Burnout – An Organisational Problem

Burnout is an interesting topic, many people are talking about it, not many are comfortable admitting they are suffering from it (especially to their employers) and it is something that is down to the individual to deal with and ultimately have to recover from, yet it originates somewhere else completely!!

It is refreshing to see so much talk about mental health, well being and a general shift towards each of us looking after all aspects of our life; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc. It is also fair to say, we still have a long way to go with our attitude towards work, where far too many of us wear our excessive hours and punishing schedules like a badge of honor, “look at me, I’m the hardest worker here, that’s what it takes to get ahead”. Of course we reinforce this mentality by looking up to these people thinking to ourselves “all I need to do is work harder and I’ll get noticed by the boss!”.

All of this ultimately leads us down a path of shame and fear, shamed to admit that we can’t cope with 60hr work weeks, fear of making a mistake and getting it wrong, shame to admit that we cant get through our workload, shame to admit we just are not coping and the fear of losing our job.  It is this ‘shame’ and ‘fear’ that society has inflicted on us that prevents us from doing what our body screams at us to do, to look after our health, it is this acceptance of shame and fear in the work place that I want to approach in this article.

What is Burnout?

According to the World Health Organisations ICD-11 manual, burnout is defined by three key symptoms:

  1. energy depletion and exhaustion
  2. increased mental disturbance from one’s job or feelings of negativism and cynicism related to one’s job and
  3. reduced professional efficacy.

Interestingly more recent and in depth research has been conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia found that burnout is a constellation of symptoms that goes beyond the three domains above

  1. Irritability and anger with the most reported descriptors being irritability, impatience, agitation, frustration, anger and resentment
  2. Sleep disturbance with either a lack of sleep or excessive sleep being reported
  3. Cognitive problems including lack of concentration, attention or memory problems, ‘brain fog’ or ‘cloudy thinking’ and difficulty in planning or making decisions
  4. Impaired performance evidenced by lower productivity, reduced quality of output, making more mistakes, avoiding responsibilities and procrastinating
  5. Becoming asocial effectively cocooning themselves and withdrawing from family, friends, colleagues and clients
  6. Physical symptoms such as aches or headaches, eating and appetite changes, nausea and low libido
  7. Emotional lability; fragile emotions, increased sensitivity, emotional outbursts and being more tearful.

Clinical research suggests that burnout doesn’t just suddenly happen, there is a general pathway to burnout which typically start with higher levels of exhaustion and then a leaching of pleasure from previously enjoyable activities and then a lessening of care for other people. This leads to lower engagement in activities and an increasing retreat to what they see as a ‘comfort zone’, in reality manifests itself in social isolation.

What Fuels the Fire?

Research conducted by T.W. Taris et al. 2017 with 1500 Dutch police discovered that six factors were unhelpful to the well being of the police officers where feelings of burnout occurred, those factors are:

  • Work load – too much work for the time allocated.
  • Administrative Demands – the level of beurocracy required to get the main tasks completed is excessive, resulting in too much time being needed.
  • Mental Demands – too much highly cognitive tasks over a period of time, asking the brain to perform at consistently high levels throughout the working day
  • Emotional Demands – processing the individual’s emotional reactions to given situations along side having to adapt to the emotional states of others.
  • Role Uncertainty – a lack of clarity around the responsibilities and accountabilities of the role, leading to uncertainty, self doubt and confusion.
  • Job Security – not knowing whether or not the role will exist at any time in the future, creates uncertainty and constant worry for the longer term survival of the individual and their families.

With the anecdotal evidence that I have gathered over the thirteen years working alongside nearly 200 organisations, these factors are rife, some more than others, but I have yet to come across and organisation that has a handle on all of those factors.

Where Does The Problem Begin?

There are some individual factors that can drive burnout levels within those people, one such factor is the ‘Perfectionist’ personality trait, those are people that have to get everything right, anything less that 100% is viewed as a failure. They put so much pressure to perform at such a high level, they will work ridiculously long hours to achieve whatever they have set out to do (and our working environment allows these people to act this way!). The other factor that needs to be considered at an individual level is there responsibilities away from work. In the Sydney studies they found that those individuals that were a ‘helper’ to another often suffered from burnout (e.g. looking after a disabled child or elderly parents). It is important to acknowledge those two individual factors here and there is a ton of information online around the self help guidance and support groups that these individuals should consider looking into. I want to focus on what is going on in the workplace.

