15 things every leader needs to know about burnout

22 Mar 2022

Missed the Unmind x Culture Amp webinar: Preventing burnout through cultural change? Don’t stress, here are 15(!) takeaways, plus another chance to watch. Learn what burnout is (and isn’t), the global trends that hint at what’s ahead, and what role managers can play to save staff from the red-hot road to ruin.

1. Burnout has a very specific definition

In 2019, burnout made it into the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases. Pegged as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, the health body spells out “it is not classified as a medical condition [their use of bold, not ours] … and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Kicking off the Unmind x Culture Amp webinar, Dr Sofia Gerbase (Clinical Psychologist, here at Unmind) gave context to the WHO’s watertight definition: 

“What I think is important to highlight here is that burnout is defined as a syndrome,” she explained. “So, it’s not a disease or illness … and this means it applies specifically to the occupational context, not other areas of our lives, and it really doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

“It’s related to chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.”

2. Rates might be soaring

Despite the strict meaning, science around burnout remains a bit hazy. A 2017 academic study proved this – crunching data from 40-years of research, where rates among some groups were as high as 69%. That said, even the more cautious studies showed at least 1 in 10 had burnout. 

During Covid’s early days, burnout seemed to be everywhere. In a McKinsey survey, half (49%) of all respondents said they felt ‘at least somewhat’ burned out. Elsewhere, a Canadian study revealed a 63% spike, post-pandemic.

Dr Sofia: “While it’s important to be cautious around these figures” (see below), “at the same time, it is still concerning. Lots of people are likely to be on the road to burnout.”

3. Think the end of Covid will mean less burnout? Don’t be so sure

“There is good reason to think that 2022 may unfortunately lead to more burnout than we observed during the pandemic,” said Jessica Brannigan, Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp, who co-led the webinar. “As the Great Resignation gets underway, many organisations will be forced to maintain the same level of productivity, but perhaps with fewer of their current employees.

“Even those organisations who are able to fill vacant roles quickly will find that new employees need much more mentoring and support, which will put further strain on managers.”

Jessica makes clear that without a plan to combat employee churn, companies risk getting clobbered by a double disaster: burnout among those who stay, as well as “turnover contagion.”

"Stress is too much – too much energy, too much adrenaline, too many demands. Burnout is not enough – feeling empty, exhausted, beyond the point of caring.”

4. “I’m feeling burned out” is the new “I’ve got the flu”

One reason the WHO is so rigid on the boundaries of what burnout is (and isn’t) might be the awkward fact that, in wider society, the meaning’s been mangled. 

Far too often, people point to burnout when they’re feeling tired, stressed, or overwhelmed – all normal emotions, And though each can develop into a mental health disorder, if symptoms stick around or deepen, negative emotions alone are not the same as burnout. Just like a stuffy nose is just a cold, not full-blown influenza.

In the webinar, Dr Sofia drew the line between status quo and syndrome: “A useful way of remembering the difference between burnout and stress is to think of stress as too much – so, too much energy coming in, too much adrenaline, too many demands.

“And burnout being not enough – so feeling empty, exhausted, kind of just beyond the point of caring.”

5. Managing burnout takes collective – not just individual – action

When talking about burnout, it’s easy to focus on the who (not WHO, but who), rather than how or why. This is valid, but also short-sighted. As Dr Sofia noted, burnout doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and is the result of criss-crossing factors.

“Of course, developing skills to successfully manage stress is important,” Dr Sofia said. “But it’s also important to emphasise the responsibility of successfully managing stress is also at an organisational level. Organisations have a key role to play.”

How companies approach their role is crucial. 

You can be reactive – that is, trying to help staff who have already burned out (though there’s a higher chance these workers will be off sick, or looking to quit). 

Or proactive. This means putting things in place to make burnout symptoms of burnout far less likely. Think healthy boundaries, manager training, or a mentally healthy culture.

6. A proactive approach starts with data

We often say at Unmind that ‘What get measured gets managed.” And that’s 100% true of burnout. 

“[It] might sound rather obvious,” said Jessica, “but if you’re not collecting employee feedback data, then you will be relying on anecdotal evidence only, and likely missing opportunities to take action earlier.

“If you have data across the whole organisation … you can empower your leaders to take action where it really matters. Having data at these macro and micro levels can ensure that those in the best positions to take action, whether that’s at the exec level, or at the local level, have the data that they need to determine what those actions would be.”

7. Want to spot burnout? Look for three key signs

“Burnout is characterised by three main dimensions,” Dr Sofia said. “So firstly, exhaustion. This means low physical, emotional and cognitive energy, which enters kind of a downward spiral and results in exhaustion. 

“Secondly, depersonalisation. This means developing increased cynicism and mental distance from our work, and often it’s also couple with negative feelings towards work – so you might feel quite disconnected from the aspects of our job that we previously really enjoyed. 

“And finally, inefficacy. So we might start to doubt the quality and meaning of our work. We might experience reduced feelings of personal accomplishment, we might also feel hopeless about our power to affect meaningful change through our work.”

“Often it’s systemic issues that really contribute to burnout. While there might be great policies in place for annual leave, or workload, if we’re not paying attention to the patterns of systemic workload pressures, that’s when people experience more burnout.”

8. Burnout doesn’t spark overnight – which means it can be stopped

Burnout isn’t binary. It’s a slow and devastating process that unspools over time. The upside, however, is that burnout is not inevitable. But, as identified by Dr Sofia, “It’s really important to act early.” 

