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Beating burnout: What it is and what causes it?

Beating burnout: What it is and what causes it?

Welcome to part one of a three-part series on Beating Burnout. In the first instalment, Robyn Tyler writes about her experiences with burnout, its symptoms and the leading causes behind it.

Labelled an "occupational phenomenon" by the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout has become one of the most significant on-the-job hazards facing workers today. It's prevalent, pervasive and widely misunderstood. Less than a year after the World Health Organisation  recognised burnout, burnout levels went through the roof.

Beating burnout: What it is and what causes it?

Massey Business School's Professor Jarrod Haar estimated burnout levels to be 8% before COVID-19. New data collected after the pandemic shows that 22% of employees are at a high risk of burnout, with managers at an even higher risk level at 27%.

Our workforce is suffering a COVID hangover, with burnout levels remaining high. Kiwis are more likely to suffer burnout than any other country.

Burnout has disastrous effects in all areas of life. It's costing our finances. There are organisational costs in lost productivity, sick leave and national costs in healthcare services.

But most importantly, it's costing our health.

A 2017 study reviewed decades of research and linked job burnout to many health problems, including coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, insomnia, and depressive symptoms. It can lead to smoking, drinking more alcohol, and not getting enough sleep, which can have downstream biological consequences that can lead to health issues linked to heart attacks and strokes.

My journey with burnout

I first heard the term burnout years ago while working in a busy, fast-paced workplace. I was concerned to see my colleagues, primarily middle management, behaving in ways I would now recognise as burnout.

As a leader, I used to focus on what individuals could do to bolster their resilience. The rhetoric was that people needed to be more resilient to cut it in the workplace. Burnout is often considered an individual weakness or a failure to handle workplace stress, yet burnout points directly to workplace environment and culture issues.

It wasn't until one of my direct reports was diagnosed with burnout by their GP that I realised I needed to know more. What I learned opened my eyes to how prevalent and misunderstood burnout is and the evidence-backed actions we can all take to create conditions that lessen the likelihood of burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a psychological syndrome that is specifically related to and caused by prolonged, high-level workplace stress.

The key dimensions are:

  • A chronic, overwhelming exhaustion that doesn't change after taking a break, leaving you feeling depleted and unmotivated all or most of the time.
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job.
  • A sense of feeling ineffective, feeling like you're not accomplishing what you expected.

It's not:

  • Everyday stress, such as feeling tired after a stressful situation at work.
  • Something you can rebound from after a long weekend or holiday.
  • Caused by factors outside the workplace (although I suspect factors outside of work may reduce your resilience to workplace stress, perhaps leaving you more susceptible to burnout).

Numerous studies show it's highly prevalent in our workplaces, and it is on the rise.

The six main causes of burnout

We tend to think of burnout as a problem that employees should fix by getting therapy, practising relaxation techniques or changing jobs. But it's not a personal issue; it's a workplace issue.

It's been over 40 years since world expert Christina Maslach wrote about workplace trauma and burnout.

She's a psychology professor emerita at UC Berkeley, and her latest book, The Burnout Challenge, is a must-read.

Maslach pioneered research on the definition, predictors, and measurement of job burnout. Through extensive research over three decades, Maslach uncovered the six leading causes of burnout.

  • Overwork

There are no surprises here, and long hours alone aren't necessarily the problem. Burnout occurs when we lack the resources to do what's asked of us. It's much more likely that we must work long hours to keep afloat of what's coming at us. Managers need to ensure that they have realistic expectations of workers. We can't ask people to do more with less indefinitely.

As managers, we must recognise that the team will often have a clearer view of what will—and won't—move the needle regarding results. Collaboration is important.

  • Lack of control

Having little or no control over how we do our job or perform our roles is stressful. When we perceive we can influence decisions that affect our work, exercise professional autonomy, and gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, people are more likely to experience job engagement.

People need to feel that their employer is confident enough in them to give them the space to innovate.

  • Values conflict

The greater the gap between our individual and organisational values, the more we feel we need to make trade-offs. Over time, this misalignment wears us down. Problems arise when there is a disconnect between what workers stand for and believe in and what the organisation asks them.

Regularly reflecting on company values together through a co-creation method can be a helpful way to resolve some of this tension.

  • Insufficient reward

It's not just financial rewards, including tangible and non-tangible benefits. We experience this when we perceive an imbalance between how much we feel we invest in our job and how much we feel rewarded for that investment. When we feel that our work and ourselves are devalued by being under-rewarded, this increases our vulnerability to burnout.

 Recognition doesn't always have to come in the form of salary bumps or bonuses. The intrinsic and social rewards that come from credit and gratitude can do wonders.

  •  Absence of fairness

We're highly attuned to fairness and how resources and opportunities are allocated. This affects engagement, turnover, and productivity. Everyone needs a fair shot and an equal opportunity. Glass ceilings, sticky floors and favouritism create toxic environments. Cynicism, anger, and hostility arise when we feel it's unfair.

Regular reflection across an organisation on what's working, what's not, and what you'd change can help reveal and address this.

  • Isolation

Humans are hardwired for connection, and loneliness has a negative impact on our well-being. Supportive, trusting, and connected relationships at work are powerful buffers against burnout. No job exists in isolation. Each is part of a community, which must provide support, honesty, and shared accountability.

Today's workforce is lonely, and managers must work to strengthen the social bonds of belonging. When people don't feel the need to hide their true selves at work and when technology helps them make meaningful connections with coworkers, they are less lonely. And there's increasing evidence on the importance of having a best friend at work.

Addressing burnout as a team exercise can be helpful, as shared storytelling in a safe and collaborative space augments and nurtures these connections.

Stages of burnout

Suzi McAlpine is New Zealand's expert on the burnout problem. Suzi is a senior executive and company director turned leadership coach who wrote an incredible book titled Beyond Burnout.

Part of her book covers the four stages of burnout. Being aware of the signs of burnout and understanding which stage someone is at supports us to make better decisions on what to do next.

  • Stage one
    • Increased energy and enthusiasm.
    • Feeling overworked.
    • Trying to plough through.
    • Too busy to take time off.
    • Working after-hours.
    • Doubts with coping with work.
    • Feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt.
  • Stage two
    • Short-lived bouts of irritation.
    • Complaining about others' work quality.
    • Increasing tiredness and anxiety.
    • Feelings of stagnation and detachment.
    • Difficulty concentrating.
    • Reduced ability to manage time effectively.
    • Unable to cope with the pressure of work commitments.
  • Stage three
    • General discontentment about work.
    • Increasing anger and resentment.
    • Lowered self-esteem.
    • Growing guilt.
    • Going through the motions at work and at home.
    • Loss of enjoyment outside of work.
  • Stage four
    • Feelings of failure.
    • Reluctant to communicate.
    • Avoiding colleagues.
    • Aversion to everyone and everything.
    • Withdrawing and giving up.
    • Increasing isolation.
    • Absenteeism or presenteeism.
    • Extreme distress.
    • Substance use/abuse.

Take a moment: have you seen these signs in yourself or others? Burnout is highly prevalent so odds are you've encountered it in some way.

Tune in for the next instalment where I bust some myths about burnout and look at some actions you can take. 

PS: If you'd prefer this list in rap form you can check out Mark Gorkin's work.


Part 2: Beating Burnout: Mythbusting and taking action
Part 3: Beating Burnout: What to do if you think you're burned out


This blog series is inspired by the free webinar Beating burnout (myths, insights and strategies). The recording is available to watch now on our Insights page.

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