Burnout is not a new topic, but one that’s certainly not looking to go away any time soon. It has become alarmingly common, with many workplaces progressively expecting their people to do more and to do it faster. Add to that a global pandemic, less defined lines between work life and home life, and more time spent on our devices making it harder to switch off, and you can start to see why chronic stress, and burnout rates have been on the rise in the last couple of years.

Stress vs burnout

We know that a little bit of stress is good for us – it boosts our brainpower, motivates us to reach our goals, makes us more resilient and it can even increase our immunity. Too much stress, and prolonged stress on the other hand, may cause anxiety, poor health and, if not addressed— burnout. So how do we get that balance right, and how do we avoid burnout before it’s too late? What can we do to help ourselves, and those around us who might already be at a critical point?

Spot the signs

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”[1]. Interestingly, it’s classified as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, rather than a medical condition, solidifying the link with it as a work-related issue.

Burnout is not something that occurs overnight and because it’s a gradual process, it can be hard to see the signs and take them seriously. However, it’s worth being aware and paying attention, because learning to recognise the signs of stress is the important first step to catching and correcting excess or chronic stress— before it’s too late.

Burnout symptoms span our emotional, physical, mental and behavioural states, and include:

  • Feeling exhausted, empty and drained
  • Becoming increasingly cynical, experiencing decreased compassion and empathy
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits
  • Frequent headaches or muscle pain
  • Difficulty solving problems and making decisions
  • Decreased productivity and increased forgetfulness
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities and isolating yourself from others
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope

Now, there’s no need to panic if you recognise any of the above symptoms in yourself—or in someone else. Also panicking can equal more stress, so avoid that! Being aware that something isn’t right, and acknowledging where you’re at, is a crucial first step to get back on track. You can begin by simply saying it out loud: “I am feeling stressed”. As tempting as it can be, don’t ignore any warning signs or assume they will magically go away.

Identify and manage the stress

The next step, once you’ve realised you are experiencing the symptoms of chronic stress, is to reflect on the things, situations and people that are causing you stress, and try to identify which of these factors you can control.

What can you do to reduce or remove the sources of stress? If they’re outside of your control, what can you do to manage the stress?  

Workload is, unsurprisingly, often the biggest stressor in the workplace. Most managers would be acutely aware of this, and the effect it has on both them and their team. Other significant stressors at work include perceived unfair treatment, lack of communication from managers, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure.

If you are experiencing any of these kinds of stressors, it’s important that you let your direct manager know, or at minimum, tell someone you feel comfortable talking to at work. By identifying the root causes of the stress that you are experiencing and then speaking up, you can then begin to create a plan, hopefully alongside your managers— to address the stressors.

For organisations, burnout is costly and can trigger a downward spiral in both individual, and organisational performance. Burnout is the opposite of high engagement, so it’s in everyone’s interest to reverse it.  

Avoiding and reversing burnout

In order to cope with the stress life throws at us and avoid burnout in the first place, we need to be intentional about our wellbeing and build our resilience. The same goes for the road to our recovery, if—unfortunately—we’re already there.

The good news is that there are some simple, practical and powerful tools that work for both. There’s nothing revolutionary on the list that follows, but they are the things that tend to slip in times of stress, and what you can use to help yourself avoid, or reverse burnout:

  1. Get enough sleep. For most people this looks like seven to nine hours per night – ditch Netflix and scrolling on your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  2. Give your body nourishing and energising food.  Make good choices a habit and skip alcohol.
  3. Build positive relationships; socialise with people who give you energy, not those who drain it.
  4. Say no and set boundaries for your wellbeing. This is particularly important when stress levels are high.
  5. Practice meditation and mindfulness; both help you lower stress levels and blood pressure.
  6. Restore your energy by scheduling quiet time; it’s good for us to be bored at times.
What can leaders do?

A study by Gallup[2] showed that the “primary determinants of burnout are largely a reflection of how effectively someone is managed”. This means a massive opportunity for managers to prevent and reverse burnout, while increasing productivity by understanding the burnout causes, and creating a culture of wellbeing that reduces it.  

If you are a people leader, it’s essential that you support your employees, and don’t forget that your managers are employees, and need support too. They’re actually more likely to experience burnout than the people they manage[3]. Here are five ways that will help you create a positive employee experience for all your employees:

  1. Listen to work-related problems –check-in with your employees frequently
  2. Create an environment where teamwork thrives
  3. Make everyone’s opinion count –involve your employees and ask for their input
  4. Make work purposeful – create a connection between the employees’ work and the organisation’s mission and purpose
  5. Focus on strengths-based feedback and development – identify strengths and guide them into tasks that maximises them.  

Employee wellbeing has to be a priority. If a business is to be successful, employee wellbeing cannot be treated as an afterthought, or ‘nice-to have’—it simply doesn’t fly these days. Burnout is a growing problem, that needs to be taken seriously. For the employees’ sake of course, but also for the business, and the customers.  

How we can help

The People Place can help with anything from forming a strategy around employee experience and wellbeing, to manager coaching, and providing team strengths profile training. To find out more, reach out for a chat on +64 9 300 7224 or hello@thepeopleplace.co.nz  

[1] https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

[2] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/282659/employee-burnout-perspective-paper.aspx

[3] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/389057/antidote-manager-burnout.aspx