The syndrome plays out in four clear phases – honeymoon, onset of stress, chronic stress, burnout. Managed effectively, employees can stay in the most healthy one (that’ll be honeymoon) for good. 

“But, actually,” Dr Sofia added, “the reality is that few people do. And that’s why it’s so important to develop a preventative approach.”

9. Burnout can blunt engagement

Within Culture Amp’s vast global dataset, employees who strongly agree with the statement, “I rarely feel overstressed by my work” are 89.5% engaged in their role. Meanwhile, those who strongly disagree have an engagement score of just 39.7%. 

And if that’s not enough to suggest stress kills worker passion, there’s more. Those who strongly disagree with the above are more than 1.5x more likely to leave their job in the next 12-months. 

It’s not entirely straightforward (Jess admitted that, “Highly stressed individuals can present as highly engaged”), but what’s clear is, “both the individual and the organisational cost being paid here in terms of eroding engagement at an aggregate level.” 

10. Symptoms are many, and plenty scary (for employee and employer)

When proper, real-life burnout hits, there are so many negative side-effects that you have to divide them into categories. They are:

  • Physical: Tension, chronic headaches, stomach problems, exhaustion.

  • Emotional: Emotional blunting, helplessness, cynicism, depletion.

  • Behavioural: Withdrawal, irritability, neglecting personal needs, loss of motivation.

But that’s just in the individual. Remember: burnout ripples soon reach the workplace. “At an organisational level,” said Dr Sofia, “burnout is closely linked to productivity and absenteeism, as well as reduced work engagement and lower job satisfaction.” 

11. Burnout is more than a syndrome, it’s a culture (and your organisation might encourage it)

Jessica: “Oftentimes it’s the systemic issues that are really contributing to burnout. So, whilst there might be great policies in place for annual leave, or great policies in place for workload, for example … if we’re not paying attention to the patterns of systemic workload pressures, at the very local level, that’s when people tend to experience more burnout.”

Dr Sofia: “It’s also really important to think about our culture as a society, and the role this plays. So, really thinking about the societal expectations we have around performance, achievement, this always-on culture we’ve created, maybe that badge of honour that comes with working long hours, and the pressure we might have experienced to perform from that as well.”

“At an organisational level, burnout is closely linked to productivity, absenteeism, reduced work engagement and lower job satisfaction.”

12. Employees have the power to stop burnout 

Successfully beating burnout is a team game, for sure. Though Dr Sofia was keen to outline strategies for employees to try. 

Self-care: “It’s about making sure we’re attending to our foundations – so getting enough sleep, looking at our diet, drinking enough water, exercise, limiting alcohol – all of those things we know we need to prioritise. And also engaging in those activities that comfort us and make us feel good.

“But it’s not only about chocolate and bubble baths. It’s also about having boundaries, saying no, and really knowing what to prioritise so we don’t neglect ourselves.” 

Challenging beliefs: “We might think that we don’t deserve [to take time out], or that it’s selfish. We might hold unhelpful beliefs that act as internal stressors. We might have perfectionist tendencies or believe that we always need to give 120% in everything we do. It’s important to gently challenge those beliefs when they come up.”

Sphere of control: “So the importance of doing things like attending to work-life balance, using up our holiday allowance, leaving work on time when we can, maybe having boundaries around when we check work emails, and also knowing when to delegate, and ask for help when we need it.

“It also means accepting the things we can’t change. It doesn’t mean that we welcome or condone it, it just means that we’re making a conscious choice to focus our energies on the things we do have power over.”

13. And leaders have a duty to support

As Jess showcased on the webinar, Culture Amp’s 2021 Benchmark (a data stack from 250+ organisations, and 1.3m answered questions) holds a mirror to what matters to modern employees. 

What matters most? Among the top responses were: 

  • “My manager takes time to get to know me.” – 85% favourable

  • “My manager regularly checks in with how I am doing (not just work related).” – 81% favourable

Jess noted that “It’s likely no surprise that getting to know your direct report, and checking in, is an important driver of perceptions of management.” Of course, it’s what managers do with these insights is where the real impact – and lasting change – lies. 

14. Managers can lead the change

If employees are the heart of your organisation, consider managers the veins and arteries. As Dr Sofia said to viewers: “Managers are in a really unique position to role model a healthy work-life balance, and create team environments that can buffer against stress.” 

This might be fostering healthy work relationships. Clear and open comms around cultural change. Identifying stressors in your team, then setting realistic targets. Or feeding concerns up to senior leadership. 

By doing this, managers immediately become more attuned for when an employee shows signs of burnout, and needs extra support.

15. Start today: upskill your leaders

Want to prevent burnout via cultural change? Proper, evidence-based mental health training is perhaps the most effective starting point.

“At Unmind, our Mental Health Foundations Training equips users with the skills and knowledge they need to support someone else through a difficult time,” Dr Sofia said during the webinar.

“It was created by our team of clinical psychologists, and introduces some basic principles around recognising signs of stress, having supportive conversations, and knowing when to signpost onward for further support. While also equipping users to know the boundaries of their roles, and to attend to their own mental health and wellbeing.”

Beyond the fact that just learning about mental health can improve wellbeing, a 2017 study showed manager training had a major impact on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour towards colleagues experiencing mental illness. Most impressive was the drop on work-related sickness. 

Oh, and a ROI of 10:1.

Missed the webinar? Watch it below

To find out more about how to drive cultural change around mental wellbeing in your organisation, book a chat with an Unminder today.

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