Burnout is a workplace problem, not a worker problem

Burnout isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been a threat for some time. But in 2020, burnout became pervasive. It spread throughout our homes and workplaces, just as quickly as the virus which turned our lives upside down. The difference is that, for the virus, the global medical community sprung into action to protect our communities and find a vaccine. However, for the burnout pandemic, there has been little change in terms of targeted action. While there are countless blogs, books and contributions calling out the problem, it seems that discussion and action in the most important places — our workplaces — has been eerily silent.

In an interview for the Harvard Business Review, researchers Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach explain that burnout is a workplace problem, not a worker problem. Their research shows that burnout happens where there’s a bad fit, or a mismatch, between an organisation and its employees. This mismatch could be a result of a number of factors, including the amount of control that workers’ feel they have, fair treatment, a sense of community, workload levels, the doling out of rewards, and organisational values. We’d take this a step further and say that it’s also a leadership problem. A leader is responsible for the wellbeing of those who they lead — if the environment they create for their people leads them to burnout, then the leader needs to be held accountable.

So why is it that so many workplaces and leaders are so quiet about this issue? In our experience, we’ve seen companies and leaders acknowledge that there’s an issue as it’s often impossible to deny that people are overworked when there’s a vast increase in staff sickness However, it seems that little action is taken to support employees and to have a collective, company-wide discussion about the causes and impact. At The Future Kind Collective, this is something that we are incredibly passionate about. A huge part of the reason why Alicia and I wanted to launch a business was because we wanted to build a truly people-centric company, where the wellbeing of our people is respected and protected. We have seen firsthand the impact that prolific burnout has on teams and individuals, and we want to prove that there is a different, kinder and more humane way to do business.

Last year, I wrote an article about my personal experience with burnout and actions that individuals can take to recover. But now, I wanted to write an article that shifts the responsibility from individuals to organisations, and which lays out what leaders can do to support their people. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to highlight the important warning signs of burnout, and to create a blueprint for individuals and organisations to recover and thrive.

Firstly, how are you?

Let’s start with a few questions:

  • Do you constantly feel exhausted no matter how much sleep you get?
  • Do you have a sense that nothing you do will make things any better?
  • Do you find that you care less about things that are usually important to you?

If your answer is yes to one or more of these questions then it’s likely that you could be suffering from burnout.

This wouldn’t be surprising. A study published in 2019 found that 90% of participants reported feeling stressed “most of the time”. This was recorded before the pandemic which we know has exacerbated the impact on our mental health, adding to an already stressed and overworked population. If ‘unprecedented’ was the top word of 2020 then ‘burnout’ was definitely in the top 10. It’s even been recognised by the World Health Organisation, who have classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”, describing it as “work-stress-induced emotional and physical exhaustion”.

From both mine and Alicia’s personal experience with burnout, we can confirm that it’s both debilitating and diminishing. It rarely comes on its own, and likes to invite its cruel friends — like anxiety and depression — along to join it. What makes burnout even more worrying is that many of us don’t know that we’re suffering from it, even when we’re close to breaking point. To make matters worse, we’ve developed a toxic workplace culture in the UK where “soldiering on” is celebrated, busyness is a status symbol and our self-worth is based on our productivity. This leads us to the reality that we live in whereby, when we’re sick, we’re more likely to work through it, with one study suggesting that over 80% of 24 to 35-year-olds don’t take time off when ill.

The 3 signs of burnout

Throughout our research, there have been 3 symptoms linked to burnout that have come up time and again, and they are:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment
  • Depersonalisation

We’ll go through each of these one-by-one to share a bit more about what they are and how they show up from our research and personal experiences.

Emotional exhaustion

This is described as the “fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long”. It can feel like we’re perpetually exhausted, no matter how much we rest. This was a huge one for me, and also the one that took me the longest to recover from.

I felt like I had been exhausted for years, even though I’m actually a pretty good sleeper, but nothing seemed to shift my constant lack of energy. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the concept of emotional exhaustion. To me, exhaustion was very much a physical thing, something you get from working out too much or burning the candle at both ends. But now, this idea of caring fatigue really resonates with me. I often describe the moment I met my breaking point as like my mind was split into so many tiny pieces that there was nothing left. What I meant by this was that I was juggling way too many things that I cared deeply about, from client work, internal projects and leadership responsibilities, through to exercising, socialising and being a good friend/partner/daughter/[insert other roles and relationships I was juggling]. The result was that I had nothing left to give to any of them.

