For such a hot topic, burnout is a pretty vague term for many professionals. What do we actually mean when we say “burnout”? The most widely accepted definition comes from three professors of psychology who define burnout as “an individual’s response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors within the workplace.” Their broad definition suggests that there may be different stressors as well as different reactions depending on the individual. And if not every case of burnout is the same, that makes the problem even more challenging to solve.
Because of the unique features of each case of burnout, we wanted to step back and see the whole picture. What are the most common factors that may cause you to burn out? What are the typical signs of burnout?
We are all familiar with the midday slump. The yawning, the drooping eyes, the fuzzy thoughts. It can be tough to work through those slow, afternoon hours.
But people suffering from burnout may feel as if their midday slump never ends. Coming to work or going to class each day is, in and of itself, exhausting. And not just physically. Mental exhaustion can be just as taxing.
The biggest danger with exhaustion is that it’s often cyclical. An employee may come to work where she exhausts herself physically and mentally; the stress of the day may weigh on her and prevent restful sleep; the next day, she will come into the office even more tired than before, and the cycle will continue.
- Sleeping at desk
- Inability to focus or think clearly
Another sign of burnout is an attitude of cynicism. We all know a few cynics—maybe we’ve even fallen into cynicism ourselves. While flashes of frustration or skepticism aren’t uncommon, employees who consistently behave this way may be suffering from burnout.
Cynicism is largely based on our beliefs, perceptions, and reactions to the events we experience each day. This cycle can be positive or negative, and it can quickly spiral in either direction. The lack of trust and the lack of job clarity are the two biggest factors that can spur employees into a negative cycle of cynicism.
Trust is a relatively fragile thing that’s built and reinforced through repeated interactions with the same people or situations. When a manager acts in a way that betrays an employee’s trust, such as taking credit for the employee’s work, the relationship is damaged, and that employee will be wary during the next interaction. If the interactions continue to destroy trust, soon employees will fall into skepticism and refuse to cooperate (or at least contribute their best work).
Even when managers sincerely try to treat employees well, they may fall short in establishing clear job expectations. A recent Gallup study found that only 50 percent of employees strongly agree that they have a clear idea of what their job expectations are every day.
A lack of clarity can lead to cynicism (and therefore burnout) because of the stress it creates.
- Lack of cooperation
- Time wasting
- Poor performance
- Frustration or apathy
A burned out, disengaged employee is also an ineffective one. And this inefficacy is often a result of an overwhelming and endless to-do list.
Every organization has its busy periods where for a few weeks, or perhaps months, everyone needs to pull a little extra weight to keep things running smoothly. But when that “rush period” never ends, and you find yourself constantly swamped with too much to do, you are at serious risk of job burnout.
Excessive collaboration is one factor behind the huge workloads that some employees face, and it’s becoming more and more common across organizations. By all means, collaboration has its place in the workplace, and its benefits are well known. But when all-star employees are pushed into more and more collaborative meetings, they have almost no time to accomplish their own critical, thoughtful work.
The result? They take work home to make up for it, or they spend their time outside of work stressing over everything they didn't get done at the office. This cuts down on their personal recovery time, and pretty soon, that superstar worker has become an exhausted, overloaded, and ultimately ineffective employee.
- Excessive work hours
- Poor performance
- Packed meeting calendars
The final sign of burnout we’re going to cover is loneliness. It’s tough to see on the surface if an employee feels lonely and disconnected; after all, there could be any number of reasons that Jennifer didn’t eat lunch with the team like she normally does. However, if an employee consistently withdraws from social interactions or doesn’t seem to interact with teammates, then it might be a red flag.
Friendships are a vital piece of the employee engagement puzzle. Gallup, after surveying more than 15 million employees around the world, reported that those who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged. Employees with close social connections at work are also better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job.
On the other hand, those who lack these kinds of relationships have only an 8 percent chance of being highly engaged.
Humans are social creatures, and meaningful social interaction is an integral part of each day. To have a thriving day, individuals need six hours of social time. With no social time, an individual has 50/50 chance of having a good day or a bad day; each hour of social interaction increases the chances of having a good day.
Consider that six hours for a moment. The average employee spends about eight hours of her day at work. If she doesn’t have any friends at the office, then it’s likely her social time is limited to a few hours each day before or after work. That may mean she’s experiencing bad day after bad day. And that’s dangerously close to the burnout cycle.
- Withdrawal from coworkers
- Lack of social interaction
- Few or no friendships at the workplace
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor concentration
- Frequently ill
- Pessimism and detachment
None of us is Superman or the Energizer Bunny, so we all have a limited supply of time and energy on any given day. We must make choices as to how and why we will expend our limited resources. Clearly, a full-time job consumes a large chunk of our resources as we go into the office every day for eight hours.
However, work can take up even more time and energy than this in the form of lingering stress, unfinished projects, or negative feelings. In other words, leaving the office is not necessarily the end of the workday for many employees.
In terms of our limited time and energy, burnout is the result when we continually spend resources without refilling the bucket—like taking out a loan from ourselves that we can never quite payback.
Employees can only do so much to change the demands on their time and energy while they’re in the office. Likewise, we are all limited to 24 hours a day, and that can’t change. So what can we do to battle employee burnout when so many factors are out of our control?
In an article last year, Harvard Business Review explained that resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficult tasks, is about getting enough quality recovery time rather than simply resting. Real recovery means giving our brains a break from demanding activities of every kind—not just work. Fuming over the latest celebrity Twitter war or worrying about the breaking news on TV might be shifting your mind away from work, but it’s not allowing you to recover.
In the following slides, we'll explore how the workplace can foster recovery and resilience.
Work/life balance needs to become a part of an organization’s culture if it isn’t already. And we don’t just mean that it’s printed on a poster that hangs in the break room. What is the unstated culture of your company? Are employees praised and rewarded for staying late or working after hours? Are individuals expected to answer emails at 10:00 PM? All of this communicates an organization’s culture.
Of course, the best way to recharge from work is to not work! While employees should be able to recover each night away from the office, sometimes a more substantial break is necessary.
The benefits of vacations are well documented, especially in the fight to reduce burnout rates. That’s why we offer a paid paid vacation benefit to all of our employees each year. Enabling employees to not only use their time off but to use it in amazing ways, helps them fully recover from work during a vacation. They’ll return with more energy and enthusiasm, and as a result, produce much better work.
One of the most effective solutions to burnout that managers and HR professionals can take is an effective performance management system. This becomes a natural tool for checking in with employees and solving problems as they arise. Managers should be meeting with their team members on a regular basis anyway, and these one-on-ones are an excellent way to gauge their engagement.
Instead of focusing the conversation solely on performance wins or goals for improvement, this kind of check-in is an opportunity to exchange feedback and consider individual needs. After all, simple communication can solve a lot of problems—including burnout.
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There was quite a bit of buzz recently when the World Health Organization recognized "burnout" as a legitimate medical diagnosis. This didn't come as news to many of us who have felt burnt out at some point during our professional or academic careers. Nonetheless, it's reassuring to hear that experts are taking burnout seriously.
In this slideshow, the experts at BambooHR discuss some of the underlying causes of burnout, its signs, and possible solutions organizations should consider implementing.
Click here to read the full article on the BambooHR blog.
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