Burnout in a pandemic era

Mar 4, 2021 | Covid

Since the beginning of 2021 I have had a number of clients requesting assistance with burnout and this does not surprise me at all.  Why?  Well, it doesn’t surprise me because burnout is a condition, or as the WHO defines it: a “workplace phenomenon,” that results from chronic stress which has not been successfully managed. Given the state of the working world, the increase in chronic stress makes sense.

I think that during 2020 people pushed through, so to speak, and when everyone returned to work after the festive December period, there was hope that things would be better.  However, in January 2021 the news from our President was not good and there was a realization that this stubborn invasion is here to stay for a while longer… possibly a long while.  And so, burnout starts to take hold.

What exactly is this “thing” called burnout? Let me emphasise from the start that it is a great deal more complicated than most people are aware, and understanding it is the first and most critical step in combatting it.  It is not just exhaustion from being overworked – although exhaustion is one of the three dimensions of burnout, with excessive work demands being one of the causes of burnout.  The other two dimensions are cynicism (or depersonalization) and inefficacy, and there are five other causes contributing to burnout.  The phenomenon has been extensively researched since the 1970s with one of the most notable and respected contributors being Dr Christina Maslach, an American Social Psychologist.  I could talk a lot here about the research and the history of burnout in an effort to convince you that it is a real thing – but I am not going to… believe me, it is not only real but it is also time for employers and companies to give it the attention it deserves.  Taking my word on the seriousness of the condition, I am instead going to give you some insight into the warning signs, risks to employees and your organization, and some guidelines as to what you can do to prevent it.

Burnout is not (yet) considered to be a medical or mental illness (as noted at the beginning of this article), but it is considered by the WHO to be closely associated with mental illness.  Indeed, the differential diagnoses include depression and anxiety, where there are significant overlaps with these conditions.  So, how does burnout present?  Features from all three dimensions mentioned in paragraph 2 above need to be present for someone to be considered burnt out. An employee presenting only with exhaustion does not qualify for the “diagnosis” of burnout… they are simply exhausted and may have any of a multitude of medical conditions contributing to this exhaustion, one of which could be insomnia.  Likewise, an employee that seems to have lost belief in their abilities alone (inefficacy) does not qualify for the “diagnosis”: there must be something else going on here, possibly a mental health related issue.  A burnt-out person is exhausted, physically and mentally, with all the associated features such as poor concentration, forgetfulness and general malaise; cynical with the associated features such as extreme negativity and reduced drive; and be demonstrating signs of inefficacy, such as feelings of worthlessness, and an inability to set goals and make decisions.  So, you see, it can relate to a depressive disorder – but when you delve deeper into it, this is where the causes (or domains) of burnout become critical in understanding it and its uniqueness.

The six causes / domains contributing to burnout are demands, autonomy, positive feedback, interpersonal relationships, fairness and values.  All of these domains contribute to burnout, albeit some more than others, depending on the employee and the organization.  In order to deal with an employee that has burned out, identification of the contributing causes / domains is critical in the management of them in the workplace and in turn, their recovery.

The cost of burnout to the employee and the organization is huge.  The list of physical and mental ailments that a person with burnout can suffer is too long to be included in this article, but suffice to say, it includes life threatening conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, and major depression.  For the organization, you can expect increased absenteeism, increased staff turnover, and reduced productivity… the three things most employers want least in their companies.

When it comes to managing the condition and reducing risk in an organization it is absolutely essential for leaders and managers to, first of all, accept that burnout is real and, secondly, to learn about what it actually is.  Without the involvement of leaders and managers, the risk of employees suffering from burnout cannot be reduced because it is the organizational strategies that need the most attention.  Yes, individuals can do some things themselves to reduce risks in terms of lifestyle management strategies, but without the buy-in from their organization, these alone will not suffice.

Finally, during this pandemic era the risk of burnout for employees has increased – one article I encountered went so far as to state there has been an increase in as much as 33% globally.  Of the six contributing domains, it is my opinion that the three domains of demands, positive feedback and interpersonal relationships are the most significant in this rise:

  • Boundaries between work and home life have become blurred, and expectations for many have increased now that their workplace is in their dining room.
  • People feel isolated and lacking in the usual positive strokes often found in workplaces, even if it’s just a compliment about the new outfit they are wearing.
  • And interpersonal relating has been lost for many – other than via a screen, which is a far cry from the pleasantries often shared at the coffee station in the office.

So there it is folks… burnout is real and it’s a rapidly growing phenomenon in our workplaces; dare I even say a new pandemic on the horizon.  Employers simply cannot choose to ignore it anymore. At the same time, employees should not flippantly self-diagnose – like with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, incorrect self-diagnosis gives the condition a bad name.

If you would like to learn more about burnout, my next online workshop is on Friday the 26th of March from 09h00 to 11h00.  For more details you can e-mail me at tmlb@absamail.co.za.

Take care everyone.

Lesley

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