I want you to consider who is it in your organisation that is holding the blow torch, through their decisions or lack there of that are effectively setting your employees on fire?

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

I have been working with a manufacturing organisation recently, they have a great reputation within their industry, they have been around for decades, have a solid client base and produce high quality products.  Over the last few yeas they have been incredibly successful and even now as I write this, they have plans to extend their facility but yet their middle management are miserable, emotionally on edge and exhausted. Who has the blow torch setting them on light and driving them down the road to burnout, mostly the senior management and in fairness, some of the middle managers have them too!

Why do I say this?

  1. Their work load is ridiculously high, they run the project management software at 100% 24 / 7, which does not allow for absenteeism, machine servicing, breakdowns or last minute customer requests.
  2. Mental Demands are so high, mistakes are being made, leading to missed information being put into the project management system which leads to products being made to wrong specifications or they are produced late because time lines weren’t clearly identified.
  3. Nobody has the ability to say “no” to a client, if the client says they need something now, they bend over backwards to get it done. This is a blessing and a curse, its great to be able to help a client, but doing so will always be at the expense of another client or the team that has to put in large amounts of overtime to get the work done.
  4. Lack of clarity from senior leaders to mid tier leaders about what is being prioritised and how that fits with the bigger picture plans, leaving mid tier leaders and their teams in constant role uncertainty.

All of these factors have the ability to start to set someone on fire, putting them on the path to burnout. If these scenarios were one offs, no problem, our brains can cope with that, but when this is happening day in, day out, that is when the flames take hold.

The problems that are being experienced by this organisation, to which, they are not the only organisation I see going through this, are all created by someone’s decision making process. Everything that this organisation is feeling can be resolved by better decisions being made. Holding people (including their clients) accountable for what they must do and the quality of the information they need to share, to ensure everyone involved in getting the product to the client can do it to the best of their ability, on time with no expensive re-work along the way.

What Can Organisations Do to Change?

Why do companies like the one above continue down this line? In my experience, there are many factors but most are underpinned by fear and shame both of which most commonly work at a sub-conscious level, but both have very real behavioural consequences.

If it was a case of just making better decisions to ensure that everyone in the workplace goes home with enough energy left to interact with their family in a kind, loving and engaging way, why are we not making these decisions?

Shame can grip us in many ways but in this context it is the shame of not being able to ‘cope’, the shame of not being able to do it the way our leaders did it when they were in our position, it is the shame of making mistakes and the repercussions that often come with that. These scenarios are a threat to us, as a result our brain will make decisions to avoid those incidents and scenarios that will ‘shame’ us, as a result of that, we put up with whatever work throws at us because that is ultimately better than feeling shame!

Fear grips most of us more often than we realise or would care to admit. In this context we will definitely be fearing failure, we might be fearing the reactions of people around us if we stop working 60hr weeks, if we say ‘no’ to a client that wants us to rush through yet another order or tell our boss “I don’t have the time to do that”. Again, just like shame, our brain is defaulted to listen to our fear, this is what keeps us alive when threatened, so if changing what has always been done triggers more fear in us and that out ways the reward, we will not change, we can’t, our brain will not allow it.

To push through the control that fear and shame have on us, as a tribe, we all have to get on the same page, this involves:

  1. Acknowledge that what is currently going on is not working, its important that all key decision makers are on the same page here.
  2. Agree on what the ideal future should look like, this should include what is acceptable and what is not acceptable from a behaviour, attitude and values perspective.
  3. Build a plan over time to move the work place to the new ideal and bring the people along on the journey.

Let me be very clear, if you have high levels of burnout in your organisation then you have an organisational cultural problem, this will take time to change, this is why all of the major stakeholders should be involved in the process of change, remember the only way to change the culture in your organisation is to have everyone ‘live’ the new culture, meaning everyone must practice what the new culture preaches. If the organisation is serious about addressing a ‘shift in culture’ it is likely that an external facilitator will be needed to help that process as they will not be bogged down in the organisations history, thus, wont be impacted by its fears, bringing a rational perspective to any challenges it may face in the change process.

One last point I want to make here, for change to happen over time, it is significantly more effective to reward the behaviour and attitudes you are looking for as opposed to punishing the behaviour and attitudes you no longer want.