Wake up, leaders! Burnout is not what you think

Lana Hindmarch debunks the myths around burnout.

| Lana Hindmarch is a facilitator and leadership development and wellbeing specialist at BREATHE.

Most leaders I speak to are aware that burnout is an issue – an issue that’s been researched and talked about in the media a lot, especially since the pandemic. Most leaders are also aware that burnout is getting worse.

What isn’t clear is why the current approaches to solving it aren’t working, and what we can do about it.

What’s at stake?
The cost of burnout for organisations is significant. Local numbers for South Africa are not yet available but the most recent data in the US shows that burnout costs organisations between $120 and $190 billion per year.

To put this into perspective, cancer costs organisations $172.8 billion annually. This figure isn’t good, but it is good to know. Because if it can be measured, it can be improved.

As burnout becomes more recognised as a bottom-line issue, more companies are taking notice.

Well-meaning companies have offered company-wide mental health shutdowns, wellness programmes, yoga classes, EAP programmes, self-care content and so on, to support employees to manage and prevent burnout. Unfortunately, this ignores the science of what burnout is and what causes it, and therefore fails to address the issue.

What is burnout? Debunking the myths

Myth 1: Burnout and stress are the same

Stress exists on a continuum and becomes something more like burnout when people experience ongoing exhaustion, feelings of inefficacy and cynicism about life, work and loved ones.

Part of the problem in addressing burnout is that the term ‘burnout’ is often used too loosely or in the wrong context to describe general tiredness or simply having a bad day. True burnout is neither of those things.

Myth 2: You can cure burnout with a holiday or time off
Burnout is insidious. It creeps up over time and once it’s taken hold, the road to recovery can be months or even years.
The truth is, no amount of time off will cure burnout if an employee simply returns to the conditions that caused the burnout in the first place. Nothing will change if nothing has changed.

This is important for leaders to be aware of, especially as we approach December leave. Traditionally, the perception has been that people just need a good break from work to re-fill their tanks.

As many companies saw this year when people returned to work in January, most tanks were not full. In fact, quite the opposite, and I was having burnout conversations with leaders in February.

LinkedIn, Bumble, Hootsuite and Nike are examples of companies shutting down their offices for a week during the year to give employees time to rest.

While this is a great gesture, surely we need to be asking what’s happening in the workplace that CEOs need to tell their people not to come to work for a week? It’s futile giving people a week off if when they return to work, it’s business as usual.

For example, I’ve seen people go back to work after company-wide ‘wellness’ shutdowns, but when they return to work, leaders are back to sending emails at 11pm and employees are back to taking pride in how busy they are.

Recently, after a local company implemented ‘no-meeting-Fridays’, I spoke to a group of employees who said they felt guilty about taking breaks during their work day because the company has already introduced a no-meeting day. In another company, employees shared that working long hours is what gets rewarded.

Myth 3: Burnout is about the person, not the workplace
The perception is still that burnout is an individual issue. People often ask me what they can do to prevent burnout or what they did wrong to burn out in the first place.

We’ve been led to believe that we can solve burnout with self-care interventions. If only we did more yoga, or spent time in nature, or learnt how to breathe better. But, while this sounds like it should be true, it isn’t. Burnout is bigger than a self-care conversation.

Until as recently as 2019, burnout was referred to as stress syndrome. However, WHO’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual now refers to burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Therefore, we must look at the organisation.

Healing the workplace
Looking at the individual only and addressing the symptoms rather than the causes won’t heal the workplace. The change must happen within the organisation and leaders need to look at the role they have to play in making this transformation happen.

Culture is just as important. The subliminal impact of a high-performance corporate culture is life-changing – and not in a good way. Personal worth, career advancement, financial security all become contingent on digging deeper, doing more, and going those extra miles. The cost to the individual is overlooked by leaders because ‘this is the way we do things around here’.

There are various factors that cause burnout within organisations. The biggest driver is overwork. Others are lack of fairness, lack of agency, lack of recognition, poor relationships, and values mismatch.

Trying to tackle all of these at once is too much. The area to start with (and it’s the one where the biggest impact can be made with the least effort) is overwork and ‘always-on’.

Always-on and overloaded: How did we get to this point?
Since the industrial revolution, work demands have increased – and show no signs of slowing down, unless we actively do something about it.

In the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s, however, your work was done when you left the office. This is no longer the case. Added to which, demands are higher and we are running out of capacity. The game has changed, but the players are still the same.

Thanks to ever more pervasive tech, we live in an always-on world. The misconception is that, because tech does many menial time-consuming tasks, it makes the job easier.

The opposite is true: the more that you do, the more you are expected to do. Technology and being always available makes it difficult for us to declare an end to our work days. It’s difficult to disconnect: the workday is never done.

Perhaps it started with our star chart as kids. Our society demands it: performance is the goal.

Is the price of success too high?
Organisations are built on the assumption that creating value for stakeholders is contingent on relentless, immersive high-performance. However, over time, more and more and more actually leads to less and less and less.

The irony is that, when renewal becomes a daily workplace requirement, performance is improved. Athletes know that recovery is a necessary part of performance.

The thing is, in society, rest is still seen as something for slackers and people wear busyness as a badge of honour. Ariana Huffington says many believe that burnout is simply the price we must pay for success.

Strategic imperative: Putting renewal on a par with performance
Imagine an elite athlete showing up to competition, exhausted from back to back performances and a string of all night training sessions in the gym. This athlete wouldn’t stand a chance and they certainly wouldn’t get approval from their coach or team mates.

Yet, for high performance professionals this seems acceptable, and sometimes even something to boast about. And leaders have a big role to play in instilling this mindset in others.

Athletes value recovery as much as they value performance. They balance the expenditure of their energy with the renewal of their energy. And they get good at renewal because they know that fitness is defined as the speed of recovery. And they know that recovery is the gateway to performance.

Shifting from always-on to always-recovering
LeBron James is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. His trainer has been quoted many times referring to the importance of recovery and going so far as to say that recovery never ends.

He had good reason to recover. A 2011 study found that elite athletes could increase their performance by up to 10 percent by getting more rest. Never mind preventing burnout, imagine the opportunity for organisations if people could perform 10 percent better?

But before we get there, there is a great urgency that needs to be addressed. A radical mindset shift is required in organisations. A shift that sees renewal not just as a nice-to-have but rather as a core part of designing work, something that is built into culture and enforced by leaders. Renewal is what we need to be bragging about.

Many people in the working world – if they haven’t yet burned out – are at least exhausted, overwhelmed and depleted and desperate for permission to fill their tanks, not only by way of December leave or weekends, but also intermittently throughout their work days, throughout the year.

Organisations already recognise that today’s diverse workforce is reshaping personal and professional success markers, and leaders are required to embrace, or at the very least adapt to it. #TheGreatResignation and #TheGreat Reshuffle are evidence of this. Burnout is another of these reshaping factors.

Leaders need to take rest and recovery as seriously as elite athletes do, starting with themselves and then enforcing this mindset among the people they lead. “Do what I do” needs to become “Renew like I do.”