These days there is a lot to be stressed out about, whether you are in Learning & Development, Human Resources, IT (Information Technology), education, healthcare, or any other profession. Stress can come from sad issues in the news, like the recent mass shootings or from the lingering issues related to Covid-19.
No matter what type of stressor is affecting you, left unchecked, your emotions can erupt into full-blown burnout. Did you know that the World Health Organization declared burnout an illness back in 2019? They defined burnout as an occupational syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
What this definition does is it creates the doorway to discover that burnout is a two-way street. It is not simply the workers who are responsible for self-care or actual behavior change. It is also incumbent upon the organizations to ensure that their company does not facilitate a burnout culture.
A 2019 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People” (https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people), backs up this idea. “The responsibility for managing burnout has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization.”
Often company leaders and team members, alike do not realize when they are approaching burnout. They soldier on and continue to work hard and then suddenly they are snapping at co-workers or family members and feeling emotionally exhausted, plagued by poor sleep. Then they start to lose passion for their work and begin to call in sick. Hopefully, by the time these symptoms appear, team members are beginning to get it. They are extremely stressed and heading to full-blown burnout.
Burnout, by the way, is a more technical term than one usually considers. The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a “state of physical or emotional exhaustion that involves a sense of reduced accomplishment, and loss of personal identity.” If someone is truly burned out, then simply eating healthy, engaging in physical activity or getting sleep is not going to fix the problem. At that point, those band-aids won’t even begin to scratch the surface. A truly burned-out person usually has to take an extended disability leave to recover.
Exactly what part does your organization play in facilitating a burned-out organization? What blind spots might you have when it comes to burnout-inducing policies in your organization?
Here are some questions to ponder:
- Do you expect your staff to be on call every weekend even though they do not support a mission-critical system?
- Do you support the idea of time off with pay when someone has a sick family member at home?
- Do you ask your teams how they feel about the idea of a vaccine mandate in the office?
- Do you overload your workers?
- Are you clear with what you want them to do?
- Do you give them control over their work?
- Do you support them adequately?
- Do you acknowledge and show appreciation for their hard work on a regular basis?
- Do you meet with them one-on-one or in small groups regularly to understand their experiences at work and ensure they have everything they need to do an excellent job?
- Do you take the time to get to know them, their dreams and aspirations, outside of work?
In the Harvard Business Review article mentioned earlier, a 7,500-person Gallup study was analyzed. Gallup identified five key drivers of burnout in most workplaces:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication and support from the manager
- Unreasonable time pressure
The article goes on to point out that, “companies without systems to support the well-being of their employees have higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). In high-pressure firms, healthcare costs are 50% greater than at other organizations. Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion dollars, and, each year, 550 million work days are lost due to stress on the job. Another study by the APA 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.” In general, burnout is costing U.S. companies up to $190 billion in annual healthcare spending.
As organizational leaders it is important for you to not only take care of your teams but also, yourself.
My three best tips for banishing individual burnout incorporate self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-care, as described in my book, Banish Burnout Toolkit (https://www.JaniceLitvin.com/book).
One of the easiest ways to make immediate changes to your behavior is to remember to
S-T-O-P, which stands for:
Take a breath
S-T-O-P is a very powerful method for immediate behavior change. This is the best way I have found to interrupt negative thoughts and turn your mood and your mindset around from negative to positive. Here’s how S-T-O-P works. The Stop gets you to pay attention to your thoughts or behavior. The deep breath has a calming effect by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. The observe gets you to rationally acknowledge that you may be overreacting. And the proceed gives you the choice to continue or change your state of mind and behavior. It’s just that simple, S-T-O-P guides you to stop to pay attention to and convert your thoughts and actions in the moment.
#2 Perform a Stress Audit
The Stress Audit can be exercised every time you catch yourself getting upset over something that happened, such as a disagreement with a colleague, family member or friend. For example, a colleague criticizes you in front of others, and naturally, you feel upset. That’s when it’s time for a stress audit, which helps you examine what happened and every facet of your reaction: physical, emotional, verbal, and addictive.
Writing with pen and paper keeps you focused and boosts creative output. According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us sometimes you don’t realize what will come out until after you start writing. While you’re writing your Amygdala or fight-flight-or-freeze center is activated. While you re-read your writing, the Prefrontal Cortex, the rational, executive part of the brain is now engaged. That is the trick, moving reactions to the analytical brain to put them in perspective.
#3 Set Healthy Boundaries
The need to set boundaries has grown more important as the workday has increasingly expanded into a 24/7 schedule where text messages and emails can arrive at any time of day or night, demanding attention and responses. Then too, attempting to meet the needs of everyone in your organization, while at the same time maintaining a reasonable workload – and work schedule – can also challenge your limits.
Whether you need to set boundaries for yourself or your staff, it’s helpful to employ these strategies:
- Know your own limits – physically, mentally, and emotionally. We often say yes to requests and then resent it later.
- Make sure everyone is clear on job descriptions, and who is accountable for what.
- Define and discuss priorities and deadlines to avoid being stretched too thin by non-essential tasks.
- Set expectations for team members early and often. Stay in touch with team members to make sure everyone is on task and not overwhelmed themselves.
- Hit the pause button before automatically agreeing to a request. Sometimes it’s a matter of controlling your schedule. Saying something like, “I’ll check my calendar and let you know when or if I can fit this request (or meeting) into my calendar” provides you more freedom.
- Employees want to feel valued and appreciated, like their contribution really matters to the success of your organization.
Remember, burnout is a two-way street. Caring for your workers as well as helping them care for themselves are two critical components of a workplace that thrives. Your workers are your most important asset. Without them, you would have no customers. So treat your employees like you would treat your family, with care and respect and they will be dedicated and loyal in return.