The scary thing about this particular symptom is that pretty much every system in our body is affected by our emotions. Emotions aren’t just fluffy, innocuous feelings trapped in our mind — they’re neurological events which means that emotions aren’t just happening in your brain, they’re also playing a role in your entire nervous system. When we get stuck in a long term negative cycle of emotions, like returning to a stressful job everyday, this starts to show up in our physical health, such as weakened blood vessels, digestive problems and even heart disease. This explains why I often felt like I had sore muscles when I was exhausted, even though I hadn’t worked out in weeks.

Decreased sense of accomplishment

This is the feeling that nothing you do makes any difference, or a deep feeling of pointlessness and futility that you can’t seem to overcome.

This can play out as a heightened or constant level of self-doubt. You might feel that you’re losing confidence in your ability to do your job, even though you know what you’re doing or you’ve been doing it for years. You might also feel like you’re working harder and harder, but you still seem to accomplish less than you usually would. In a culture that values productivity so highly, and where so many of us determine our self-worth by how productive we are, if we feel that we’re becoming gradually less productive, this can leave us in a pretty dark place. As a result, our self-belief starts to plummet.

For me, this looked like becoming easily overwhelmed by tasks that I’d usually breeze through. It was like my brain could not compute the simplest of tasks anymore. My job is very collaborative which is something that I love about it but, when I was at peak burnout, I found myself increasingly nervous about collaborating due to the risk that my lack of ability would be “found out”.

This is a dangerous place to be as it’s a perfect breeding ground for shame. Followers of Brené Brown — the acclaimed author, speaker and research professor who has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame — will know all about the threat of shame. Brené describes shame as the painful experience of believing we’re flawed, which leads us to believe that we aren’t worthy or that we’re simply not good enough. The reason shame is so dangerous is that it causes us to shrink, be silent, disconnect and disengage. As humans, we are built for connection and, without it, we start to lose ourselves. This is a slippery slope towards much more devastating conditions such as anxiety, depression and addiction.

Depersonalisation

The final sign is the sense that we’re losing who we are. It’s often described as an increase in cynicism and a decrease in empathy, caring and compassion. This can manifest itself as a growing feeling of detachment towards your usual personality and self. We might find ourselves saying all too often, “I’m just not feeling myself today.” This is a perfectly natural feeling when it’s felt from time to time, but if it lasts over days, weeks and months then this is something to dig into.

Depersonalisation often shows up as no longer finding joy in the things that we love. For example, you might usually be someone who enjoys working with people, but now you find yourself feeling irritated and angry towards them. I’m nodding my heads enthusiastically as I write this. I’m a pretty sociable person. I love hanging out with friends and colleagues, having a laugh and getting to know people better. This was certainly not the case when I was feeling burnt out. In fact, it can sometimes feel like the last thing that I wanted to do. To put it bluntly, every interaction can feel like an effort and an inconvenience.

This was true in Alicia’s experience, too. She says, “For someone who has always tried her very best to approach everything with a positive and generous energy, it was my optimism and empathy that took the biggest hit as a result of burnout. My usual ease, ability and drive to lead, provide guidance and advise her team was hugely compromised and resulted in me often feeling despondent and disconnected, compounding the feelings of emotional exhaustion and self-doubt.”

The scary thing about this one is that it can happen so gradually and subtly over time that we don’t even realise it’s happening, or that it’s being caused by our environment. We can start to embody our personality change and believe this is really who we are now, and there’s nothing we can do about it. For what it’s worth, we can change it. It is never too late to re-find ourselves and emerge out of the darkness as our true, wonderful and thoughtful selves.

Actions for leaders

As we’ve mentioned before, the first step to recovering from burnout is noticing the signs and being able to spot them in yourself and others. But since burnout is clearly a workplace problem, we don’t want to suggest that the onus is on individuals to “cure” themselves. It’s the responsibility of business leaders to support their people and protect their wellbeing — so it’s also on them to make changes.

From our experience, we believe there are 5 key actions that leaders should take to support their teams recover from, and more importantly to avoid, burnout:

  1. Create psychological safety
  2. Advocate sleep, rest and self-care
  3. Role model and insist upon setting boundaries
  4. Encourage people to spend time in nature
  5. Create meaning and purpose in your work

As with the last section, I’ll go through each of these one-by-one and share a bit more about why they are so impactful.

