As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, organizations worldwide face another challenge—employee burnout. Burnout is not new—according to an early 2020 Gallup survey, 76% of workers experience burnout, and in 2019, the World Health Organization identified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. However, the stressors contributing to the ‘downward spiral’ that leads to burnout have grown over the last year. In the United States, where SIYLI’s headquarters are, a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that anxiety symptoms had tripled and depression had quadrupled in 2020 in a group of almost 6,000 participants compared to 2019. Collectively we have faced a global pandemic, economic and social unrest, on top of our personal struggles. While often triggered by stress at work, burnout can also appear in response to other external stressors. Additionally, many workers report feeling “pandemic fatigue,” a symptom of the prolonged stress associated with the crisis and the mental exhaustion of continually adapting to new social rules and policies.
Burnout also compounds—research from The Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University on chronic workplace stress and burnout’s effects on the brain found participants experiencing burnout symptoms were less able to down-regulate negative emotions. Images from fMRI of these participants’ brains showed significantly weaker connectivity between emotion and stress-processing networks than the control group. This study indicates that burnout makes you less resilient to daily stressors, leading to a downward spiral that can result in conditions like anxiety and depression if left unaddressed.
While this crisis will eventually end, we will still live in a ‘VUCA’ world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous), and we will continue to face significant challenges in the years ahead. Individuals and organizations can use this moment as an opportunity to employ new strategies to address burnout and strengthen individual and collective resilience for navigating the challenges that lie ahead—and emotional intelligence is essential.
The two areas to observe when addressing burnout: the individual’s ability to self-regulate and build resilience and the organizational culture, policies and leadership that may contribute to burnout.
What can I do?
1. Develop self-awareness to identify burnout warning-signs.
Burnout does not happen instantly; it sneaks beneath the surface of regular work anxiety and stress. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize the warning signs of burnout, or we notice them and decide to keep on pushing through, which leads us down the spiral of stress, eventually resulting in burnout. An important strategy to mitigate this problem is to get to know how burnout looks and feels in your body.
Signs of Burnout:
- Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
- Negative feelings or cynicism about work
- Poor performance
Mindfulness practices like the body scan increase emotional-awareness to help you identify when you feel stressed and support you to address it in-the-moment. Our emotions carry essential data; they tell us when we’ve reached our stress-limit, and warn us before crossing our edge. A few moments of awareness now can save you a more extended burnout-induced break later.
2. Take (and optimize) rest.
While this may seem like the most obvious prescription for burnout, there is a way we can optimize our long and short rest periods to support sustainable energy. Read more about integrating rest into your daily life and optimizing extended breaks in SIYLI’s article, The Art of Recharging.
3. Reconnect to your motivation.
If you experience burnout, this may be a valuable occasion to consider your intentions and motivations for work (and life!). When you lack inspiration, it is essential to understand why and find a sustainable source of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation based on the meaningful reasons that inspire you to work. Re-evaluate your “why” or, as the Japanese call it, your Ikigai or “reason for being.” What is your reason for waking up in the morning and spending time and energy working each day?
Try a mindful listening dyad with these questions, “What are your sources of inspiration? When was the last time you felt inspired? How can you connect more fully to sources of inspiration in your work and life?” Alternatively, you can turn it into a journaling exercise to help you uncover motivation that will support your resilience.
What can my organization do?
According to a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, workplace stress costs the U.S. economy more than $500 billion per year…and that was pre-Covid. There are advantages beyond employee well-being to an organization focusing resources and time to alleviating early-stage burnout. Although many organizations know this and are actively taking measures to reduce burnout through well-being and resilience programming (focused on the individual), many miss an essential element; discovering how the organization’s structure and its teams contribute to burnout.
Christina Maslach, author of “The Truth about Burnout,” is one of the foremost researchers on burnout. She says that organizations overemphasize the individual when looking at the causes of burnout. In reality, there is a lot an organization and managers can do to avoid burnout in their employees.
1. Reflect and identify potential areas of improvement.
In an HBR podcast, Christina Maslach defined six areas within organizational structure and management styles that can contribute to burnout:
- Reward / Positive Feedback
If your employees experience burnout, it is critical that you take a moment to reflect on the work environment. Do the current conditions, policies and practices in place support employees to thrive? Or, are the current conditions contributing to their stress and burnout?
The blanket response to burnout is to “fix” the individual—give them time off, offer yoga classes or encourage them to start a mindfulness practice. Though well-meaning, often, these ‘solutions’ don’t address where the stress originates. A business-as-usual approach will perpetuate the cycle of ‘work-stress-burnout-break’ rather than creating sustainable practices to support employees’ well-being. One method for the “reward/positive feedback” area is ensuring that employees know when they do well. Acknowledge them publicly or privately for their efforts and accomplishments. An emotionally intelligent approach can help leaders reflect through self-awareness and develop empathy to support address issues and support their team to thrive.
2. Develop psychologically safe teams and give your employees the tools to thrive.
Psychological safety is the number one determiner of a team’s success, according to research at Google. In many teams, the fear of judgment or retaliation discourages them from sharing that they might be feeling burnt out and having honest conversations about improving the team and organizational dynamics. When leaders cultivate an environment based on trust and psychological safety, team members feel safe to express themselves, share ideas and be honest without fear of repercussions.
If you are interested in learning more about how we support teams to thrive with Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness, check out our new program, Effective Teaming.