Before it happens: what do we need to understand about burnout?

3 key takeaways from this blog:

  • What are the risk factors to burnout?
  • How to prevent burnout?
  • Is there anything you can do when it’s too late?

We’ve all heard of burnout – some of you have experienced it and might even still be recovering from its effects.

We know of burnout as a gradual process that usually develops over an extended period of time, but its warning signs can be noticeable from the get-go and should be monitored closely to find solutions on time.

Stress and burnout are not the same. Stress is a common response to situations, and the way it affects you often depends on your personality type, but also your capacity. Burnout, on the other hand, refers to when excessive stress or strain has worn you down to the point of mental, emotional, and/or physical exhaustion. While mild stress can have positive implications – many workers even find that it enables them to feel more driven and productive – the effects of burnout are entirely detrimental.

Burnout syndrome is considered a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. You’re probably experiencing burnout if you start feeling:

  • depleted, run-down or exhausted;
  • detached, pessimistic or cynical about your job;
  • less efficient with your work.

It’s worth noting that the term ‘burnout’ refers specifically to the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in areas of life outside of work or study.

We’ve used observations from research and anecdotal evidence from clients throughout our years of work in the field of well-being to outline the strongest and/or most common risk factors for burnout:

Risk factors for burnout

Too much work, too little time. Burnout may result from a lack of control over the choices that impact your daily working life, such as your schedule, responsibilities, or workload. You might also be lacking specific tools or skills required to complete certain tasks.

Not knowing where you stand. You’re unlikely to feel at ease at work if you’re unsure about your level of authority, responsibility or expectations from your colleagues and managers.

Toxic work relationships. You might be experiencing harassment at work, feeling undermined by co-workers, or being micromanaged by your employer.

All work and no play… or no work at all. You require a constant supply of energy to stay focused when working in an unbalanced environment, whether it’s overly hectic or monotonous.

Unrealistic expectations. You might be dealing with excessive pressure from employers, colleagues or even yourself to perform work that exceeds your capacity level.

Not switching off. Work fatigue and stress will undoubtedly increase if you’re making yourself available to colleagues, superiors, or clients by taking calls and checking emails outside your working hours.

Not getting enough credit. Receiving expressions of gratitude for good performance act as necessary stepping stones toward raising your self-esteem, confidence, productivity, and willingness to work.

Work-life balance. Achieving a balance between work obligations, responsibilities and personal life is the cornerstone of burnout prevention. Keeping track of your stress levels and making sure you have enough time for yourself allows you to recover from the constant pressure you might experience at work. Spend time with friends and family, set aside time to practice self-care, maintain a hobby, and invest in activities that contribute to your mental and physical health. A healthy work-life balance will mean different things to each person. It’s not so much about dividing your time 50/50 between work and leisure, but rather about feeling fulfilled and satisfied in both aspects of your life.

How can you tell if your employees are burnt out?

Workers are mentally burnout if they:

  • feel anxious while working
  • lack of motivation or interest
  • never get a sense of accomplishment
  • keep putting things off
  • feel helpless when faced with the unexpected.

Physical burnout is evident when workers:

  • look and feel exhausted
  • feel stressed all the time
  • have trouble sleeping
  • get sick easily with migraines, colds
  • experience bouts of depression and anxiety.

Employees with emotional burnout feel:

  • cynical about actions and projects
  • irritable and prone to angry outbursts
  • resentful without just cause
  • pessimistic and despondent about work
  • a need to withdraw from colleagues and friends.

How does stress become burnout?

The difference between stress and burnout comes down to the level and duration of stress. The earlier the symptoms of stress are recognized, the better your chances are of healing before it develops into something more serious.

Unlike burnout, stress is relatively short-lived; it can last up to several days, like during the lead-up to a demanding project deadline, or an intense studying period before an important exam. If, however, these stressful phases become the norm, it becomes all too easy to lose sight of your work’s purpose.

As the disparity between what you’d like to be doing and what you’re actually doing at work grows, your perception of work life becomes more negative. Imagine an athlete who has been sprinting for so long that he depleted his energy reserves, has no time to eat and rest, yet is expected to keep sprinting at the maximum pace with no finish line in sight. It’s obvious she will be exhausted, and the risk of injury – both physical and mental – is impossible to ignore.

Employees at a desk are no different. The prolonged stress itself coupled with an increasingly negative outlook creates the setting which predisposes you to burn out.

So how can we prevent burnout?

Keeping stress at minimal levels is essential to creating a healthy workplace. Easier said than done, we know! Each of us has different resilience and capacity levels and uses specific tactics that help us deal with stress.

What we do find in common among organizations are the top 3 reported causes of stress-related absences, namely: workload, management style, and relationships at work. Companies that address these issues from the start and mitigate the effects of stress early on, know t hat this works wonders for themselves and ultimately, their employees.

One of the most impactful things you can do as a manager is to support your team proactively – as opposed to reacting to issues as they come up – so you can recognize burnout before it happens.

