How burnout can impact team and organisational performance.
The term ‘burnout’ has been thrown around in board and executive meetings for some time, more often, since the pandemic. Burnout is a risk not only to performance, it can also lead to unwanted resignations and litigation if not addressed.
It appears there are three interpretations of it, and responses to it, which can lead to a range of outcomes for both team and organisational performance.
The three interpretations described by leader’s or team members that appear to be experiencing burnout are:
1. Interpreted as positive, because they have been working long hours and in some cases awarded a badge of honour for their efforts.
2. Interpreted as negative, because they have shown signs of fatigue, perhaps taken time off, and are judged as not keeping up with workload.
3. Interpreted as simply someone who has been working hard, or showing signs of fatigue and requires additional support, or help with workload.
Can you predict the three outcomes?
1. A culture that rewards burnout.
2. A culture that has negative consequences for burnout.
3. A culture that supports their people in burnout.
These can result in very different outcomes to talent retention and attraction, time and money spent in litigation, and organisational performance. Before making a decision on which outcome is preferable, it is important to understand what burnout actually is.
What is Burnout?
Stress is a fact of leadership and (professional) life, while intense and long-term stress can lead to the debilitating state referred to as burnout.
The World Health Organisation describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by 3 dimensions”. (WHO, 2019).
These 3 dimensions are:
A. Exhaustion that doesn’t go away after rest or time off.
B. Negativity or cynicism towards work or colleagues.
C. A feeling of ineffectiveness, or incompetence.
Extensive research by Christina Maslach (Professor of Psychology, and a core researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California) has linked burnout to many health problems, including hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and substance abuse. Burnout can also ruin work and personal relationships, negatively impact career opportunities, and undermine team and organisational performance.
Imagine a leader or employee who is showing up for work, exhausted, negative, cynical and feeling ineffective. How would that impact their own work, their team and their team’s work and performance? And what would be the broader impacts on the organisation and culture?
Working for several years as a registered Psychologist and Leadership coach, I have observed that most leaders are unaware that they have burnout, or, they fear admitting they are experiencing burnout, because they believe that their organisational culture has a negative view of it (as described in point 2 above).
McKinsey recently conducted extensive, global research on burnout in workplaces, and it was reported that on average 24% of Australian employees are experiencing it, and 13% of those are not coping.
Assuming the law of averages, 24% of the employees in your organisation may be experiencing burnout. 11% may be experiencing burnout, but give the appearance of coping, while 13% exhibit the signs of burnout and are not coping. And this cohort may seek legal advice if they are not supported.
What would it mean to your organisation if up to 24% of your employees were experiencing burnout, coming to work with exhaustion, negativity, cynicism and ineffectiveness?
How to beat Burnout
As someone who experienced burnout 10 years ago, I can attest to the good news that burnout is not a life sentence. The bad news is that a holiday or time off won’t ‘fix’ it.
With the right support, many people move out of burnout in a few months however, only a trained professional can identify if someone is in burnout and what to do next.
Beating burnout often starts with a review of the role or organisational as a whole. This also includes educating employees toward recovery and prevention.
There are steps that can be taken to identify, avoid and resolve burnout at both an organisational and individual level.
Organisational Level strategies for Burnout
1. Education and prevention
Provide workshops two or three times a year that educate employees on how to better manage stress, how to identify burnout in themselves or others and what to do about it.
Ensure these are run by qualified professionals – even something delivered during a lunch break on a regular basis can be effective.
2. Identify if burnout is in your organisation.
Burnout might not be the issue and in some cases, fatigue or negativity may be related to issues regarding fairness, workload and equal reward for effort.
The best way to uncover any of these issues is to run employee climate surveys every 12 months and include questions in the survey that can uncover any systemic attitudes or beliefs that being ‘burnout’ is somehow rewarded.
Most organisational psychologists can advise you on what kind of survey is best for your organisation, for example, a climate survey can uncover what might be hidden from the executive and board.
Follow this process with a series of meetings and/or workshops sharing the information from the survey to show people that you have listened, and also share what you plan to do about it.
3. Engage professional support.
A Leadership Coach who is also a qualified psychologist, can work 1-1 with anyone that has been identified as at risk of burnout.
These professionals are able to identify if the issue is burnout, and then provide appropriate strategies for that individual to resolve burnout, often in just a few months.
Most coaches will also help the executive and board identify any themes that are negatively impacting team and organisational performance. This support is regarded as hugely beneficial and can result in a positive, compounding effect that impacts the entire organisation.
Individual Level strategies for Burnout
Most individuals experiencing burnout have a belief that they don’t have any control over their situation.
While this may be true at an organisational level, at an individual level there are several strategies that can avoid and resolve burnout:
1. Prioritise your physical health.
A common theme – more exercise, better diet and sleep. This is critical if you or someone you know appears to be experiencing burnout, as fatigue can often lead to bad habits and a ‘quick fix’ such as bingeing on sugar, alcohol and Netflix.
Now is the time to do the exact opposite.
When I was burnt out many years ago and had to drag myself to the gym, I told myself “if I get there, and 10 minutes later I want to go home, I will”. I never did as I found that once I started moving my body, it released the ‘feel good’ hormones. Five years ago I stopped drinking alcohol and I found that had a significant positive effect on my mental and emotional health.
Regular exercise promotes better sleep however experience of consistent problems with sleep is something to discuss with your GP.
2. Reset Mindset.
Following better physical self-care, the next step is to reset your mindset which is easier than you may think.
When in burnout, the sympathetic system (i.e., your flight-fight-fright response) is switched on more often, and in switching this off, your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for ‘rest and digest’), can turn back on.
The simplest way to do this is to slow down your breathing, which may seem simple, but is highly effective.
The 4 x 4 x 4 x 4 is the easiest – inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, breathe normally for 4 seconds – repeated 4 times. I have coached many leaders who will excuse themselves from a meeting to use this technique when they need it.
At the same time, notice your negative-self talk – is it serving you right now? What would a good friend say to you when you are feeling high levels of stress? Probably not what you are saying to yourself – this is the time to be your own best mate.
‘A problem halved is a problem solved’ – reaching out to those you trust when experiencing burnout is essential.
This can be a friend, partner, colleague, therapist, GP, pastor, minister – the person you go to when you need support or a kind word.
Find coaches and mentors who can help you or your team identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities.
You may also find that other people are experiencing similar challenges, and if you band together not only can you support one other, you may also be able to workshop some solutions together.
We often feel a deep sense of loneliness when going through a difficult time as the ego can get in the way of expressing vulnerability for fear of failure and feeling a sense of shame. Brene Brown who is known for her extensive research on shame often says “courage and vulnerability live together” – asking for help, through connecting with others demonstrates courage, with the additional benefit that it may actually help you move out of burnout sooner, knowing you have that support.
Burnout if not identified, and managed well, can negatively impact team and organisational performance and expensive and time consuming litigation procedures. By understanding burnout and implementing appropriate strategies – teams and organisations can avoid and resolve burnout, which for some organisations, can be a turning point that leads to a happier, healthier high-performance culture.
Margie Ireland is the author of The Happy Healthy Leader – how to achieve your potential even during a crisis. She is a registered Psychologist, Leadership Coach and Workshop Facilitator. Margie is highly regarded for helping Leaders and their teams navigate stress and change with healthier coping strategies, leading to happier, healthier and high-performing teams.