Burnout is not a badge of honour
Workplaces are becoming increasingly competitive. And so, workers feel obligated to out-hustle their peers – both in their office and half-a-world away. Historically senior leaders and business owners have rewarded those who have been willing to ‘out-hustle’ or go the extra mile. How often have you said, or heard others say ‘they are such a hard worker’, and it was expressed as being positive, as if a badge of honour?
However, what we may be rewarding is a behaviour that can be internalised by some leaders and employees as the only way to be successful. These people can feel constantly under pressure to go the extra mile, for fear of how it may look if they don’t, and even fear of job loss. Over the last few years, we’ve gone through a pandemic, we’ve struggled to keep up with inflation – all while coping with rising workloads.
Many have had enough. In response to rising stress, some have dialled back their efforts, doing only what their job demands. Some may even appear negative, even cynical. Some have referred to this as ‘quiet quitting’. However for many it’s the global phenomenon we’ve all heard about – burnout.
And the problem with burnout is a holiday or break is unlikely to ‘fix it’.
However employers are facing immense pressure to raise profits. Many cannot afford to lose the productivity of their ‘hard-worker’ cohort. So how do employers and employers identify if burnout is an issue, and navigate this challenge, while still provide a stable workplace? Because, even if someone is aware they are experiencing burnout (and in my experience most don’t), they are unlikely to put their hand up and declare it. Remember, they have been rewarded for their hard work, and don’t want to lose that standing with you.
Burnout is experienced by the individual, however the workplace culture is often a major contributor. Before I provide some information on burnout, it is important to also identify how your culture may be leading to some of your people experiencing burnout.
Hustle culture and its effects on the workplace
Most employers appreciate a culture that ‘hustles’. A question – how did we get to where we are? It’s a complex issue, with numerous contributing factors (e.g., technology advancements, pandemic stress, retiring boomers, shortage of workers for critical industries, etc).
But of all these root causes, hustle culture has gotten the most attention. What is hustle culture? It’s a philosophy that glorifies going beyond the call of duty, doing whatever it takes to achieve organisational goals.
From a business standpoint, this mindset appears to have played a role in driving economic growth. Since 2000, Australia’s GDP has almost quadrupled from 614 billion AUD in 2000 to 2.28 trillion AUD. We are also the world’s 12th largest economy.
But working long hours is not without its costs. Studies show that when overwork becomes the norm, health problems like hypertension, obesity, anxiety, burnout, and depression are almost sure to follow.
Recently, Elon Musk, delivered a terse ultimatum to employees after acquiring Twitter: work long hours at a high intensity – or leave.
So perhaps, a rethinking of workplace philosophy is in order. Do you understand how employees perceive your culture? Have you provided ways for them to communicate how they are truly experiencing the workplace without consequence for their honest feedback? And are you experiencing unwanted resignations, or perhaps a drop in performance? Have some of your people decided to ‘quietly quit’?
The quiet quitter’s approach to managing work stress and work/life balance
In early 2020, pandemic lockdowns gave many worn-out workers a chance to reflect.
Many chose to make a change. As the economy began to recover in 2021, workers began leaving their positions in droves. The shift in America was so significant that it became known as The Great Resignation. In 2021 alone, 47 million people in the United States voluntarily left their jobs.
And while this trend has yet to hit Australia, an Allianz survey predicts two million workers may leave their positions in the next year. The report indicates that burnout is a contributor to this outcome.
But not everyone can quit outright. Instead, many employees have decided to “quiet quit”. This choice meant they only completed tasks within their job description, declining all extraneous work. And if they are experiencing burnout, they are likely to demonstrate a more negative or cynical approach to work demands. This of course has knock-on effect to other employees. Creating a culture that is far from positive.
Whenever possible, businesses should allow employees to work according to their rhythms. While some may thrive working long hours, others flourish when they work flexible hours. Do you know who prefers what? In the recent survey conducted by the College or Organisational Psychology (COPS), a key finding was that employees experience a more positive attitude towards their workplace when they have the option to choose where and how they work. Of course, many organisations, cannot oblige complete freedom to choose, while it could be time to ask your leaders and their team members what helps them thrive.
How to identify Burnout
Burnout is not a diagnosable illness, and is instead to referred to by the World Health Organisation as an “occupational phenomenon”. However there are 3 features that pertain to someone experience burnout which are:
Fatigue that doesn’t go away after good rest or break from work.
An increased or new negativity about work, projects and peers. Sometimes this can lead to cynicism.
Drop in confidence to complete work tasks and projects.
One feature may be more present and therefore obvious than another. In my experience working with leaders who are experiencing burnout, we typically uncover all 3, and set a plan to move them out of burnout. The good news is burnout is not a life sentence. With the right plan and support, many people to recover from burnout, many within a few months.
In summary, it may be time to make time to understand how your people plan to navigate the year ahead. Pay special attention to those who may have appeared to have pulled back, or become negative. I fully understand this takes time, however how much time and money is lost on replacing key people? Extended sick-leave? Messy exits? There are so many upsides to making the time for your most valuable resource.
Margie Ireland is the author of The Happy Healthy Leader – how to achieve your potential even during a crisis. Margie is a registered Psychologist, Leadership Coach and Workshop Facilitator, highly sought after to help Leaders and their teams navigate stress and change with healthier coping strategies, leading to happier, healthier and high-performing teams. For more information visit www.margieireland.com