Battling burnout: A guide for high achievers

Chances are, if you are a high achiever, you could also be excelling in burning yourself out. By Mela Lush.

Do you love your job and pride yourself in going that extra mile? Are you the person everyone turns to get things done? 

 Do you achieve extraordinary business results and say “yes” without question?

Chances are you are high achiever, who could also be also excelling in burning yourself out.

Research shows burnout is higher among high achievers or those that are particularly passionate about their work.

A five-year study by Awbery Management in the United Kingdom found that the mental health of 20 percent of the top-performing leaders of UK businesses is affected by corporate burnout.

Is it possible to love your work and find joy in it without burning out? How can your business support you?

Here is what you need to know.

What is burnout? 

Don’t confuse burnout with stress. 

People are often able to respond to short bursts of pressure and demand without too much trouble. However, when that pressure and stress continues for prolonged periods of time without a break, the stress can mount and can lead to burnout.

According to an article by burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. 

Those who are burned out feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. 

In recent years, burnout has reached epidemic proportions. 

The newest study in the Employee Engagement Series conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace found 95 percent of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention and productivity, yet there is no obvious solution on the horizon. 

What causes workplace burnout? 

There are many common causes of workplace burnout.

We all know that employee with a stack of papers on their desk, a to-do list that spans more than 100 tasks and a panicked look on their face. 

An overwhelming workload is the number one factor that contributes to employee burnout.

This combined with a mismatch in personality to tasks, conflicting job demands, role ambiguity, lack of appropriate resource and management support is a recipe for disaster.

While there isn’t any one type of person that is prone to burnout, personality factors do come into play. 

According to the study by Awbery Management, burnout is higher among high achievers or those that are particularly passionate about their work. 

The research indicates ‘overachiever syndrome’ as its commonly known, predominantly happens among 20 to 30-year olds and occurs during the first 10 years of a career, following a subtle downward spiral.

Those that experience burnout find their immune systems slowly shut down, resulting in repeated illness. Persistent lower back or neck pains, increased use of painkillers and caffeine, and disrupted sleep patterns are all early signs of burnout.

Often the only person who doesn’t recognise the downward spiral in performance is the leader themselves.

What to look out for? 

No organisation wants to lose its best talent to burnout. However, most do not know that their employee is burned out until it is too late.

The majority of employees experiencing burnout will remain at work. Being aware of changes in attitudes and energy can help with early identification.

There are many frameworks that have been used to describe burnout. A study produced by the Physician Leadership Journal published by Massey University, states burnout is built upon a foundation of fatigue, hindrance, frustration and withdrawal. 

These elements can develop in series, in parallel or even “out of sequence.” The course taken by an individual is based on personality traits, coping factors, recognition of the stages of burnout, and the availability and use of a support system.

When these behaviours are coming from an employee who is typically on his or her A-game, they might be signs of burnout.

How to recover from burnout 

According to psychologist Grant Amos, if you are already burned out, to recover you must turn your ambition inwards and regain your sense of control.

Amos says, in times of high anxiety and stress, increase your attentiveness to your body’s physical and emotional needs. Take time to focus on breathing exercises and creating a personalised wellness plan.

Small steps can achieve big results. The secret to success is doing at least one thing every day dedicated to your health and well-being. 

Where possible he suggests setting better boundaries, managing negative thoughts and learning to be more assertive in your work life.

How much is business responsibility vs. personal responsibility?

It is easy to blame burnout on the high performers themselves. After all, overachievers say yes more, even when at full capacity. They routinely put work first, before self-care. 

While such habits may be partially to blame, according to an article by Harvard Business Review, this isn’t the full story.

Many companies and leaders engage in three common practices that aid in high achiever burnout. 

Firstly, they often allocate the high performers the hardest projects. 

Secondly, they use high performers to compensate for weaker team members and thirdly they ask high performers to help in many small areas unrelated to their work. 

To fix this, companies and leaders can start by becoming more aware of how these practices are affecting their team and scale back where possible. 

Good managers define concrete roles and equip their team with the proper tools and resources to achieve realistic goals.

If your employees are already burned out, be sure to give them the tools and support they need to recover. 

Individual coaching and stress management techniques are just some of the ways to help your people regain their positive outlook, manage their workload, recover productivity and find joy in their work and life once again.

According to the Awbery Management study, beyond that, organisations should review how they monitor their workforce for signs of corporate burnout and mental health issues and, if necessary, identify and train individuals to be “Mental Health First Aiders”. 

Ultimately, businesses should treat burnout and mental health issues as seriously as health and safety and seek to promote a well-being culture.

Mela Lush is the marketing manager at the Institute of Management New Zealand, part of The Skills Group.

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