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  • Writer's pictureSophie Thomas

Getting to the root of burnout

Burnout has become the new buzzword. It's trending in every newsfeed and is being described by many as the new pandemic - just as it's starting to feel like we're less overwhelmed by the one that brought us here in the first place.

So why the sudden 'trendiness' now? The waves of burnout have been crashing on the shores of our lives for quite some time now but, as is often the case with traumatic events, sometimes the magnitude of what we've endured takes a while to hit us. I think many people are just now realising that the storm they have been weathering is burnout.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has officially recognised burnout as an 'occupational phenomenon...conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed'. As definitions go, this is pretty accurate from my experience.

For people who have experienced burnout there can be a range of physical and psychological symptoms that stem from 3 main dimensions; These are defined by the WHO as Exhaustion, Cynicism and Inefficacy. Whilst the WHO states that burnout is purely an occupational phenomena, anyone who has experienced it will tell you that the impact and influencers of burnout are not just limited to work.

How can we prevent burnout at work?

As the saying goes, prevention is definitely better than cure, but this is where the lines get a blurry - how do we prevent burnout in the workplace? Preventing burnout means we need to take a look at the cause, and primarily, this is our working environment. All of us experience stress at work, so why do some of us burn out and not others?

In my experience, burnout is experienced more often by people who exhibit high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence, work in caregiving, creative or people-centric careers, and are highly sensitive, struggle with low self esteem and confidence, self validation and setting boundaries. This absolutely isn't to say that burnout is only seen in people with these traits, but it is what I have witnessed most commonly.

Dealing with stress

Work stress is inevitable, so how do we as individuals, and how do employers tackle stress to prevent burnout? There is no one size fits all answer to this, but for both individuals and employers, mental health awareness is vital in preventing burnout. As part of my training as a mental health first aider, I learned about the concept of 'The Stress Container'.

Everybody has their own invisible metaphorical stress container, the size and shape is unique to each individual. Stresses pour in at the top of the container and there is a valve at the bottom that releases stress - this 'valve' could be hobbies, habits and routines that positively impact your life.

Because everyone's stress container is unique, what might be a small work stressor to one person could take up significantly more space in someone else's. This is where line managers become invaluable in helping to prevent burnout. By talking about coping with stress, this gives both employees and employers the opportunity to take action before the stress container overflows aka - Burnout.

Having conversations about mental health at work

Not everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health but in using the stress container analogy, it hopefully makes the discussion less emotionally intense and makes employees feel less vulnerable. in a workplace setting, employees might feel more comfortable expressing that their stress container is filling up, than expressing that they feel overwhelmed and like they can't cope. Employees don't want to admit that they feel like they are 'failing' - it's not that they are failing but it sure does feel like that when burnout is snapping at your heels.

What can employers do to prevent burnout?

Organisations need to provide a framework for ALL of their employees, especially line managers, to talk about and provide the environment for optimum mental health at work. Line managers need to be equipped emotionally and practically to have open conversations with their team, and in turn, line managers need to be offered support themselves. This framework for support needs to be built in to the day to day processes of work through mechanisms such as one to one check-ins and reviews, all the way up to leadership and strategy meetings.

Organisations need to examine not just the type of work their employees do and the volume of work they are dealing with but the whole working ecosystem. Clique's, unconscious bias and having to fight with a 'boy's club' mentality in leadership can also contribute to burnout. A toxic work culture goes hand in hand with burnout and a lot of the time, leaders are blind to it, don't want to admit there is an issue, or don't know how to tackle it.

In any business, your biggest asset is your people and you need to treat them and look after them in a way that communicates their value. Gone are the days of the ethos of 'don't bring your problems to work', especially now when many of us are working in our own homes.

For people to be happy and healthy at work, they have to be able to be themselves. More and more, there are articles popping up about the qualities employees want to see in business leaders, and empathy and transparency are up there at the top. Employees now expect to be treated with kindness and compassion and not just a number on the payroll.

Recruitment and burnout

Recruitment is also an area where organisations can prevent burnout. Make sure your job descriptions are a true reflection of what is required and consider how you can construct your interview process to best match the requirements of the job with the right candidate.

Invest time and energy into your employee's journey through your business - think about your onboarding process and the first 90 days. All of these experiences have an impact on employee stress and set the tone for the kind of organisation you are. Absenteeism is costly for businesses and high staff turnover due to burnout isn't good for anyone involved.

What can individuals do to prevent burnout?

Although the onset of burnout might be triggered by work, we as individuals can also do our best to avoid it. 'Self-care' only goes so far when it comes to preventing burnout. If the system (workplace) you are in is fundamentally at odds with your values as a human being, then no amount of lunchtime walks is going to stop you from burning out.

My advice is that if you start to see the niggling early signs of overwhelm then you need to pause, evaluate and do some self-reflection without delay. You can do this on your own, with a trusted friend, or speak to a coach, but the important thing is to figure out what is causing this stress, can the stressor be minimised or removed, or are bigger steps required?

The 'Great Resignation' and burnout

During the height of the pandemic, many people reevaluated their lives, some by choice, others as a result of redundancies or during furlough. People were confronted with what mattered most in their lives, what brought them stress and what brought them happiness. These reflections led to people deciding to consider a new career, revisit former passions and find more fulfilment.

For some people leaving their job was absolutely the right move, but if underlying issues such as a lack of boundaries and people pleasing are left unresolved, then burnout can follow you to your next job like a very unwelcome stowaway.

Can burnout really be avoided?

Saying yes to more work when you're already overwhelmed to 'prove your worth' is going to end badly. Giving your time and energy away to anyone and everyone just to validate that you are a nice or good person only ends up backfiring on you, leaving you less happy.

Burnout thrives on shame, secrecy and suffering in silence. The best way to beat it is radical honesty, openness, self awareness, setting boundaries...and sticking to them! Burnout creeps in when our words and actions are not in agreement with each other, so the root of avoiding burnout is making sure we are living closely in alignment with our own needs and values.

If you're feeling overwhelmed and would like support then get in touch with me to book a free initial conversation. In the meantime subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on @Instagram for more regular updates, tips and advice.

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