Burnout – A Catalyst for Change
Business leaders often say, “never waste a good crisis” but this was also the message from burnout researcher and author Sarah Kuipers when she said “burnout is a catalyst for change and we need to understand that things can get better”.
Sarah Kuipers, lived experience contributor and author of “The Thriving Giver”, is part of a panel discussing burnout on November 1 hosted by the Community Services Industry Alliance along with Shannon Swales clinical psychologist and author of “Nothing Left to Give”, Carolyn Grant organisational strategist and author of Legacy Leadership and Australia’s first “Psychological Safety in Boardrooms”, and retired nurse and lived experience contributor, Nicola Browning.
Burnout is extremely topical during Mental Health Awareness month and one of the most discussed topics in organisations today as absenteeism increases, psychosocial claims escalate, productivity is declining and resourcing gaps and costs continue to rise.
In essence, burnout is an insufficient coping response to chronic stressors in the workplace, characterised by a state of profound mental exhaustion and physical fatigue as a consequence of depleted emotional and physical energy resources (the images of a battery and how much charge is left is a great visual tool to understand burnout). Whilst burnout is caused by long term uncontrolled and unresolved work stressors, it is also said to be influenced by the additional stressors of personal and environmental stressors such as major illness, family difficulties or responsibilities.
The burnout statistics are alarming with over 72% of leaders and managers reporting they feel exhausted and suffering from burnout. Unfortunately, only 15% of leaders feel confident dealing with staff suffering from burnout – which is why in the current workplace climate we need to provide support and resourcing tools at all levels of organisational structure.
To give some context, in 2021, 58% of Australian GPs reported that managing fatigue and burnout was one of their top challenges, while nearly 79% of primary care nurses who participated in a February 2022 survey reported having felt burnt out during the pandemic.
The trend is not limited to primary care, with a study investigating the severity and prevalence of mental health issues experienced by Australian healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic uncovering high rates of anxiety (59.8%), burnout (70.9%) and depression (57.3%) among what was characterised as a ‘highly resilient’ workforce.
- 84% of change or transformation projects fail to assess the “readiness” of the teams involved or rolling out the program. With over 58% of IT change management teams churning within the first 6months.(People Plus Science, 2023)
- Disengaged employees are 3.8times more likely to experience stress (Gallup 2023)
- 77% of employees are disengaged at work (Gallup 2023)
- 50% of employees have felt bullied or harassed at work (Gartner 2022) this increases depending on the industry (ie higher in construction and mining and resources)
- 25% of employees take their frustrations out on consumers/clients
- 36% of employees trust their organisations to do the “right thing”
Why it matters?
Ever thought throughout the day “I am losing it” as you misplace objects, forget important deadlines or have difficulty just making a simple decision or maybe you have a shorter fuse than normal when dealing with people?
Every person’s mental and physical energy resources are finite. Mental energy is the inner psychological resource that controls emotion, cognition, executive functioning (i.e., attention, working memory), and behaviour.
Mental energy regulates motivational orientation, the self-reward of gratification, appropriate judgment and decision-making, mental and physical endurance, inhibition of inappropriate responses, tolerance, and will power.
When we add all of these things up – our ability to make decisions, our ability to engage our memory, to learn, to play “nice” with others, to actually “care” for others and ourselves – the impacts are huge.
Burnout is not something that only impacts your ability to do your work, 83% of professionals state that work negatively impacted their personal relationships.
The lies we tell ourselves
When experiencing burnout, individuals may engage in self-deceptive thinking or hold onto myths and lies to rationalise their situation or avoid facing the reality of their burnout. These cognitive distortions can hinder their ability to recognise and address the problem effectively. Here are some common myths or lies that have been shared with us;
- “I can handle it all.” Believing that you can handle an overwhelming workload without help or rest, even when you’re clearly overwhelmed.
- “This is just a phase.” Assuming that burnout is a temporary condition that will naturally resolve itself without intervention.
- “I’m just being lazy.” Attributing your burnout symptoms to laziness or lack of motivation, rather than recognizing it as a sign of emotional exhaustion.
- “I must keep pushing through.” Feeling obligated to continue working tirelessly, even if it’s causing harm to your mental and physical health.
- “I’m indispensable at work.” Thinking that your workplace cannot function without your constant effort, leading to overcommitment.
- “I should be able to handle stress.” Believing that you should be able to manage high levels of stress without it affecting your well-being.
- “I can’t ask for help.” Feeling like you shouldn’t burden others with your problems or that seeking assistance is a sign of weakness.
- “If I just work harder, things will get better.” Assuming that putting in more hours or effort will lead to improvements, even when you’re already burning out.
- “My worth is tied to my productivity.” Believing that your self-worth is directly linked to your job performance, which can lead to unrealistic expectations.
- “I’ll rest when I retire.” Postponing self-care and relaxation, thinking that you can take care of yourself later in life.
- “It’s just stress, it’s not a big deal.” Minimising the impact of chronic stress and its potential to lead to burnout.
- “I don’t have time for self-care.” Believing that taking time for self-care is a luxury you can’t afford due to your busy schedule.
- “I’m not the only one struggling, so I shouldn’t complain.” Thinking that because others are dealing with stress, you shouldn’t acknowledge your own struggles.
- “I don’t need a break, I need to catch up.” Prioritising catching up on work over taking a break, which perpetuates burnout.
- “I’m just being weak.” Assuming that experiencing burnout is a sign of personal weakness, rather than recognizing it as a common response to excessive stress.
