“For the time being, I am burning my inner fuel. I have no idea one day I will have no more. Burnout is a consequence of ignorance. […] It is that ignorance, that unwillingness to identify the burnout out symptoms that have condemned me, first to a year of sickness and worry, then to the hell of 4 years of major depression.”
Roch Denis, extract from his book “Mon burn-out”
Burnout is working way to the point of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Disengagement, cynicism, poor self-esteem, feelings of dissatisfaction, extreme tiredness, reduced sense of personal accomplishment and inefficacy characterise the syndrome. This phenomenon has been extensively studied in the past 30 years, particularly in the United States, Canada and Japan.
There are different stages of burnout. In Japan, they refer to the last stage as « Karoshi » which means « death by overwork ». It is growing problem affecting more people every year and leading to cases of suicide and severe depression. Burnout isn’t depression but can turn into depression in the long term if left untreated.
Burnout is a not a state; it is a slow process consuming all your strength and energy. It can take a while to hit the wall as our body is constantly adapting to keep us going. However, our resources are not endless and our body eventually screams out and we can do anything else but stop. We have used up all our resources and there is no hidden source we can exploit to replenish and nourish ourselves. If it takes a while to reach burnout, it takes even longer to recover from it, months, sometimes years hence the importance of stopping before it’s too late. From experience of working with people in burnout, it usually takes a year to 18 months for them to start feeling better and be able function normally. Burnout affects the person’s physical and mental health and also greatly impacts the company costing it a lot of money, the loss of a talented member of staff and reduced productivity.
Spot the signs
As the employer, there are several signs to look out for to detect staff members heading for burnout. You may not have a clear picture of the person’s feelings but their behavior and performance will change, giving you hints on their state of wellbeing.
Look out for changes in the quality of their interactions:
- progressive isolation from others, low level of interaction
- disengagement and refusal to engage in team work
- lack of communication
- tendency to hide behind processes and rules, less flexibility
- others become a source of stress and problems
- aggressiveness, contemptuous attitude and cynicism
Changes in their behaviour :
- Loss of motivation
- Underperforming, less productive
- Repeatedly late in handing work in
- Difficulty to achieve tasks they used to perform easily
- General dissatisfaction
- Negative mindset “it’s too hard, I can’t do anything good”
- Presenteeism – turning up for work but inability to work efficiently, focus on the tasks, tendency to stay late to get things done)
- Working hard with no results
On a subjective level, the employee will experience some or several of the following physical symptoms: extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping, aches and pains, migraines, digestive problems, poor immune system, addictions (smoking, alcohol, and medicine).
Emotionally, it will translate into mood swings, lack of motivation regarding any activity, bad emotion management, irritability, impression to fail over and over again, frustration, low self-confidence and self-esteem, anxiety.
Someone in burnout will experience difficulties with their cognitive functions such as memory loss, lack of concentration, mental fatigue, inability to make decisions, negative thoughts.
Burnout is essentially work-related, rarely linked to personal issues (although this can make it worse). Without going into detail, some of the elements that can trigger burnout are the inability to influence decisions that affect your job, lack of support from colleagues and management, internal conflicts, unfairness and lack of recognition, extremes of activity, mismatch in the company and employee’s values, unclear job descriptions and expectations and lack of training.
We are not all equal when it comes to burnout.
Everybody can be affected by burnout, from high level professions with a lot of responsibilities to low level jobs. However, certain types of personalities are more susceptible to suffer burnout. For example, employees who have very high expectations from their job, who link professional performance to self-esteem, who invest all they have in their professional life to the detriment of their personal life.
What you can do about it
– Detect the stressors within your organisation. Ask your employees. They are your best source of information. They can help you identify the problems and may have great suggestions to improve and change for the better. Collaboration to make things better makes them feel value and engaged which will directly contribute to their greater wellbeing. Plan to make the changes in stages, get feedback from employees and adjust. Do some research; look at the wellbeing initiatives other businesses have implemented and learn from them, take inspiration.
– Promote healthy lifestyles; invest in a health and wellbeing programme. So many businesses have now reaped the benefits of such programmes such as Google, Safeway, Huffington Post. From nutritional advice to mindfulness or Sophrology classes, there are many options out there that will make a difference in your staff’s wellbeing. A healthy happy workforce is a productive workforce. Don’t wait until reaching the tipping point and have many members on sick leave for burnout or chronic stress. Take action now. Prevention is key.
– Honor your promises. If you show interest in improving areas of discontentment pointed out by your employees, follow through. Your employees will have expectations and will be looking out for this positive change. If they see no change, the existing problems with get worse.
– Get feedback and improve. The positive effects of your action may decline over time. Make sure you engage with your employees, show that their health and wellbeing is important to you and you are not just ticking a box. They will feel valued and more open to raise issues should they start feeling unwell. Chronic stress and burnout is less likely to go unnoticed.
Burnout symptoms will not disappear overnight, it takes time. Just like it takes time for an organisation to change but taking action is a step in the right direction to fight employee burnout and prevent it.
To find out more how to build resilience in your workforce and to tackle stress attend the Health @ Work Conference on the 12th June. For more details click here
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