower than peer organizations. Moving from a poorly engaged organization to a highly engaged organization can reduce turnover costs by 24 percent to 32 percent of annual payroll.
Taken together, simply addressing burnout can be half as effective as creating a highly engaged culture in the organization. While creating engaged an organization is difficult, and many organizations have tried and failed, addressing burnout can be more straightforward.
The Bathtub Model
Knowing that there's a problem doesn't directly help people understand what to do about it. For that, two models are helpful in terms of describing how burnout works and how to alleviate it.
Personal agency is an individual's ability to get things done. Most people have a set of skills that they can use to do things, as well as some degree of strength to push through. They also have an amount of time that they can allocate to doing things. Think about personal agency like water in a bathtub: When the bathtub is empty, an individual is in burnout.
The bathtub is filled by the results that people get, the support they receive from others and the self-care they perform for themselves. The bathtub is drained by the demands placed on people—and their ability to regulate those demands.
Daniel Fuller, founder of the Sycamore Way, an Indianapolis-based firm that provides consulting and coaching for organizational leadership and culture, says his recovery from burnout started by acknowledging that the "always have to be on" mentality was the major cause of his initial plummet into burnout. In addition to adopting self-care practices that freed him to take time off, Fuller also decided to dial back the drain of demands to always be "on" by distancing himself from the influential people who expected this from him.
Managers can change the degree to which they risk burnout in their organizations by spending more time recognizing results, providing better support, encouraging self-care and making it easier for employees to manage their demands to an appropriate level.
The Gap Model of Burnout
The bathtub model is easy to conceptualize and makes a good visual, but it fails in situations when employees are getting great results and the demands placed on them aren't large. The burnout that results in these situations can be explained by the gap between its two main components.
The first component is the expectations a person has for himself or herself. These expectations are set internally and informed by what others expect. They're a pin on the map that people expect to reach. Byars explains that she got her expectations from her parents, workaholics who raised her with high expectations for herself—"too high," she says.
The second component is a person's perception of his or her results. These are invariably not actual results but rather the belief about those results. Their perception may be slightly better—or slightly worse—than what's really being accomplished. Perry says she felt that the missing component at her previous organization was a lack of "what was needed and why we were working so hard." It's hard to recognize the results a person achieves if it's not clear where the company is going or why it's heading in that direction.
The gap between results and expectations is necessary to keep people striving toward their goals. But when someone can't adjust their expectations downward or their perception of results upward—enough to keep the tension in check—the results can be devastating, both personally and for an organization. If the gap between expectations and perceived results grows too large, the tension that a person typically uses to drive himself or herself forward snaps like a rubber band, and the individual soon begins experiencing symptoms of burning out.
A Broader View of Burnout
Because burnout comes from a gap between expectations and results, it can occur in any area of life in which demands exceed personal agency or where expectations and perceived results are not in alignment—in other words, not just at work.
A parent dealing with a child struggling in school or with addiction can become burned out in his or her personal life, and the effects will be seen at work. Employees who are passionate about a community cause can become burned out when they realize that their hard work isn't resulting in the change they had hoped for, and their frustration and cynicism about the situation may impact their relationships with others at work. That's one of the reasons Perry engages all the resources at her disposal, including the organization's employee assistance program, to help combat burnout.
The burnout that employees experience may not be related to their jobs at all. However, by changing expectations and behaviors of the organization in ways that help prevent burnout, companies can provide a safe haven that allows employees to recover from burnout in other areas of their lives.
Building the Barriers to Burnout
Organizations can erect five main barriers against burnout that can also serve as anchor points to help employees recover if they've already become burned out. Companies can't prevent individuals from becoming burned out, but they can limit the impact on others and help workers recover from burnout faster, minimizing the effect on their personal and professional lives. Here's how organizations can help:
Recognize results. One of the key challenges in any organization is striking a balance between taking on the next challenge that must be addressed and recognizing the hard work that has happened to make that challenge a possibility. Too often, companies don't celebrate their successes—or, more importantly, don't connect them to employees' hard work. By focusing on recognizing employees' success, companies can help ensure that those employees realize they're doing valuable work.
Provide support. Sometimes organizations drop employees into a hostile forest with a spoon instead of providing them with the support they need to be successful. Companies can increase their employees' capacity for productive output and decrease their chance of burnout by ensuring that workers have the tools and resources they need.
Distribute demands. Work will come up that just must get done. In most cases, the problem with demands isn't about what must get done; it's about what doesn't really have to get done but employees feel is essential. By coaching managers to consider what can be dropped, deferred or transferred each time a new assignment is given or a new deadline is thrust upon employees, the opportunity is created for the right conversations about reasonable demands.
Express expectations. Communicating what is expected of employees is difficult at every level. From general expectations of all employees to specific ones a manager has for his or her subordinates, getting explicit about expectations isn't easy. Perry believes that a lot of the problems in this area come down to a lack of clarity. Managers need to know not only that they've stated their expectations but also that those expectations have been understood. Sometimes that means over-communicating what they think employees already know.
Encourage self-care. For businesses, promoting self-care isn't a nice-to-have. The productivity and retention benefits make a significant difference to the bottom line. Encouraging employees to take an active role in their happiness by committing to self-care, and defending the resources they need to do it, can yield substantial results.
No organization can become completely fireproof to burnout. However, all companies can work toward creating virtual firewalls that prevent burnout from spreading.
It was 1974 when Herbert Freudenberger first published a journal article describing what he called "burnout." As is often the case with new articles about previously undescribed syndromes, his descriptions weren't very precise. Shortly after Freudenberger's initial article, as more work was done on understanding burnout, it became characterized by words that would ultimately become exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Since these early writings, the definitions offered by others have remained relatively consistent. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) added diagnostic information to its list of ICD 11 codes that medical professionals, public health organizations and insurance companies use to identify the conditions they see. Burnout was added as an "occupational phenomenon"—not a medical or mental health diagnosis.
The distinction the WHO made is that burnout refers to work only. This makes sense in the context of its ability to code the condition as an occupational phenomenon. However, many people encounter burnout outside the context of work. Daniel Fuller, founder of workplace consulting firm Sycamore Way, says, "My experience of burnout was largely caused by challenging relationships and life circumstances for an extended season of life, and the impact these had on me internally. I was largely unaware of their impact until much processing and reflection with the help of safe others."
There's no official burnout diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by clinicians to diagnose mental illnesses. Researchers still disagree on what burnout even is. Some claim that burnout and depression are the same. Others believe the research that burnout is a leading indicator for depression. Either way, there's a relationship to depression, and that's a concern for businesses: Depression has been estimated by some to be the largest public health issue that the U.S. will face in 2020.
Historically, burnout has been assessed by the Maslach Burnout Inventory and its variants for different professions. More recently, a public domain test, the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, has been used as well. In most cases, however, clinicians and HR professionals see the characteristic exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy, and assume that burnout exists without an official diagnosis.
Rather than focusing on the diagnosis of burnout, organizations may find it more effective to look for employees reporting feelings of inefficacy or exhaustion. Others may find that the degree of an employee's cynicism has risen. In these cases, whether burnout is present or not, organizations can address the symptoms that indicate burnout without concern for the actual diagnosis.
Rob and Terri Bogue, authors of Extinguish Burnout (SHRM, 2019), write, speak and consult on improving workplaces, managing organizational change and developing talent. You can find more resources for preventing burnout and recovering from it at ExtinguishBurnout.com.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help employers better understand and alleviate burnout among workers.
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