No manager wants to see their staff burn out. Especially in demanding occupations, however, that is exactly what is happening all too frequently. It’s happening so frequently, in fact, that in May 2019 the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) announced that burnout would be classified and described under “problems associated with employment or unemployment.” In other word, burnout is now officially recognized as an occupational phenomenon.
But what actually is burnout? How much do you really know about what causes it? And do you know how best to help prevent your staff from burning out?
What is burnout?
Burnout happens over time and involves the gradual depletion of resources for work in three main areas:
1. Physical and emotional exhaustion
2. Depersonalization (a fancy work for the depletion of our ability to feel empathic, caring, and compassionate)
3. A reduced sense of accomplishment and purpose
What causes burnout?
So, what is the first word or phrase that jumps into your mind when I ask you what causes burnout?
It’s probably something to do with workload or long work hours, right?
You’re not wrong here. Workload can definitely be a contributing factor. But did you know that a busy schedule, on its own, isn’t usually enough to trigger burnout? And if that’s the case, what does trigger it?
Christina Maslach is a social psychologist who has spearheaded decades of research on occupational burnout. Along the way, she has identified six “mismatches” between a person and a job that make the person more likely to burn out. Only one of those mismatches is “too much work”, and Maslach herself believes it’s often not the most important factor, especially if things are going well in other domains.
So what are these six mismatches that contribute to burnout?
1. Lack of control: In order to feel satisfied and competent in their jobs, your staff need to have a sense that they are in control of their tasks and the outcomes. In other words, they need to feel they’ve been given an appropriate level of responsibility, that they have a say in decisions, and that they have access to the resources and they need to do their jobs well. As Maslach puts it, if they don’t have these things they are likely to begin to feel “buffeted by circumstances or powerful people within the organization.”
2. Insufficient reward: If the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards for their work don’t match the amount of effort and time your staff put in, then they’re likely to feel that the investment is not worth the payoff. Don’t forget, however, that there is a lot more to work-related “rewards” than salary. At their core, workplace rewards involve anything that makes the work satisfying. Such rewards can certainly be financial, but they can also be social (e.g., recognition), related to things your staff value highly (e.g., flexibility), and intrinsic (the feeling that they’re doing a good job at meaningful work).
3. Lack of community: A healthy community at work—characterized by good teamwork, low levels of conflict, and positive interactions—is a huge buffer against stress. It creates positive social exchange (e.g., praise and humor), assistance, and helps staff feel they belong to a “team” with a shared sense of values.
4. Absence of fairness: When staff don’t feel they’ve been treated fairly it often leads to feelings of being disrespected or powerless. Situations that commonly cause staff to feel unfairly treated include inequity in workload or pay, inappropriate handling of evaluations or promotions, and poor dispute resolution practices. Interestingly, staff generally care more about feeling their managers are doing their best to maintain a fair and equitable workplace than whether every single decision is yielding a fair result. In other words, trying to be fair (and being seen as trying) goes a long way here.
5. Conflict in values: Staff are at risk of a mismatch here when their personal values and goals aren’t in line with the organizations. Contributing to a meaningful personal goal is a very powerful source of motivation. When that’s missing, so is the energy that goes along with that.
6. Work overload: Finally we get to the factor most commonly associated with burnout—an unsustainable workload. When we have work that matches out capacity we can effectively get our work done, and have opportunities for rest, family, and professional development or other interests. When we’re overloaded, however, these opportunities to restore balance don’t exist. The quantity of work exceeds the amount of time and resources available, or the job is too difficult given your current resources or abilities. The key factor here is how chronic this situation is. Occasional tight deadlines and overwork won’t generally lead to burnout if workload is generally sustainable.
Helping prevent burnout
Taking a look at the six causes of burnout we’ve just explored, we can see that individual employees have limited ability to address many of these systemic issues. Managers, however, have more power to influence in these areas. As such, managers and organizations bear some responsibility for striving to help prevent staff burnout.
But how? Where to start?
A good place to start is by remembering that burnout is not simply about being tired. It is usually a multifaceted issue that requires multifaceted solution. And there is no better cure than prevention. So think about each of the six mismatch areas in relation to your individual team members, and ask yourself where the specific staff member may be experiencing mismatch and what you could do about it.
In relation to your team as a whole, consider these five areas of strategic points of influence, and answer the following questions:
1. How can I help protect my staff from feeling overloaded? Many of us work in industries where overload is the norm. The need is endless and the resources are often frustratingly limited. That is a structural reality that is unlikely to change in the near future. As such, you must find ways to help protect your staff from feeling overloaded within that context. How can you help them plan and prioritize their project and set reasonable limits around their work? How can you encourage them to walk away after a certain point and feel OK about that? (By the way, research points to 50 hours a week as the upper limit of productive work most of us are capable of over time.) How do you help encourage them to put boundaries around their work and reserve some time and energy for family and other important interests? And (given uncertainty is one of the most powerful drivers of stress) how can you make work demands more predictable for them and ensure they don’t feel on call 24/7? It may sound counterintuitive to actively encourage your staff to work less, but this is likely one of the most powerful things you can do to make them feel supported and valued, and prevent burnout.
2. How could I increase rewards for my staff members? Remember, this doesn’t have to mean giving everyone a raise. Praising your staff (especially if you do it in front of their peers) provides huge encouragement and is a powerful reward. How can you help your staff feel more appreciated?
3. How can I remind my staff why their work is important? The higher up people get in organizations, the more removed they can feel from the organization’s mission and what they are working to accomplish. Look for ways to remind your staff of the bigger picture and the point of it all.
4. How can I try hard to be fair, and make sure you’re communicating that that’s what you’re doing? Appearance matters in this regard. Try hard to be fair, and be transparent about your desire to maintain a fair and equitable workplace.
5. Can I do anything more to encourage and build community? The research is clear, having friends and buddies at work matters. So do what you can to build a sense of community within your team? Ask your staff how they are, and share some information with them about your own life outside work.