Burnout Isn’t “Their Issue”: Changing Our Behaviours to Benefit Us All

By Nneka Orji

For many, burnout is a familiar concept; its association with emotional exhaustion and reduced motivation is widely acknowledged.


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However those most vulnerable to burnout are more likely to take a “not me” approach, assuming that burnout is something which others suffer from. However, with studies such as that commissioned by Virgin last year which found that just over half of full-time employees in the UK have suffered from anxiety or burnout, individuals and business leaders can no longer see burnout as an infrequent occurrence to be dealt with by someone else. The scale of burnout and its implications – including low levels of engagement – now calls for a much more concerted effort to ensure work environments and organisational cultures mitigate against the risk of burnout and allow all employees to thrive throughout their careers. It can’t be seen as “their issue” – it impacts us all.
Someone who has taken burnout very personally is Arianna Huffington – founder of Huffington Post who recently set up Thrive Global. Following her burnout experience in 2007 as she was setting up Huffington Post, she took a particular interest in the impact of burnout on her life and the lives of others. “For far too long we have been operating under a collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for achieving success. This couldn’t be less true.” In her recent interview, Arianna talks about the importance of sleep (and nutrition and exercise) in achieving a healthy and successful lifestyle, and some of the key changes organisations need to make to ensure that mitigating burnout doesn’t sit solely in HR departments but with each business leader and every employee.
It isn’t just a nice to have; being able to manage the risk of burnout and perceptions of burnout directly influence an organisation’s ability to recruit (particularly millennials) and impacts the bottom line. According to Gallup’s recent survey, 24% of German employees interviewed felt “tired or burned out” and 12% said they had dealt with mental or emotional stress including burnout and depression in the preceding 12 months. As a result, employees are taking sick days and working less effectively which Gallup estimates to be costing German employers 9 billion euros in lost productivity each year. With economists highlighting the increasing global productivity gap, business leaders and policy makers should be addressing all aspects negatively impacting productivity – including burnout. Where employees felt that their organisations cared about their overall wellbeing were less likely to feel stressed and burned out, and therefore likely to be more engaged and more productive.
Looking beyond productivity at diversity, another top agenda item in leadership discussions, addressing burnout is also an important aspect when considering workforce gender diversity. Last year Cosmopolitan surveyed over 750 women; with over half of the respondents saying they “obsessed over work” even after working hours and a third (71%) suffering from anxiety and panic attacks at some point, the survey suggested that today’s female workforce had become “generation burnout”. However this isn’t unique to women; research published in 2010 in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour challenged the widely-held belief that women are more likely to suffer from burnout than their male colleagues. Instead the research found that women are more likely to be emotionally exhausted, while men are more likely to be “somewhat more depersonalised” – both signs associated with burnout.
Burnout affects our colleagues, our organisational cultures and our economies. Surely we should each be doing more to challenge the status quo? Yes working effectively and sometimes longer than we would like is sometimes necessary, but it should not be the norm.
We can all play a proactive role in changing the association of unsustainable hours with success. And we do that by spotting the signs of burnout – in others and in ourselves, speaking up to ensure we change the culture and ensure the well-being of our colleagues, and role modelling the right behaviours.
1. Spotting the signs
It’s important to know the signs you should be looking out for and how you identify those colleagues most at risk of burnout. While not all burnout leads to employees quitting, the behaviours demonstrated by those burned out and those quitting are similar. According to Timothy Gardner and Peter Hom, following detailed research on the topic of quitting, there are 13 key signs to look out for – including decreased productivity, reduced focus on job related matters, and expressing dissatisfaction with their supervisors more frequently than usual.
While most of us complain from time to time about tiredness, exhaustion and significant disengagement are very different. By being aware of these 13 behaviours (and more), we are not only better positioned to support the burned out individual in what is a challenging period, we are also able to be more cognisant of the impact his or her behaviours impact the rest of the team.
2. Holding up the mirror
Of course it is much easier to observe these behaviours in others, but we must also be able to spot these behaviours in ourselves. Particularly for top performers who always want to give 100% and sometimes see themselves as invincible to the stresses of work life, it is important to pause and ask if one’s pace is sustainable.
3. Speaking up
Once we have identified the signs of burnout, we must take action and the first step is to talk about it. Ignoring the real challenge of burnout and hoping that one good night’s sleep will address the exhaustion is far from realistic. By talking with colleagues who have been affected by burnout, we are able to address it head on.
Arianna Huffington first started speaking up about burnout after her own personal experiences and has since reached millions of employees – and students who will go into the workforce. When asked about why she has been so proactive in getting the message out to millions of people, Arianna talked about the importance of changing perceptions for the next generation so they are able to associate success with sleep-rich careers.  Sweeping it under the carpet will only lead to the next generation emulating poor behaviours.
4. Being a role model
Finally, role modelling the behaviours is critical. Talking about burnout and how we want to change it will have very little impact if each and every one of us doesn’t commit to changing our behaviours. This isn’t easy – bad habits die hard. However, if we are to enjoy fulfilling careers over the long term, and ensure the next generation of leaders have healthier lifestyles, then we must respond to this call to action.