Burnout: A word that people use to explain their mental states when they feel they can no longer carry out their daily jobs.
It is that feeling when even doing a mundane or simple part of their job that they have done for years just becomes too much to handle.
The term ‘burnout’, says Dr Sharon Munyaka, president of The Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of SA, described the consequences of severe stress and high ideals. However, burnout can often be confused with stress.
“Stress is having too much on your plate, too much work to handle, too many responsibilities, and too many hours spent working. Burnout is the opposite.”
Stress vs burnout
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. She says it is characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy.
“Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first but become worse as time goes on. Think of the early symptoms as red flags that something is wrong that needs to be addressed.
“If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.”
Munyaka adds that burnout is the sense of depletion that occurs when an individual operates far too long in a demanding environment that consistently exceeds their ability to respond effectively.
When to seek help
Most employees, she says, are either misinformed or they think your way will not work, so they become reluctant in reaching out for help. They think their way is better.
“They think something else is more important. There is no positive consequence to them to not seeking help.”
However, with a tough economic climate, quitting, or taking time off to recover is not always an option for many people.
Consequences of not seeking help
Mental health issues become consequences of not seeking appropriate help and do not get better on their own.
“The longer an illness persists, the more difficult it can be to treat and recover. Untreated anxiety may escalate to panic attacks, and failing to address trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Early treatment usually leads to better outcomes.”
Furthermore, she says, burnout is something that takes a lot to get over, and it is overwhelming to think about. Some things that might help are telling people how you feel, talking to your manager about it so you could take some time off, and going to therapy in-house or external, or somewhere to get your feelings out.
“Taking a day off won’t fix burnout; the same way it took a long time to get depleted is the similar amount of time required to recover. Think of a field that has been stripped of all its nutrients, pouring a bag of manure today won’t fix the issue. It will be a series of intentional actions to get the soil back to an optimum level.
Where should I turn if I feel burned out?
Munyaka says you should share your concerns with your manager when you feel like you are suffering from burnout. The risk of burnout is often made or broken at the organisational level.
“Leadership can make a critical difference in how employees experience workplace and the support they have access to. You are likely not the only one experiencing challenges, and a cultural shift may need to take place.
“A strong employee assistance programme can help with preventative measures and also to identify and provide a language to staff on what they are experiencing.”
Counsellors can help employees identify the root of their problem and develop a plan to address it. They also offer stress management programs, workshops, and other resources.
“These programmes can teach employees how to better manage their time and energy, and cope with stress in healthy ways.
Is burnout a sign I should take on another role at work or leave my company?
When the conditions and demands you as an employee encounter at work exceed your capacity to handle them, you’re at risk of burning out, Munyaka says. And unfortunately, suffering employees are often left to manage burnout on their own.
“Unfortunately with the new trend of the great resignation, it is now more common for burnout to be a sign that an employee needs to move on to another company.
“It is also important to remember that as humans we are not trees, when the environment is no longer tenable, leave.
What should your company do for you?
As a manager, you should talk to your employees to find out how they’re feeling. Then, consider your options to shuffle some tasks or even move people between roles to give them more fulfilling work.
“The more people feel they’re using their skills to the best effect, the less likely they are to suffer from burnout.”
She says that managers can also:
- Talk and listen
- Put a stop to overworking
- Restore work-life balance
- Help people to feel fulfilled and lend a sympathetic ear
While the signs of burnout vary from one person to the next, some are outward signs that might catch your attention, such as reduced productivity or making uncharacteristic mistakes.
“Or an employee may stop turning up to work get-togethers that they used to enjoy. If you spot these signs, it’s important to reflect on what they might mean. To go deeper, ask employees what they’re feeling, either collectively – through techniques like surveys – or individually, by simply talking to them.
“These approaches may reveal the emotional aspects of burnout, which include cynicism, disillusionment about work, or a feeling that the worker doesn’t feel they belong. Workers may also feel unable to celebrate their achievements, even if they seem to be doing well.
Some companies do not understand the concept of burnout
She says poorly organised companies tend to have a higher number of employees experiencing burnout because they underestimate the effects of it. This can cause a worker’s performance to drop and the company to work less efficiently and productively.
“Some employers perceive burnout to be an issue associated with laziness. They seldom realise that it is work related and that if the employees are not given enough attention to, the company could suffer a major loss even from a financial point of view. This is why it is important for a company to create a healthy working environment, and not cause additional stress to its workers.
“Of course, it can also be the employee’s fault for experiencing a burnout, if they are, for example, too ambitious or not well organised. However, in most cases, the overall company rules and organisation are to blame when it comes to frequent burnouts among the staff.
Mistakes companies make
Executives tend to think of employee burnout as an individual issue rather than a broader organisational challenge, and “that’s a mistake”, Munyaka says.
The psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees are estimated to cost billions per a year in healthcare spending.
True cost to business can be far greater, thanks to low productivity across organisations, high turnover, and the loss of the most capable talent. Leaders need to own up to their role in creating the workplace stress that leads to burnout, such as heavy workloads, job insecurity, and frustrating work routines that include too many meetings and far too little time for creative work.
“Leaders may also be going through their own season of burnout and may not have the capacity to recognise the need to assist others. Their focus could be on productivity which becomes a challenge as the focus tends to be on immediate gain without thinking about sustainability.
Extreme working hours are some conditions that Munyaka says make it difficult to reconcile family and professional life, and so are triggers for burnout. For instance, shift work, high rotations, night work, long working hours, or a large amount of overtime are powerful triggers of burnout.
“Additionally, such hourly characteristics are positively related to sleep disorders, heart problems, health complaints, job dissatisfaction, decreased attention and performance, as well as an increased risk of accidents.
“In South Africa- life is an extreme sport, especially watching the news, the economy, and load shedding etcetera. So the triggers are making people vulnerable to burnout.”
When burnout is most common
She says everyone has their own breaking point and handles burnout differently. Plus, burnout can happen at any time and at any stage of an employee’s career.
“It doesn’t matter if they’ve been with the company for 10 weeks, 6 months, or 2 years. If burnout is left untreated, it can lead to serious physical and psychological illnesses such as depression, heart disease and diabetes.
In addition, many people think that the burnout phenomenon is common only among people with low-paying and repetitive jobs, but it is usually present in higher positions as well, Munyaka says.
“Employee burnout is a major problem that is often put aside and not given much thought to. Nowadays, it is present in all types of careers. Burnout can happen at any time and at any stage of an employee’s career.”
“By putting the human back at the centre in our workplaces means we open the conversation of what that looks like. It is an opportunity to review workplace policies, ways of working, how we treat each other, and start thinking of sustainable ways of taking care of our staff.”