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How to stop burnout, so work/life balance is a reality, not a utopia

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2022-09-23

Burnout: a modern buzzword, used loosely by some but fully understood by others, it’s now recognised by the World Health Organisation as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, with research highlighting devastating implications for people who ignore it, from the 146,000 lives claimed every year in the United States alone, to the 1 trillion dollars in lost global production every year.  

But what is burnout and how do we stop it?

The World Health Organisation describes burnout as ‘chronic work place stress that has not been well managed’, describing 3 key symptoms:

  • Emotional, mental, physical exhaustion (you’re not just a bit tired and in need of a lie-in or a weekend away: you’re utterly finished, overwhelmed and feel like you can’t go on)
  • Negativity/cynicism about your work (because you’re overwhelmed, everything seems unfair, wrong and insurmountable. Unsurprisingly, you sink into a spiral of doom and gloom)
  • Poor time efficiency (exhausted and stuck in a negative cycle, you’re unmotivated by the things which once energised you. You can’t concentrate anymore, your efforts feel pointless and you can no longer make key decisions.)

There’s no single cause of burnout or magic fix but a combination of common triggers and therefore, a variety of initiatives required to reduce burnout.

Mental Health UK polled 3000 working adults in 2021 and the most common triggers of burnout  included; money worries, working from home, job security, isolation, physical health, sleep, relationships, home schooling, caring for others. Some of these triggers are not directly linked to the working environment but they’ll certainly impact how an employee may perform at work.

On the other hand, in a recent Gallup poll of 7500 employees, the most common workplace triggers included; unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from their manager(s), unreasonable time pressure.

So if burnout can be triggered by a combination of factors at work and/or at home, what can employers do to tackle it?    

 As a starting point, there are 4 things employers can do, to develop the conversation around burnout and create the first steps of meaningful action:

  • Encourage your leaders to be vulnerable as a key leadership trait, being open about their own challenges and the things they’re struggling with.

When leaders choose to be open about their struggles, it creates a positive knock-on effect for the wider team because if it’s acceptable for the leader to be open, then it’s ok for others to speak up too. Vulnerable leaders create psychologically safe spaces and such spaces are vital in combatting burnout. Without safe spaces, we cannot expect our people to be open about their struggles and fears.

  • Talk to your teams about what they need and how they’re feeling, not as a one-off exercise but as an ongoing and daily conversation. Then, take action where you can, in order to show your team that when they voice their needs, they’re listened to and taken seriously.
  • Encourage and enable your teams to take local action, which could range from; a) sociable activities, b) informal, wellbeing check-ins to begin each team meeting, c) the ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ slogan as a Zoom/Teams background and daily reminder to each other and anyone else they meet in online meetings, d) specific boundaries around email usage, both during the working day, and also during evenings, weekends and annual leave.
  • Put wellbeing at the heart of your organisational culture and mission, offering wide ranging and tailored wellbeing plans, encouraging leaders and managers to undertake mental health first aid training, with follow-up plans for how to take that knowledge back into the workplace and bring it to life, so it makes a meaningful difference.

 

Conclusion:

Burnout isn’t going anywhere as a problem and if anything, given the social and political upheaval in our world today (not to mention the rapidly unfolding environmental crisis and all that means for our way of life) burnout will become an even bigger challenge to deal with. But the good news is that with wide-ranging and ongoing action, which is rooted in what people share and ask for, burnout is surmountable and it is manageable.

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