- “Success requires constant sacrifice.” Believing that true success necessitates neglecting personal well-being and relationships.
- “I can’t change my situation.” Feeling trapped in your current circumstances, even when there are potential solutions available.
Our behaviour starts to alter:
- Decreased Productivity: Reduced work performance and difficulty concentrating on tasks.
- Emotional Exhaustion: Frequent mood swings, irritability, and a sense of emotional depletion.
- Cynicism and Detachment: Developing a negative and cynical attitude towards work and colleagues, withdrawing from social interactions.
- Physical Symptoms: Experiencing physical ailments such as headaches, stomach issues, and muscle tension.
- Procrastination: An increased tendency to put off tasks and responsibilities.
- Absenteeism: Missing work or social commitments more often than usual.
- Reduced Job Satisfaction: A lack of enthusiasm for the job, finding less enjoyment in what used to be fulfilling.
- Increased Alcohol or Substance Use: Turning to alcohol or other substances as a coping mechanism.
- Sleep Disturbances: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing recurring nightmares.
- Social Isolation: Withdrawing from friends, family, and social activities.
- Neglecting Self-Care: Not taking care of one’s physical and emotional well-being, such as diet, exercise, and relaxation.
- Chronic Fatigue: A persistent feeling of tiredness and lack of energy, even after adequate rest.
- Increased Forgetfulness: Difficulty remembering tasks, deadlines, and appointments.
- Overcommitting: Difficulty saying no, resulting in taking on too many responsibilities.
- Loss of Passion: Losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once enjoyable.
- Difficulty Making Decisions: Struggling to make even simple decisions due to mental fatigue.
- Reduced Creativity: A decline in creative thinking and problem-solving abilities.
- Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety, depression, and a sense of hopelessness.
- Neglecting Personal Relationships: Focusing less on family and personal relationships.
- Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Turning to unhealthy habits like emotional eating, excessive gaming, or excessive shopping.
- Physical Symptoms: Symptoms like tension headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and increased susceptibility to illness.
- Change in Eating Habits: Either overeating or loss of appetite.
Where do we go from here?
We need a collective and multileveled approach to prevent and treat burnout. We need to equip individuals and leaders with the skills to support themselves and their teams.
An increase in personal portable psychological safety to cope with occupational stressors on the one hand, and implementation of positive changes in the workplace on the other hand, are both necessary to control the burnout phenomenon.
Here are some suggested actions to experiment with:
- Tasks for “me”:
- Seek to understand what your body and brain are going through during this time
- Improve your understanding of emotional regulation and the things you tell yourself that are doing more harm than good
- Reach out and talk to someone – whether that’s family, friend or trained therapist
- Take up creative writing (distinct from journalling)
- Look at establishing little routines around exercise, gratitude and meditation – link them to some habits you have already to help them stick.
- Improve your language around emotions so that you improve the ability to reframe and accurately describe how you are feeling.
- Tasks for “team”:
- Review repeatedly what is working and what is not
- Identify the collective strengths of the team
- Identify the communication and cognitive preferences of the team
- Find commonalities that help you rally together
- Identify ways as a team to support each other despite external influences to the team
- Create a culture of openness and psychological safety for these discussions to occur
- Create weekly or fortnightly lunches together to share experiences, cultures and lunches – sharing food is a great way to connect with your team.
- Tasks for “organisational level”
- Prioritise psychological safety and people first strategies
- Ensure strategic alignment
- Measure the right lead indicators – trust, respect, psychological safety,
- Remove “stupid” rules that stop people from doing a good job due to onerous red tape or over complicated processes and systems.
- Purposely and regularly prioritise wellbeing and burnout as discussion topics across the organisation.
- Review workloads and adjust individual job responsibilities to ensure roles are healthy and sustainable,
- Identify metrics to measure pressure points that can cause chronic stress within the organisation (psychological safety, wellness,
- Conduct employee journey maps with employees to understand where the greatest impacts are and how organisations can provide sppport
- Create structures that require people to rest and recharge after stressful or intense periods.
- Ensure high levels of trust in the people and the processes and procedures within the organisation
- Tasks for leaders:
- Leaders must RISE (Rethink, Inspire, Support and Experiment) to the challenge of identifying, mitigating and eliminating psychosocial hazards
- Understand how to foster positive workplaces
- Upskill in communication – how to have conversations, how to foster safe work environments, how to facilitate debate, how to encourage others to speak up, how to not dominate conversations.
- Assess the team’s psychological safety, conduct regularly psychosocial evaluations and review what is working and what is not
- Understand the communication preferences of your team
- Upskill in conversational intelligence – know how to have difficult conversations and create safe places for conversations.
- Facilitate good discussions
- Conduct weekly briefings with staff individually
- Work with other leaders and share stories around successes so that you can all learn together.
- Ensure your leadership team is strategically aligned and your teams are clear about their role and the roles of other teams.
Active coping strategies promoting mental resilience and adaptive behaviour, stress-reducing activities, improving work conditions, and reducing exposure to work stressors together may alleviate the distress of burnout and should be introduced, assessed for impact and continued or altered.
Importantly providing education and support for leaders is critical to having any impact in the workplace.
Carolyn Grant: Carolyn Grant is an organisational growth strategist who translates neuroscience into business insights, tools and frameworks to drive revenue, protect reputation, and reduce risk with People first strategies – a focus on leaders, culture, teams and individual psychological safety.