SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I received a call from a colleague asking if I was interested in speaking to a group of executives about how to “manage burnout.” He continued to explain that burnout is on the rise, and he felt it would be a relevant message for his audience.
After a few questions and giving it some thought, I told him that I would not want to speak on that topic, but that I would like to speak on how you can avoid burnout altogether. After all, why would you want to manage something that is so destructive? Wouldn’t it just be better to equip professionals with insights and tools they could use to avoid it completely?
Much to my delight, he agreed that avoiding illness is far better than managing it, so the date was set and my mental wheels began to turn.
The Burnout Phenomenon
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” They describe burnout as follows:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
The Mayo Clinic also recognizes burnout and applies a similar description by stating:”
“Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
Given that two of the most recognized health organizations are giving space to burnout, it would be wise for all of us to recognize that this is something that is indeed real and that it has been plaguing the American workforce for quite some time.
While COVID has indeed accelerated the occurrence of burnout in the workforce, it certainly did not cause it, as many would choose to believe. However, now that the pandemic has put the spotlight on it, we should take the steps to address it and steer clear of it.
Looking at the Numbers
Sifting through the numbers regarding burnout paints a grim picture with more than half of respondents of a study conducted by Indeed stating “they are feeling burned out.” Additionally, 67% feel the condition has worsened during the pandemic, and 53% of millennials (the largest generation in the workforce) were burned before the pandemic.
If the human toll is not enough to stir the collective consciousness of individuals and organizational leaders, the economic toll is staggering with burnout estimated to cost between $125 and $190 billion in healthcare costs each year.
These two factors are the catalysts for organizations to move from mental and emotional health as “nice to have” to a “must have” as we begin the post-COVID way we work era.
Avoidance Is the Best Medicine
Many believe that corporations are solely to blame for the rise in employee burnout. While there is certainly plenty of evidence that shows how an unhealthy workplace can contribute, I am one that also believes the individual must take some ownership. The Great Resignation is evidence that many employees are simply not going to take it any longer and will stop trusting their well-being to a company.
That said, the advice that follows is for both individual professionals and business leaders given that both are responsible for the overall health and vitality of the workforce. I’ll start with individuals.
End the Addiction
I was talking to one of my coaching clients recently when I asked, “Have you ever considered that maybe you are addicted to your work?” They were a bit surprised by my question and replied, “Addiction is a big word.” They are right; it is a heavy word, but it is something that needs to be considered.
The unfortunate reality is that virtually half of Americans identify themselves as workaholics. This is an addiction and is one that is unhealthy. I used to be part of that 50% and can attest that it is not an enjoyable lifestyle.
While it is easy to say “just end the addiction,” it is a whole other thing to actually do it. Taking a page from my own journey, I believe the best way to begin this process is to stop looking at our professions as the source of our identity and purpose.
While we can apply our purpose at our work, I have yet to encounter anyone who has been successful in finding their purpose because of their work. Yet, we toil in vain and work ourselves to death to do so, and when we come up empty, we simply put more energy into something that is altogether futile.
If we want to avoid burnout and keep work in its rightful place (not being a slave to it), then we have to get back to the truest form of ourselves and understand who we were made to be.
Stop Trying to Balance
In the past, I have written and spoken about work-life balance, boundaries, integration, and any other descriptions to try and manage work and life, I have come to one realization: It is just life.
All of us have 168 hours each week to live our lives. What we do with the 168 hours each week involves a lot of things, including our work. When we try and separate work from life, we only succeed in making life more difficult.
I am not aware of any other part of our life that we look to separate. I have yet to see an article that talks about kids-life balance, marriage-life balance, or finances-life balance. So why do we insist that we can do the same with work?
Rather than attempt to balance (which 70% of professionals state they struggle to do), integrate or harmonize, define those things in your life that are of value to you. Begin to define what you want from your life and then determine how work enables that life.
I have yet to have coached anyone who takes this approach and arrives at a life design plan that puts work as the center of their universe. The outcome is a far distance between themselves and burnout.
You Don’t Have to Stay Stuck
“What do you expect me to do … quit?” This is what a client asked me a while ago after we discussed their experience with burnout that was stoked by a toxic and dysfunctional workplace. I simply replied, “Yes.”
I asked myself the same question in 2016 after I had burned out and hit rock bottom. After months of excuses and reasons why I should stay, I finally found the courage to do what I knew I needed to do all along … I quit. I left the company I had co-founded and made 2017 the year I was going to take my life back.
As I encourage all of my clients to do, I thought about the worst thing that could happen to myself and my family. The reality was it wasn’t that bad. At most, we would have had to sell the house and downsize. All things considered, the upside of getting my mental, physical and emotional health back was an easy trade.
Corporate leaders should do all they can to enable their employees to set boundaries, end their addictions and not feel stuck in their professions. At the same time, they can do the following.
Recognize That You Are in the People Business
Whether you run an association or have a company in any other business sector, one thing is certain: You are in the people business, and it starts with your employees.
On paper, this may appear to be a no-brainer, but recognition of the humanity that makes up any business often gets lost in the gears of the business operation.
I was recently engaged in a conversation with a business executive who told me, “Whatever issues my people have when they come to work they can leave it at the door.” I realize that work cannot be an eight-hour therapy session; however, I do believe it is imperative for business leaders to create a safe and understanding environment for their people.
People get sick and have kids who get sick. People have good days and bad days. They have loved ones who die and marriages that are struggling. They experience unexpected financial pressures. They have fears, doubts, and anxiety … they are human.
Recognizing this and creating a culture that allows for them to be expressive, feel safe, and know that they can be fully human at work is something that they will value and will go a long way to eliminating burnout.
I’ve spoken to many executives who have made it a common practice to meet one-on-one with their teams not to talk about work, but life. To make sure they are feeling supported and appreciated. Not surprisingly, their retention rates are incredibly high and the health of their employees is at the same level.
Invest in the humanness of your people, it will be one of the best investments you make.
Practice What You Preach
All too often, I encounter an executive who talks about the great culture they have in their organization and the premium they place on allowing their employees to not be tied to their work. Yet, when I talk to the employees, I hear about the pressure to “always be on.” I recently had one employee tell me that “not checking my email on vacation could be a fireable offense.”
Really? Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of a vacation?
If you want to create a culture where your people can unplug, rest, and re-energize, do the same yourself and don’t put unrealistic expectations on them by sending late-night emails or texts. Take your weekends and allow them to do the same. Disconnect on vacation and expect them to do the same.
I am aware of one organization that blocks employee email and access to all systems when an employee goes on vacation or maternity/paternity leave … even for their executives.
If you are going to talk about a healthy culture, you have to live it by setting the best example you can provide.
No “Brilliant Jerks”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has famously declared that he does not tolerate “brilliant jerks.” He goes so far as to label them “cultural terrorists” due to how they can quickly erode a corporate culture.
I have heard far too many stories of a company that has a cultural directive for a healthy and vibrant workplace, but it is upended by a manager or executive who believes they are above that and they proceed to wreak havoc on their people.
It does not matter how brilliant, smart or innovative they are. If they are not helping promote a people-first culture, then it is time to send them on their way. If you don’t, then you are simply signaling to your employees what you value more.
A Continual Process
Managing our lives and establishing boundaries is not a one-and-done exercise, it is a continual journey. The way life unfolds makes it so. Rather than wait until burnout comes and try to manage the aftermath, take the steps to avoid it altogether as part of a life design plan that creates a life you love to live.