It is no surprise that we have so many idioms about losing sight of what is important or losing one’s balance. Burnout is real, and it has real consequences – for individuals and the organisations within which they work.
Burnout typically refers to being overwhelmed, exhausted, detached, cynical and unable to focus, which affects work productivity, personal satisfaction, and mental and physical well-being.
The term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s by two researchers, psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger, who wrote Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement and psychologist Christina Maslach, renowned for her development of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Both noticed this phenomenon among workers in the caring professions, such as healthcare, teaching, and the police service. It also came into widespread use after a series of aeroplane collisions and deaths caused by avoidable errors were attributed to air traffic controller burnout.
The air traffic control accidents of the 1970s were not, in fact, due to individual error due to fatigue or inability to perform, but were instead due to system-level failures at an organisational level. Researchers have shown that burnout syndrome is a disease of modernity, which involves both individual-level behaviour and institutional level environments.
Universities and businesses have come to realise that burnout needs to be acknowledged and avoided. (Replacing employees can be costly.) Initiatives to introduce yoga and meditation, start walking, or jogging clubs or invitations to workshops and retreats only scratch the surface of what is needed.
Corporate wellness programs, products and services can only go so far and may, in fact, alienate those who need it most, catering instead to those already predisposed to a relatively healthy, physical lifestyle. A 2019 Harvard Medical School study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that although workplace wellness programs had some positive results in self-reported overall health, there were no significant improvements in clinical measures of health, health care usage, or employment outcomes.
This suggests that as much as we can put the onus on individuals to take care of themselves, it also takes commitment at the institutional level to adjust expectations and demands in the work environment. One potential avenue for improvement is proposed by Dr Leah Weiss who argues that managerial behaviour and the organisations’ team is where many interventions ought to be targeted.
If, however, your organisation is still lagging, here are five ways in which to prevent or protect against burnout:
Recognise: Know the symptoms
Suppose you are starting to feel numb about your work and a sense of estrangement from your colleagues or experience physical ailments like headaches, stomach aches or digestive issues. In that case, these may be signs of burnout. Feeling as if you are running on empty, constantly tired, or unable to motivate yourself to finish a task are also typical. These symptoms can lead to an overall feeling of negativity.
Recharge: Take short, regular breaks
Breaks are essential for the mind and body. Stress impacts multiple physiological systems, increases the risk of heart attack and speeds up the ageing process. Consistent breaks, whether as short as a 2-minute breathing exercise or as long as a regular 30-minute jog, can help alleviate the constant pressure and bring a fresh perspective.
Reset: Outline your boundaries
Carve out time and protect it. Allocate specific hours to respond to emails and messages and stop when that time is up. Don’t start your day by looking at your phone. Take two minutes to breathe and think about what your intention for the day is. Set a definite end to your working day (and consider turning off your newsfeed at a certain point, too). At night, silence your phone and recharge it in another room.
Reconnect: Offer compassion
Be kind to others and help create a humane work environment. Helping others has been shown to be of great benefit to those who help, too. Compassion, for yourself and others, can nurture trust and develop social support networks, all of which will be there to catch you if, or when, you fall. Be available and willing to help. Listen without judgement. And help break the stigma of mental health struggles.
Recalibrate: Encourage institutions to reconsider
Wellness programs have, to date, been narrowly defined to target behaviours that include risk factors of disease, such as nutrition, physical activity, and smoking cessation. However, if the organisation’s culture is centre stage, prioritising wellness becomes a much different effort and considers issues of communication, trust, fairness and control. Medical schools seem to be at the forefront of this shift. Stanford, for example, has a three-pronged strategy that requires those in leadership positions to embrace and encourage balance, foster meaningful relationships, and promote positive engagement. It seems managerial approaches that value and reward employees for their efforts, treat people fairly and empower them can protect against burnout.
Burnout can affect mental and physical wellbeing as well as performance. It is up to individuals to learn how to recognise the symptoms when they are in jeopardy and identify the causes. Moreover, it is encouraging to see that institutions are building sustainable programs, pathways and principles that avoid burnout and enhance wellness are being given priority.
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