There are a variety of tools, strategies, and conversations to be had with your team to take action against burnout. However, it’s crucial for HR to have a strong knowledge of these topics in order to understand how employees are dealing with internal and external stress influences. In the sea of tools and methods that exist, the most important step is often missed: research and assessment of the situation at hand.

It’s a common trend among HR nowadays to undertake all kinds of initiatives that help employees in various areas, including stress and burnout. With the best of  intentions, HR teams set up various benefits to motivate employees, even when in the end these measures fail to yield much success or even interest from the workers themselves.

To make sure that implementations are relevant and beneficial to the team, it’s important to first assess the current situation of your company and grow your awareness of employees’ relationship to their health. It’s on you to find out how much their daily habits help to relieve stress, whether there is a risk of burnout, and how the company is doing in terms of organization, relationships, clarity of goals, and employee satisfaction.

Our experience in addressing these questions has provided us with quite a few valuable insights. Overall, the results of our Above Assessments indicate that although most employees manage to find time to enjoy a life outside of work, their main cause of stress remains work itself. Despite this fact, we noticed that people tend not to invest in their health and well-being, meaning that this work-related stress remains unresolved.

We’re all well-versed in the role of regular physical activity in preventing hypertension, maintaining healthy body weight, and supporting mental health, quality of life, and well-being. However, looking at one of our studies, 58,53% of respondents said they never or sometimes exercise, while the remaining 41,47% said they only exercise for 30 minutes per week. According to the WHO, adults aged 18– 64 years should carry at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.

In addition to exercise, food also plays a significant role in maintaining health. Yet when it came to assessing a real-life situation, 49,79% of respondents said they only have regular meals rarely or sometimes.

So what happens when you skip a meal? First, blood sugar decreases, which causes an interruption in the ability to think straight. The brain uses glucose (sugar) to run efficiently, so with insufficient glucose present, the body fails to function at 100%. Low blood sugar causes people to feel irritable, confused, and fatigued. The body responds by increasing the production of cortisol, which in turn increases levels of stress. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why regular meals are important for a good day’s work.

It’s also a known fact that staying up late disrupts the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, which in turn affects a person’s mental function and energy levels during the following day. Frequently staying up late may lead to sleep problems with long-term effects on health; it comes as no surprise that this also increases the risk of burnout.

Having been working in the field of well-being in this region for over 15 years, we can acknowledge that the main risk factor for burnout is sleeping issues. This includes not getting enough quality sleep, going to sleep too late, waking up during the night, and waking up tired in the morning. 92% of our clients report sleeping issues, to the point of accepting low-quality sleep as a normal part of life and not realizing how this influences their health, capacity, and risk of burnout.

All this is evidence enough that people’s lifestyle habits pose a considerable influence on the risk of burnout. It also shows that employees are not always taking care of themselves and can’t honestly say they are doing everything they can to prevent burnout. In the end, not everything depends on the workplace. The information gathered on these basic lifestyle factors proved indispensable in enabling HR teams to make informed decisions on the next steps regarding their team’s wellbeing.

Once you’ve established a clear picture of your company’s situation, you’ll find it easier to decide which initiatives and actions to undertake, and what aspects to prioritize in order to resolve existing situations and prevent future problems.

We advise doing this in cooperation with well-being experts to benefit from their experience in identifying and predicting workplace risks. Since each employee has a unique set of strengths and needs, we suggest that you combine anonymous questionnaires with personal interviews to build a comprehensive yet realistic assessment of any situation.

So what to do when it’s too late?

The inconvenient truth is that there’s no single solution to prevent or resolve burnout.

We’ll say it again: every company is different, and every employee has a different level of capacity. Working with experts in the field of well-being is the key to creating an efficient, resource-conscious process of tackling and fixing burnout among employees.

The main steps involve guided research of active situations, assessing potential risks, and creation of solutions that more often than not differ from those that are in trend. From group activities to long-term collaboration with coaches and experts, to re-organize the whole company… You can find as many solutions for burnout as there are reasons for it developing in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that problems that cause burnout are not always exclusively work-related. The everyday habits of employees outside of work also have a considerable influence; for example, do they take care of their health, sleep well, eat properly, and set aside time for themselves to do things that make them happy? We should never underestimate the role of work situations as causes of stress, but nor should we ignore the effect of our personal life choices on our ability to handle the same stress.

If we had to condense all this into one message to take home, it would be that the key to helping employees and whole companies is awareness. The first step is becoming aware of what burnout is, how it develops, how it can be prevented, and what to do when it’s already present. Next comes a deeper awareness of people’s lifestyle habits and how this influences their risk of burnout.

With this knowledge, you can level up your role in HR by exploring methods and programs that help employees increase their capacity and manage a healthy level of energy, no matter which stressors are encountered at work. Expert knowledge in employee wellbeing ensures that this awareness becomes an effective tool to power through the highs and lows of any company, toward a strong and stable future.

Author: Ivana Barbara Turkalj, Wellbeing & Growth Strategist at Above Academy

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