The “B” Word – Are We Handling Burnout The Right Way?

  • Ezra
  • October 11th, 2021

It has been described as the pandemic within the pandemic: chronic overwork and stress that is leaving millions of working people around the world burned out and on the verge of quitting their jobs. But, what exactly is burnout and what can we do about it? 

what-is-burnout

Opinions vary, but on one point there is complete consensus: we ignore burnout at our peril.

“Burnout existed long before the pandemic, it just seems that (the pandemic) has helped bring it more to our attention,” said Erin Strube, Director of Leadership and Organizational Development for Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The impact of the events of the last 18 months… has been profoundly personal. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach for supporting people through this time.”

Strube recently joined executive leadership coaches Jeff Theeuwen and Fabianna Tassini for Ezra’s first ‘Unfiltered’ event, a series where HR and business leaders come together with Executive Coaches to have candid conversations about the most pressing challenges at work. 

The great awakening

Ezra’s parent company LHH (The Adecco Group) recently completed a ground-breaking survey of more than 14,000 working people from around the world on the state of work and wellness. More than one third of all respondents (38%) said they were suffering from burnout over the last 12 months; another 32 per cent said their mental health had declined over the same period. 

For business leaders like Strube, those results are hardly surprising. She said the pandemic has led to a “great awakening” about the threat posed by burnout. “We thought we were aware. We were trying our best to increase self-awareness with time and experience. The pandemic has really brought it to the surface in a big way. People are asking, ‘how am I actually feeling and does it impact the work I’m doing?’”  

Is it burnout, or is it something else?

Strube and other panelists agreed part of the challenge with pandemic burnout is that the symptoms – exhaustion, disengagement at work, a loss of productivity – are very similar to those exhibited by people with more serious mental illness. Theeuwen, a Toronto-based leadership and career coach, said managers need to be aware that while some people may need a break from work to recover, others may need focused, professional help.

“If someone is burned out and takes a vacation, the burnout may mitigate or even be eliminated,” he said. “In depression, that will not likely not be the case.”

Of greater and more immediate concern, he said, is whether or not business leaders are assessing the work environment they have created and asking whether it is contributing to burnout.

“From a manager’s perspective, it’s easy to find ourselves in a perpetual spiral,” he said. “There are great demands being put on organizations to produce. But, partly as a result of the pandemic, we’re also finding that we have this ‘great resignation’ of people who are burned out. As our (human) resources are diminished, the problem is perpetuated. We have less (already stressed) people and those people are being reassigned the work of those who have left.”

The New Jersey-based Tassini, who has two decades of experience in HR and coaching, said it’s also important to remember that whether it’s burnout or something more serious, many people do not like to share their vulnerabilities with co-workers or managers. Revealing these conditions is still often associated with stigma, which really stops a lot of people from getting help. 

“I think we’re getting better as organizations but I think there’s still that question, ‘do I disclose and ask for help or just keep it to myself?’ In both instances, I think there’s a downward spiral because if I keep to myself, my performance is being questioned. And (if that happens) then it just exacerbates the problem.” 

Asking for help takes courage

Employers are struggling to come up with the proper response, Tassini noted. Some are making better use of employee assistance programs, while others are trying to be more creative by offering benefits such as a week of paid “stress” leave. Although gestures like that are no doubt appreciated, she said, they do not necessarily address the systemic or structural issues that are contributing to burnout.

Many people feel burned out because they’re being asked to do more in the same amount of time, she said. Or, they are working longer hours to complete a growing list of tasks, created in part because other people are resigning or off on stress leave. “A week off is okay, but unless the work goes away, it just sits there. When we come back, we’ve just got more work to do. So, we haven’t really addressed the systemic problem.”

All the panelists agreed leaders have to make a deliberate effort to address burnout. The first step is to adopt and apply a “coaching mindset” to all interactions with the people they lead. Managers need to spend more time asking people how they really feel, and be prepared to push beyond the perfunctory answers they may be getting from their employees. 

The second is to ensure leaders are taking care of themselves. The LHH-TAG research survey found that burnout was highest among senior leaders and managers, and particularly high among younger leaders. Tassini said leaders must be reminded that “asking for help is considered a leadership attribute. It’s leadership courage, not a lack of leadership capacity.”  

Strube noted the first step to addressing burnout is to create an environment where everyone feels safe enough to share their true feelings. “I do think that it’s important as a leader to realize that two people come to work each day: the person… and the employee,” Strube said.  

“As leaders, we need to take care of both of them. I always try to make sure I stay connected to what’s going on with my team personally so I can make sure I can support them professionally.”

What Is Burnout?

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