Dropping like flies: the rise of workplace burnout and how to tackle it
Burnout is on the rise. It is a growing problem for the modern workplace, having an impact on organisational costs, as well as employee health and well-being. These include possible long-term health risks and, due to its contagious nature, a toxic working environment of low morale, scapegoating, and increased office politics.
Organisations have focused on burnout to protect their profits, placing blame for lowered performance on individual employees, rather than making adequate adjustments to safeguard against stress. This emphasis on the employee has led to psychometrically profiling those that may be at risk of burnout due to their psychological make-up, rather than organisations taking responsibility and making systematic changes to reduce stress caused by structural level problems.
This blame game is often unhelpful. Not just for the employees in question, but also because it risks a skills shortage in certain professions such as health and social care. Plus, it further contributes to the burnout cycle: with limited staff and resources, demands are placed on fewer employees.
Research into burnout has been linked to office politics, menial working tasks that interfere with work duties and high job demands that lead to exhaustion. Rising workloads and long hours are the main culprits; however, some employees are better able to cope or are more adaptable than others.
Perception of stress is also a contributing factor. If you perceive you do not have the right resources to cope with your workload, or perceive it to be more than you can cope with, you are much more likely to succumb to stress-related disorders.
Individual differences and personality types also play a role in the risk of burnout. Type A personalities, for example – who have a mix of behavioural traits that include hardiness, impatience, competitiveness and drive – and people who like to have large amounts of control, are also linked to higher rates of stress at work. Research shows that employees with these personalities tend to be more restless, hostile and time-conscious, which puts them at greater risk of workplace stress.
It is important, however, not to make banal assumptions when it comes to understanding how different people experience stress. This runs the risk of organisations screening out applicants for jobs on the basis of personality or attributing blame to employees, rather than taking responsibility as an organisation to make adequate changes to safeguard their employees from stress.
Many global organisations have intervention plans that place the onus on the employee to manage their health and well-being through training programmes such as building resilience and coping skills. But this often has the semblance of blaming employees, while abdicating responsibility and not making any real changes to policies. The reality is that organisations are stressful, often purporting an employee wellness agenda that isn’t really implemented in practice.
There are three main dimensions of burnout according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most commonly used burnout scale: exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of personal accomplishment, with exhaustion being the most obviously displayed. Signs of burnout can vary between employees and manifest in multiple industries, from healthcare and education settings to legal and corporate finance firms.
Burnout causes a range of psychological and physical problems and can affect people long after they no longer face the stressful situation. These include fatigue, irritability, depression, withdrawal, mental and physical health problems, and self-medication with alcohol and drug use. Consequently, it is something that employees and organisations must manage carefully.
Employees come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, it is imperative that managers and organisations do not prescribe a one-size fits all model to managing employee well-being. Instead, they should work on an individual basis with each employee, finding flexible interventions and providing an adaptable and agile working environment along the way.
Many workplaces are built around teamwork, collaboration and endless meetings to harness creativity. This model does not bode well, however, for people whose creative juices and energy levels are depleted through constant collaboration. In fact, many individuals, especially those that are more introverted, feel exhausted and find it difficult to get their work done in this kind of environment.
As such, organisations can provide a space for these personalities to work alone, where their productivity increases and creative juices can flow. Similarly, organisations can work with employees, providing agile working conditions to help create a sustainable working culture and work-life balance, thus reducing the likelihood of burnout.
Of course, individuals have a role to play too. It is important that people manage their own personal expectations, harnessing their skills and reflecting on their own personal values. This is particularly the case if you’re working in a role that does not readily align with your own values or predisposition. It’s important to reflect on what matters to you, as living an inauthentic life can lead to burnout when your personal values are conflicted.
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