The word burnout gets thrown around a lot in business. But what exactly does it mean?
Burnout isn’t just the feeling of angst on Monday morning; it’s an acute condition that derives from chronic emotional stress at work. Researchers and physicians have characterized burnout as a state of exhaustion, ineffectiveness, cynicism, and reduced personal fulfillment.
Research from 2012 shows a strong negative correlation between burnout and job engagement. A burned-out brain can’t concentrate as easily or separate itself from problems. Because the brain’s emotional center connects to the thinking brain, burnout compromises innovation, risk assessment, and decision-making. But burnout doesn’t just affect the individual; its symptoms are contagious and can quickly infect your entire workplace.
How can business leaders prevent the productivity-crushing effects of burnout from plaguing their companies? While you can’t eliminate stress, you can monitor signs of burnout and identify vulnerable employees before they become chronically unhappy.
Before you can combat burnout, you need to understand the source. Here are the six main causes:
- Overload: Are any departments understaffed? Are you proactively addressing workload issues?
- Unfairness: Have you noticed any instances of favoritism or discrepancies in workload or pay at work?
- Conflicting values: Could any tasks or methods be at odds with your employees’ personal values? Are employees pursuing a career path they’re passionate about?
- A lack of control: Do your staff members have autonomy over their work? Are they encouraged to follow their own agency? Or are they reprimanded for not following a predetermined path?
- No recognition: Are you consistently rewarding employees through verbal praise, encouragement, or bonuses?
- Cultural breakdowns: Is the team spirit alive and well in your organization?
Although your team will inevitably endure times of stress and uncertainty, you can promote a healthier way to cope with workplace woes.
Not everyone displays the same signs of burnout, so you need to get to know your employees personally to notice when something changes. You may feel like tracking your employees’ emotional state is invasive, but keeping a pulse on your team members can save time and heartache in the end. Conduct regular check-ins with each person so no warning signs go unchecked.
Emotions don’t cause the pain associated with burnout; a person’s relationship with them does. Emotions become debilitating when you resist them or try to fight them off. Encouraging your employees to interact differently with their emotions–not suppress them–will help reduce burnout.
One way to do this is to close your eyes and notice your thoughts. Regardless of what they are, simply focus on your breath and let your thoughts wander around. If you start to become preoccupied by your thoughts, gently take your attention back to your breath. This simple exercise can turn off anxiety circuits and turn on creativity circuits in your brain.
Resilience is your staff’s best defense against feelings of stress and burnout. When people are resilient, they confront challenges at work rather than ignore or avoid them. Building resilience starts with facing your emotions.
Productivity plummets when people digress into burnout. They’re less motivated, less committed, and less interested in the customer experience. It’s not just a case of monitoring absences or missed assignments–people can be completely burned out but still show up. This is known as presenteeism, and it’s especially common in education.
Cynicism is a chronic symptom of burnout that can quickly drive down morale. Complaining, backstabbing, and belligerence can affect the tone and temperature of your office environment. Even fake smiles and declining physical health can signal burnout. If any of these symptoms become apparent, address them immediately.
The office isn’t the only stage where the symptoms of burnout surface. Research suggests workplace stress is tied to tension at home. In your regular check-ins, remember to ask questions about employees’ home lives. You’ll be surprised how easily problems comes to light if you ask.
Create a system to monitor burnout, and intervene when necessary. If you spot one or more symptoms of burnout, you could approach the individual and ask how he’s feeling. If the symptoms are more varied or severe, you could bring in a qualified professional to help.
Technology can also help you stay on top of your staff’s mental health. Ask employees whether they’re comfortable using a recognized tool to express burnout. If not, ask if they would be willing to submit their scores anonymously so you can track groups.
If the problem spans your organization, it might be time for a pep talk to reassure staff members that they can confide in you. During these conversations, remain nonjudgmental, patient, and kind. For people coping with stress, there’s nothing worse than feeling like their mental health is a burden.
People who don’t find meaning in their jobs are more prone to burnout. You can stop burnout in its tracks by contextualizing every task in terms of the company’s overall goals and bringing each of your employees into a transparent discussion about their personal contributions.
Making a concerted effort to improve employee satisfaction can also positively influence your bottom line. Work environments that achieve genuine satisfaction and fulfillment among employees significantly outperform others in the stock market. You can schedule professional development days, or give your employees the option to work from home to promote a positive work environment.
Your employees are the ones who must grapple with feelings of burnout. But you can minimize stress and rev up resilience by investing in their mental health. In doing so, you’ll not only support your bottom line, but also create a positive feedback loop that will make everyone feel more connected and supported.
Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in brain-based executive coaching who is dedicated to collaborating with experts to help people unleash their full potential. He also serves as assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.