Create psychological safety

The Harvard Business Review describes psychological safety as

“the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake”

It’s the trust that anyone in the team can speak their mind, voice an opinion or challenge something without fear of negative consequences. We believe that this extends to being able to speak openly about our struggles in the confidence that this will not impact perceptions of our capability. It’s impossible to deal with a burnout issue in your company if your people are afraid of speaking up when they’re struggling. This is the case at every level of a business — psychological safety needs to be prevalent across the entire business, not just in pockets.

The tricky part is that it takes time to create psychological safety. You can’t click your fingers and there you have it. It’s built on trust which is developed through weeks, months, even years of what Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, describes as “small, subtle actions that signal to your people that they belong, that they are safe and that you care.”

To start to build psychological safety in your teams, we’d recommend training your managers to intentionally check-in on their teams during 121s which would look like spending at least half of the session understanding how an individual is really doing, rather than going straight into project updates and business as usual.

We’d suggest asking questions such as:

  • What energy/emotions are you bringing with you today?
  • What’s getting better for you/your project/the company?
  • What’s getting worse for you/your project/the company?
  • What’s overwhelming/frustrating you at the moment?
  • How does this make you feel?

These questions encourage openness and honesty between you and your team. Importantly, they invite critique which is key if you want to avoid being the boss where people tell you everything is fine while the ship is actually sinking.

It’s also important to show that you care at a company-level, too. This means over-communicating that you are listening and that you care in your company-wide communications. You can’t expect this to be a given — your people need to hear from you often. The downside to this approach is that it will take time to truly sink in so, in the meantime, we’d recommend creating a targeted wellbeing survey to help you understand how your team is doing and where you need to take action. We’d encourage you to design a survey to test all aspects of your business, from resourcing, project management, line management, career development, team building, and so on.

The key thing here is to encourage brutal honesty — it should feel uncomfortable! And when it comes to sharing this back with your teams, don’t sugarcoat the results. Be honest with your teams about where you’re letting them down and be clear about what you plan to do about it. Invite their input into the actions that you’re going to take — this will further build connection and trust between you.

Advocate sleep, rest and self-care

I know that it sounds so obvious that it’s almost patronising. But the truth is the truth — and that is that we are a chronically sleep-deprived nation. Few of us prioritise getting 7–8 hours of sleep like our life depends on it (which studies show that it does, with one suggesting that if you’re sleeping for less than seven hours a night, the impact on your health is as bad as smoking). Even when we’re so exhausted that we can barely keep our eyes open, many of us still struggle to get to sleep due to minds buzzing with to-do lists. So it’s not as simple as, “just sleep more”.

In addition to being chronically sleep-deprived, many of us fail to prioritise rest and self-care which not only damages our health but it also reduces productivity, creativity and innovation. In Alex Soojung-Kin Pang’s incredible book, Rest, he shows that “deliberate rest” actually leads to being more productive, fulfilled and energized. His mantra is that in order to get more done, we need to work less and relax more. Pretty revolutionary, huh?

And let’s make one thing clear, “deliberate rest” isn’t late-night TV binges or scrolling through social media. It’s prioritising daily walks and naps like Winston Chruchill did during the second World War. Or spending a week alone in a cabin like Bill Gates. Or even deliberate, regular and sustained practice of a beloved hobby such as painting, running, writing or rock-climbing.

As a leader, you need to advocate for sleep and rest, and actively encourage your teams to prioritise the self-care practices that protect their wellbeing. This requires more than just telling your teams to sleep and rest more. You need to show what it looks like which requires you to practice what you preach. This means sharing how you personally prioritise sleep, rest and self-care — and doing so often. It’s not enough to share once, you need to share little and often in order to normalise this behaviour. You also need to normalise your managers enquiring with their teams about rest and self-care practices so that this conversation is had at every level.

