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We’ve now lived through a year and a half of navigating pandemic responses – fearing for the health of ourselves and our loved ones, adapting to changes to workplace conditions, feeling a sense of isolation and lack of control, facing confusion about the best way forward, and increasingly feeling, well, ‘blah’.1

For organisations, the incredible pace of moving into crisis response, to resuming a ‘new normal’, to rebuilding and recalibrating for the future, has left executives, line managers and staff reeling.

There are positives though. We’ve spoken to teams that are buoyed by a sense of innovation and hope, others who are feeling more connected and aligned than ever, and many who are finding new ways to balance work and life with longer-term hybrid working arrangements. It would be understandable, and very human, to try and focus on the positives and put the past in the past. However, to ignore or underestimate the impact of working through the last 18 months would be a mistake.

Burnout in organisations

Stories of workplace burnout are becoming increasingly common. We’ve heard about concerns for essential workers who have faced the highest risk of catching the virus, CTOs worried about their tech teams who have worked tirelessly to accelerate an organisation’s digital capability for over a year, desk-based workers fatigued by back-to-back video calls and an ongoing lack of control. Sound familiar?

The impact is significant. A Gallup study in the US found that employees who say they very often or always experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.2

For leaders, it can be difficult to know what to do when everyone seems to be experiencing degrees of exhaustion and stress. An obvious solution tends to be to encourage more rest or set sights on a not-too-distant finish line. While neither response is wrong, they are also unlikely to help address the root causes for burnout. To define a better response, it’s vital to understand what burnout is and what causes it.

Causes of burnout

It’s not just about the hours

Many misconceptions exist about burnout: that it is only due to workload (working too long or too hard), that it’s the individual’s fault (someone needs to say ‘no’ more), that it only refers to extreme cases resulting in long-term leave – or conversely, that it can be treated like the common cold and will go away with a day or so of rest. Let’s bust some of those myths.

First coined as a technical term in 1975 by Herbert Freudenberger, burnout was defined as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. His research, among others, informed the definition by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019, whereby burnout was acknowledged as an occupational phenomenon. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), maintained by the WHO, now includes the following definition:“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

The WHO’s definition has been cited as a significant move forward towards helping organisations understand burnout, as it can help “dismantle the misbelief that it’s ‘nothing serious.’… [and] remove the incorrect assumption that those who have it don’t need occupational support.”3

Important research that helped spur the WHO’s definition was conducted by one of the foremost experts on burnout, Christina Maslach (author of The Truth About Burnout). Maslach and her team identified six ways in which an individual can experience a ‘job-person mismatch’, factors which she found to be interrelated and the existence of which creates conditions more likely to result in burnout. These are:

Depending on your role and industry, you’ll probably recognise the increasing prevalence of several of those factors for many individuals over the last 18 months. McKinsey reports that since the beginning of the pandemic, leaders’ burnout symptoms increased by unprecedented rates and, at the end of 2020, a global survey showed that 62% of people at supervisor or above levels had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months. McKinsey predicts that the organisational challenges of burnout are likely to continue for the next year or two.4

How burnout manifests

From ‘too much’ to ‘not enough’

All of us have experienced varying degrees or periods of increased stress over the last year and a half. But when does it become burnout? Stress can be understood as the impact of there being ‘too much’. Too much change, too much to do, too many decisions to make. As the NHS states:5 “Burnout, on the other hand, is feeling there is just ‘not enough’. Not enough time, energy, enthusiasm, ability and not enough inner resource. It is commonly described as ‘being emotionally drained’, ‘feeling empty’ or ‘just not being able to be myself anymore’.”

A first step to addressing burnout is identifying the symptoms, in yourself or your team, some of which are described below. Observing these behaviours in someone (or yourself) does not automatically mean the individual is suffering burnout, rather these are things to watch out for if the behaviours change significantly over time and for a prolonged period. The NHS also published a useful table comparing stress and burnout symptoms, available here.

It’s important to note that burnout can not only manifest in increased absenteeism, but also with increased presenteeism or workaholism, as the individual strains to regain a feeling of workplace productivity or connection that they feel has diminished.

This article focuses on relatively immediate and recognisable symptoms of burnout, and not at the growing (but not yet broad) body of evidence on longer-term impacts, such as changes in brain function.6

Of course, the most effective thing you can do about burnout is to avoid it in the first place.

Minimising burnout

New research continues to explore the causality of burnout and efficacy of potential interventions. To date, there is no widely recognised solution to the issue. There is, however, growing recognition of the condition and what can be done to prevent it.

For individuals and leaders, the good news is that you may already do many of these actions (see table below). But in times like these, with burnout rates increasing across our workforces and added complexities from transitioning to new working conditions throughout the pandemic, you may need to spend more time focusing on these actions.

For organisations, the more challenging (and growing) perspective is that minimising burnout, and the significant associated costs, needs a significant shift away from ‘help the individual through it’ to a more strategic, informed and systematic approach to organisational design, leadership practices and holistic wellness offerings.

Pragmatic steps for individuals, leaders and organisations

We’re living and working in unusual times. It’s never been more important to help your people stay connected, healthy and able to maintain a sense of pride that comes with being productive and motivated at work. We can all make a difference to our own and others’ health – from small acts of kindness to wide-ranging organisational change. As Emily Nagoski (author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle) says, the cure for burnout is ”all of us caring for each other”. We look forward to hearing your feedback and future stories of change.

Caro Ruttledge
Lucy Stones

Watch our latest webinar that helps leaders and managers understand burnout in the context of transformational change.