Burnout is one of the hottest buzz words in the fields of leadership and talent management.
The term is regularly used to describe individuals who are overworked, underpaid, and fed up with their organisation.
But what exactly is burnout really supposed to mean?
In the business world, the term burnout is used to describe a state of prolonged and pervasive stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion.
While some argue that burnout, exhaustion, depression, and chronic stress are all basically the same thing, burnout actually appears to be a combination of these factors.
Individuals in the throes of burnout experience the extreme lack of energy that characterises exhaustion and the sense of emotional numbness, helplessness, and hopelessness that characterises depression.
When burnout is especially bad, the stress responses in the body can lead to sleeplessness, shortness of breath, chest pain, panic attacks, and even heart palpitations.
One of the earliest symptoms of burnout in the workplace is a lack of engagement in work tasks.
Employees on the verge of burnout are bored with their work, struggle to find enjoyment in their work life, are resentful of the demands and stresses of their job, and generally unproductive at work.
Simply put, they give every appearance of just not wanting to be in the office, and the quality and quantity of their work suffers as a result.
This early phase of burnout is often accompanied by counterproductive work behaviours, incivility to colleagues, and a host of other disruptions that affect the entire work team.
Given the very serious implications of burnout on both the individual and the organisation, it is vital that leaders consider burnout to be a very serious issue to be addressed at the earliest sign.
Fortunately, burnout is generally a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time, allowing leaders to address the early symptoms of burnout before experiencing losses in productivity or increases in turnover rates.
However, to effectively address burnout, leaders must consider whether burnout is occurring due to individual traits or organisational factors.
At the individual level, employees who tend to be perfectionistic, pessimistic, and high-achieving tend to be at the most risk for burnout.
These “Type A” personalities are often reluctant to delegate tasks to others, yet struggle to accept either their own work or the work of others as good enough to be considered complete.
Unfortunately, leaders cannot change these basic personality traits, and must instead adapt their style to support these employees throughout the work process.
Providing benchmarks for feedback and assuring perfectionists that they are being supported in their professional growth can give them the confidence they need to move on to the next task without undue distress.
The more insidious causes of burnout are related to organisational factors, and should be addressed promptly.
Individuals are the most likely to experience burnout when they feel that they have little control over their work demands and are provided with inadequate resources, or support to complete their tasks.
If their work is so excessive that they cannot possibly be completed adequately without encroaching on the individual’s relaxation time, they are also likely to experience a lack of sleep and detriment to their social support network.
When this high demand, low control environment is coupled with vague expectations or repetitive work tasks, the organisation has a recipe for burnout and turnover on its hands.
What it all boils down to is the need for leaders to establish a fine balance – employees want high enough demands to feel challenged, clear expectations, adequate resources and support to complete their work well, feedback on their performance, recognition of their hard work and growth, and adequate time off to relax.
Organisational leaders must make it a high priority to regularly take the time to mindfully evaluate their work team for these common causes and signs of burnout.
Simply redistributing tasks across an over-worked team, engaging in job rotation or adding more challenging tasks to those who have outgrown their positions, and ensuring employees are able to achieve work-life balance can quickly head off burnout at the pass.
Here’s another article you may find useful: Can Managers Manage Without Sleep?
Head of Training and Development