To demonstrate what this might look like, here’s my sleep, rest and self-care practices:

  • I’m in bed by 21:30 every night to give me the best chance of an 8 hour sleep opportunity
  • I wake up an hour earlier so that I can use my most creative time in the morning for personal projects such as writing
  • I make time in my work diary for a 30–60 minute long walks every afternoon
  • I read for half an hour during my lunch break, as well as before bed to help me wind down
  • I try to have a long bubble bath once a week, with a book or one of my favourite podcasts

Role model and insist upon setting boundaries

When we talk about boundaries, we’re referring to little rules that we put in place, internally or openly, that protect our energy and wellbeing. For example, when we’re contactable, when we need alone time or who we spend time with. Setting boundaries, both in our work and personal lives, is so important for people to be able to work at their best. However, this is not to say that boundaries are easy to set — they often involve saying no to people, sometimes to those we love, and that is hard, especially when many of us are conditioned to “people please”. But the benefits far outweigh the discomfort of saying no. Boundaries not only protect our wellbeing, but they also improve our relationships and interactions, as we’re essentially sharing more of ourselves and how we best operate. Even so, it seems that the conversation around boundaries is eerily quiet in our workplaces.

As leaders, we can change this. It’s our duty to protect the wellbeing of our teams by actively encouraging them to set boundaries that can be openly shared with colleagues. This starts at the top. Similar to the last action on sleep and rest, leaders need to practice what they preach. Leaders need to share their boundaries with their teams, and more importantly, they need to uphold them. There is nothing more jarring than a leader that says their boundary is to not respond to emails after 7pm but who also has a habit of sending emails at midnight. That’s not to say that you need to be incredibly rigid — of course, there will be times when we need to be flexible. But as a leader, you need to hold yourself accountable to being the best role model you can be to your team. Otherwise, any commitments towards better wellbeing is just hot air.

Over time, I’ve found that the following boundaries are most important to me:

  • I’m strict about when I start and finish work so that I have time to myself before and afterwards.
  • I have all notifications turned off on my phone which means I am only contactable when I choose to be.
  • I block out “focus time” in my calendar and I protect it as though it’s a client meeting.
  • I always take a lunch break for at least an hour, around the same time everyday.

You’ll notice that a lot of my boundaries are work-related but they don’t have to be. Your boundaries could be with friends, family, romantic partners, hobbies, communities, or any other aspect of your life that you feel needs them.

Encourage people to spend time in nature

It’s well known that spending time in nature and making time to be outside in green space benefits our mental wellbeing. It might be hundreds of years since we were living our best hunter-gatherer lives but our need for connection with nature hasn’t waned, even as we’ve become more and more disconnected from it. Being in nature is basically in our DNA. When we starve ourselves of it, we increase our risk of anxiety, depression and poor health as found in Lost Connections by Johann Hari, a book which studies the main root causes for the mental health crisis present across the world.

Personally, we’ve found that when we make time to go for a walk in nature in the morning, we have a better day after that. We feel calmer and more reflective, rather than anxious or reactive. It’s a combination of breathing fresh air, feeling sun or wind on our skin, and taking a moment to see the abundance that being outside allows. Before the global lockdowns, many of us would get lots of time outside each day, even if we weren’t doing so intentionally. We’d get it on our commute, walking to meetings, and going outside for lunch. But all of this changed when we were advised to stay at home and we became glued to our screens. So many of us have reported not getting outside at all since the pandemic started, sometimes for days at a time, and this has a huge impact on our wellbeing.

Leaders and managers have the power to normalise taking breaks to step outside throughout the working day. You normalise it by talking about it frequently, being a role model for the action you’d like people to take, and actively showing that you’re practicing what you preach. Some teams have even started collective step count challenges to hold themselves accountable. Others have been adopting ‘walk and talk’ meetings, where both parties agree to go for a walk during the time they’ve scheduled together. A walking meeting provides a welcome opportunity to get away from your screen and to focus on one thing for more than a few minutes.

There’s also strong evidence to suggest that breaking up your day with a walk boosts creativity and problem solving, as shown in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest, where he gathers a number of studies that prove this. The reason for this is down to the fact that walking is said to divert the mind from work matters, but at the same time your subconscious continues to work on the problem leading many to have their best “a-ha” moments on a walk. With this in mind, it would suggest that encouraging your teams to go on more walks during the working day is not only good for individual wellbeing, but for business success also!

Create meaning and purpose for your team

We’re closing with this one because it’s a biggie. Purpose is about doing things for a reason that’s higher than materialistic gain. It’s a reason to get up in the morning and what helps us to go to sleep at night feeling grateful and fulfilled. However, when we lose our sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, it can send us into some really dark and uncertain places. We need our purpose to show us the light and bring us back to what’s important.

In Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code, he states that establishing purpose is one of the three core pillars to creating highly successful teams. He says that leaders need to create simple beacons that focus the attention and engagement of their teams on a shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story, by building what Daniel describes as ‘high-purpose environments’. These environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and the future ideal: “Here is where we are” and “Here is where we want to go”. It’s less about big speeches and more about everyday moments when people can sense the message: “This is why we work here; this is what we’re aiming for.” It’s less about being inspiring and more about being consistent.

Establishing a strong sense of purpose and meaning in the work you and your team do is an excellent antidote for burnout as it helps to overcome the decreased sense of accomplishment and depersonalisation. This is because it helps us to see what is important. It shows us the wood from the trees. And when we’re in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves, we are more likely to protect our wellbeing in order to serve our cause. This is not only relevant for influential and senior positions. This is true at every level of the organisation, from your front of house to your CEO. Everyone in your business should feel that they are contributing to a just cause, and supporting the pursuit of the business.

At The Future Kind Collective, we use the ikigai model with our clients to help them to narrow in on their purpose which you can see below.

A great place to start is to get clear on the following 4 areas:

  1. Moral imperative: What ideals or beliefs drive you?
  2. Core strength: What do you do better than anyone else?
  3. World need: What world need are you responding to?
  4. Value driver: How do you drive value for your employees, customers, community and investors?

Once you’ve gotten lots of ideas under each of the headings and you’ve gathered input from others, there’s the difficult task of turning what you have into a succinct statement. This is really tough so don’t be hard on yourself if you struggle with this. The truth is that we all do. We suggest appointing one person, maybe yourself or someone in your team who’s a particularly good writer, to turn the insights from the framework into a sentence and start the wordsmithing. We’d then suggest bringing your team back together to feedback and iterate the first version. In our experience, we’ve found that group dynamics work well for editing, iterating and evolving, rather than creating from scratch.

We could write a whole book on purpose… and, as it turns out, we have! So if you’d like to delve into this one some more, you can download our ebook here.

As we come to the end of this article, I hope that you found something useful or comforting in it. We decided to write this blog from a place of love, kindness and vulnerability. Having been through the pain of burnout and to have come out the other end, we want to help others to do the same. We strongly believe that we should be talking about stress, mental health and wellbeing everyday, and that these things shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy when so many of us are struggling. We hope that this is a step towards that reality.

Resources

Books:

  • Culture Code, Daniel Coyle
  • Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  • Dare to Lead, Brené Brown
  • Lost Connections, Johann Hari
  • Rest, Alex Soojug-Kim Pang
  • Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker

Talks:

  • The Power of Vulnerability

Podcasts:

  • Unlocking Us: Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle
  • HBR Women at Work: Now Is a Good Time to Take Care of Ourselves
  • Squiggly Careers: Mental health at work
  • Squiggly Careers: The Power of Rest

About the author

Nat is one of two co-founders at The Future Kind Collective which exists to build a world that is kinder, fairer and more creative, where all people have the opportunity to do great things.

Nat is a purpose-driven strategist, empathetic people leader, designer of cultures, services and companies. She is passionate about lifetime learning, compassionate leadership and inclusive cultures.

Nat started her career in digital strategy, where she applied service design to the strategic development of the NatWest mobile banking app. In 2016, she joined SPARCK, a design consultancy, as their third employee, where she was influential in shaping and growing it into a mature organisation.

Throughout her consultancy career, Nat has led projects with varied clients including Insights, Amnesty International, BP, Vocalink (of MasterCard), DVSA, Fidelity, HSBC, ITV and Pizza Hut.

About The Future Kind Collective

The Future Kind Collective is a purpose-driven consultancy which exists to build a world that is kinder, fairer and more creative, where all people have the opportunity to do great things.

We help start-ups and scale-ups to define their purpose, design their culture and grow their impact, while also embedding the skills they need to unlock their power.

We’re here to challenge the existing consultancy model and prove that by putting people and purpose first, you can create businesses that are more profitable, impactful and equitable.

To find out more or to chat over a challenge you’re grappling with, get in touch at hello@thefuturekind.co

We’d love to hear from you!

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