Burned out? You are not alone 

Burnout appears to be a growing phenomenon which leaders are increasingly aware they need to address, not just for their employees’ well-being but for their own well-being too. As a new book points out, it’s more widespread than many think, it can often affect top performers and it’s taking a real toll both at an individual level and on organisations’ bottom lines. By Annie Gray.

In her new book Beyond Burnout: A New Zealand Guide. How to spot it, stop it and stamp it out (Random House New Zealand) Nelsonbased author and leadership coach, Suzi McAlpine cites a 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees internationally which found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.

As she writes in the book, that translates to about two-thirds of full-time workers experiencing burnout on the job. “And it’s estimated that one million workers are absent every day globally due to stress, causing losses for larger companies in excess of US$3.5 million per company, per year.” 

She writes too that Covid-19 has also had an impact. “A survey by Blind, an anonymous workplace community app, of over 6,000 employees, reported an increase in burnout after Covid-19 emerged. In February 2020, 61 percent of professionals considered that they were burned out. That number rose to 73 percent between April and May 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was really taking hold.” 

Beyond Burnout, which aims to tackle the root causes of burnout and help leaders, organisations and individuals create the conditions that see organisations and people thrive, also points to the 2020 Workplace Wellbeing Survey conducted by research agency Cogo which McAlpine writes made some concerning revelations regarding burnout in Australasia.  

“Cogo surveyed more than 1,500 people across the New Zealand and Australian workforces, and more than half of the respondents (61 percent) showed signs of exhaustion, a key indicator of burnout. This meant that well over half answered ‘every day’ or ‘a few times a week’ to the question ‘How often do you feel tired when you get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job?’ and/or ‘How often do you feel emotionally drained from your work?’. 

McAlpine told Management that the signs of burnout are:  

• Chronic exhaustion. 

• Cynicism about the job and increasing levels of frustration. 

• De-personalisation or withdrawing from others. 

• Feeling a lack of self-efficacy; no matter how hard you are working, you feel you are not achieving and can’t do the job you are meant to do, or once could. 

Her book points to the causes of burnout as being: overwork, a lack of control, insufficient rewards, a sense of isolation, the absence of fairness and a values conflict between the individual and the organisation or team. 

She says that burnout has massive negative impacts on any organisation including absenteeism, presenteeism, staff turnover, engagement and productivity, all of which affect the bottom line. 

And if a CEO or senior leader is the one suffering from burnout, it can be ‘catchy’ as the shadow senior leaders cast is a big one. 

The symptoms of burnout are reflected cognitively, emotionally, mentally and physically – with some people unable to sleep, others developing headaches or stomach problems. 

She is at pains to point out that it is a slow burn. “The insidious thing about burnout is that is it a slow creep. It is like a candle melting down over time, it can be gradual,” and hence people often don’t realise it is happening to them. 

McAlpine says that burnout is shrouded in stigma and this drives it underground. 

She says it is important that leaders get better at picking up the three red flags of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism or depersonalisation, and professional inefficacy, noting that certain industries are more susceptible including the legal, human services, professional, teaching and the health sectors. 

A culture of overwork doesn’t help. This is sometimes an industry norm and/or can be an organisational norm, where the example is set from the top. 

“Productivity tanks after 50 hours a week and if anyone is working 60 or 70 hours a week essentially those extra hours hold very little productivity gains – and increases the risk of burnout.” 

Asked what leaders can do, she says any workplace practice needs to be modelled and supported from the top. 

Senior executives constantly working excessive hours or sending late emails, sends a big message to the wider organisation that this is what is expected. 

She suggests leaders should model what they want to see in others. 

She points out though that moments of high stress are not in themselves the cause of burnout. It is prolonged, excessive and chronic stress that can lead to burnout. 

An analogy she points to in her book is that blaming the individual for burnout is a bit like treating a sick fish when it is the water that is contaminated, meaning that organisational culture and leadership practices are two of the biggest levers for burnout. 

Asked what CEOs and leaders can do to prevent their own burnout, she says having coached many CEOs over the years, one thing she does notice is the isolation many CEOs feel. 

“You have a board above you and a leadership team that you lead, but you don’t have peers.

“It can be very isolating, and my advice to CEOs, particularly first-time CEOs, is make sure you have support mechanisms in place, whether that be a coach, a senior mentor or another CEO you trust.” 

She also points to strategies leaders can apply for themselves around the time they leave each day, how much are they picking up on the early warning signs, noting it is important to destigmatise the issue, as a lot of mental distress is shrouded in shame. 

Showing some vulnerability is important too as it builds trust and “building trust is a superpower of leadership”. 

For the organisation itself, start to create a culture where it is okay for other people to speak up about their levels of stress in the workplace. 

If you talk about your own stress (how a problem may be taking its toll perhaps) it creates psychological safety for others to do so too. 

“I feel we need to change the conversation … we can’t look at burnout in singular light, but need to look at the eco-system. We need to have conversations about leadership practices and culture when we are having conversations about burnout.” 

It means looking at making a connection and being purposeful about building social connections within the organisation. The organisation might be having a lot of “What are we doing?” conversations but she sees a need to have “How are we going?” conversations as well.     

It also comes down to not having too many priorities, delegating effectively and not trying to do too much all at once without the resources for your team to deliver a new project or strategy, whether that’s at an individual or organisational level.  

It is also about recognising that employees want to have input into, and control over, how they do their work.  

A lack of control is one of the biggest triggers of burnout and if employees can have a say in the way their work is carried out there is evidence this reduces burnout, so the focus should be on outputs.  

Asked what she would say to CEOs, it is: “Model what you want to see happen in your organisation in terms of mental wellness practices at work. Increase your self-awareness of your own impact and leadership practices – in general as well as when it comes to avoiding burnout. Because of your positional power, you can underestimate that your whisper often comes out as a shout. I go into how you can do this more in the book.” 

She says too that by looking after your employees (and your own) well-being you are also looking after the bottom line. 

“Do these things, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it is also good for business.” 

Management has a copy of Beyond Burnout: A New Zealand Guide. How to spot it, stop it and stamp it out by Suzi McAlpine (Random House New Zealand) to give away to one lucky reader. Just email [email protected] to go in the draw. 

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