Episode 5 – Guest Post – Burnout.  What it is and quick ways to face it (written by Caterina Cavallaro, Managing Legal Counsel at VGW)

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has called burnout an “occupational phenomenon”, a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. 

Identifying causes and stages of burnout

Stressors, whether external (e.g., work, money, family) or internal (e.g., self-criticism, body image), activate our bodies’ stress response. When faced with stressors, we often choose between the stress response of flight (escaping the threat), fight (conquering the threat) or freeze (playing “dead” until the threat goes away, or someone comes to save us).  Once the threat has gone, we should be able to complete the stress cycle and continue with our day.  However, we are becoming increasingly stuck in these responses and not moving through our stress and this is often leading to burnout.    

Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report indicated that employees are still grappling with record-high stress levels.” Between February and April 2022, McKinsey conducted a global survey of nearly 15,000 employees and 1,000 HR decision makers across 15 countries finding that, on average, one in four employees surveyed reported experiencing symptoms of burnout.  McKinsey also found that women show higher rates of burnout than men and this is worsening with time. 

The term “burnout” was coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who described burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired benefits”.

The WHO describes burnout as:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related one one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Freudenberger, together with fellow scientist Gail North identified the following 12 stages of burnout, which need to be considered in a consequential way:

  1. Proving oneself
  2. Working harder
  3. Neglecting needs
  4. Displacing conflicts
  5. Revising values
  6. Denying problems
  7. Withdrawing
  8. Changing behavior oddly
  9. Depersonalizing
  10. Feeling empty inside
  11. Suffering from depression
  12. Experiencing burnout syndrome

People most prone to burnout often exhibit type-A personalities. However, it’s not uncommon for individuals who frequently compare themselves with others and those who struggle to ask for help or support to also suffer from burnout.

Both organizations and individuals can do their part to help beat burnout. 

Insights from the Maslach’s Burnout Inventory

While some jobs and roles involve heavy workloads, they don’t all lead to burnout.  One tool to identify burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), created by Dr. Christina Maslach and her research team.  Maslach indicates that implementing solutions like offering an extra week or vacation time or shutting down, so that everyone has to take time off, could help with coping with stressors but may not be the solution to preventing burnout if the same issues remain when the employee returns to work. Moreover, the fear of coming back to the workplace after a detachment period could represent a stress factor on its own.

Dr. Christina Maslach identified six organisational risk factors which leaders can think about when considering whether someone in their team is burning out:

  • Workload. This is the work we are responsible for as well as the resources and tools we are given to meet our goals – the greater the mismatch the higher the risk of burnout.  People who are people pleasers or perfectionists and those work tend to work in isolation are more at risk
  • Control. We are more likely to experience burnout if we don’t feel like we have control over the choice, discretion and say over what you do
  • Reward. The lack of pay as well as lack of growth opportunities, new challenges, visibility or positive feedback can lead to burnout
  • Community. The lack of a “psychologically safe” environment where people can share themselves and their ideas at work increases the risk. Are our workplace relationships (with our colleagues, boss, people we supervise etc) supportive in working out how to do things better or are they toxic?
  • Fairness. Burnout is more prevalent where leaders play favourites, fail to set expectations and are inconsistent in their rewards/punishments.  Being treated unfairly keeps you out of the workplace community. 
  • Values. People are more likely to feel drained if the work does not align with their values

Suggested ways to manage or recover from burnout

Useful ways to recover from burnout can be found in books focused on the matter.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski in the book “Burnout”, suggest finishing the stress response cycle through physical activity, taking slow deep breath, engaging in positive social interactions and laughing.   

On the other hand, Dr Jacinta Jimenez, in the book “The Burnout Fix”, suggests the “PULSE” method:

  • Pacing for performance, such as setting achievable goals
  • Undoing unhelpful thinking patterns through mindfulness meditation and breathing
  • Leveraging leisure time, like spending more time in nature
  • Securing a support system
  • Evaluating how to regain control of our time and priorities

I highly suggest to pay attention to our feelings because burnout is inseparable from our emotions and this can help deal with feelings of resentment, frustration and disillusionment before they turn to burnout.  Setting healthy boundaries, cultivating interests outside of work and building strong working relationships can help prevent and manage burnout.  Other useful practices include prioritising our sleep, restorative yoga, or engaging in regular meditation to quiet the mind and regulate our emotions. 

Conclusion

In an era where the boundaries between work and personal life blur, understanding and addressing burnout becomes crucial for sustaining both individual well-being and organizational health. As we navigate these challenges, it is essential to adopt a multifaceted approach that includes personal resilience-building strategies, such as managing stress and setting boundaries, alongside organizational measures that foster a supportive and equitable work environment. By prioritizing mental health and recognizing the signs of burnout early, we can create a culture of wellness that not only enhances productivity but also ensures that individuals can thrive in their personal and professional lives. Let us commit to taking proactive steps to prevent burnout, ensuring a healthier future for all.

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