by Will Allen-Mersh, Partner at Spill
Burnout, in contrast to popular belief, is not primarily caused by workload or stress. It’s exacerbated by those factors, but the root cause of burnout is psychological: it’s about our relationship with our work, our goals and our expectations. As the World Health Organisation’s definition of burnout states, it’s about “workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The second half of that line is the important bit.
Given that most of us can’t suddenly halve our workload—after all, most companies have customers to keep happy and investor targets to hit—we’ll instead be looking at how we can change the way we manage our workload psychologically, to help prevent burnout from happening.
Look for the signs earlier rather than later
Burnout is characterised by three symptoms: fatigue, negativity and ineffectiveness. The feelings of negativity and ineffectiveness are what differentiate it from regular tiredness or exhaustion, and the fact that burnout is purely work-related (you can’t burn out from relationship issues or life stressors, for example) differentiate it from depression, which has a much wider scope.
There is no set order that the symptoms arrive in: this differs from person to person. Negativity, whilst being harder to spot in others (it often presents as cynical thoughts that aren’t always verbalised), can be something you can try to spot early on in yourself.
- Are you quicker to shoot down other people’s ideas?
- Do you hear yourself thinking cynical thoughts at work more often, like “I won’t be able to get that done on time” or “I’m not the right person to be on this project”?
- Do you find yourself often assuming the worst in a work situation, or being overly pessimistic?
Any of the above might be a sign it’s worth doing a more thorough stock-take of the other symptoms of burnout. Are you (really) exhausted? Do small tasks at work feel insurmountable? Are you dropping balls on the job that you usually wouldn’t? Are you having less ideas or slower to respond?
To get a more specific idea of whether you might be experiencing burnout, and to assess how severe your burnout symptoms are, try taking Spill’s short burnout symptoms test online, which only takes a minute.
Spotting the signs of burnout easily means you can take time off and make changes to your relationship with work before things snowball and become more serious.
Identify the psychological root causes of your burnout
If you do experience severe symptoms of burnout, taking time off is essential in order to recover from those symptoms.
In the longer term, however, something about your work needs to change or else you’ll just burn out again. The key difference between burnout and regular exhaustion is that work feels totally unwinnable when you burn out. When you’re exhausted, you can still feel deeply satisfied: after you’ve assembled a shelf or ran a 10k or hosted your in-laws for dinner. Burnout is exhaustion combined with a yearning for a sense of completion that cannot be attained.
Why might work feel unwinnable? Below are some common psychological reasons why:
- Goals and targets feel genuinely unachievable
- Goalposts for success keep moving
- Not enough autonomy
- Don’t feel like I’m mastering new skills
- Rewards, recognition and workload feel unevenly distributed
- Work culture feels competitive or unsupportive
- Requirements of the job don’t fit with my personality and strengths
- Requirements of the job don’t fit with my values and dreams
A useful exercise is to go through each of these reasons and mark whether you would disagree, agree or strongly agree with each of them. No job is 100% perfect, but if you’re marking ‘strongly agree’ to three or more of these, then it’s likely to be contributing to your burnout.
Burnout-proof your work with new habits and processes
The key to preventing burnout is to make the root causes above highly unlikely to happen, which is best done by putting in place new habits and processes.
Make targets feel achievable by breaking them down into smaller chunks, building holiday time into execution plans, blocking out your diary during periods of high workload, and even putting on an out-of-office if you need to.
Make success goalposts clearer with shared OKRs, weekly PPPs (plans, progress and problems), and regular team retrospectives.
Gain a greater sense of autonomy by making a ‘not to-do list’ as well as a to-do list each week, justifying the reasonsing why you’re deciding to work on something (our brains love a strong rationale for feeling reassured), and revisiting short-term goals and targets in the light of new information.
Make work feel more open and supportive by having non-peformance 121s (about how you’re doing more generally), try making individual ‘user manuals’ so you can better understand other people’s quirks and triggers, and suggest reverse mentoring (which pairs up senior and junior people for informal coffees, where the junior person decides the topic and questions).
A note from HubbleHQ
Employee mental health should always be on any business’ agenda, but it’s more relevant than ever amid the current pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that a huge 31% of employees feel that working from home has had a significant impact on their mental wellbeing. For some, of course, this impact has been positive—but there’s no doubt that for others, it’s been particularly destructive.
We know that many businesses are currently re-evaluating their future workplace strategy in light of this year’s events, establishing how and where their company will work going forward. But it’s clear that preferences around remote working vary dramatically from person to person. So, to avoid making any blanket decisions that may negatively impact your team, we strongly recommend asking your employees how they want to work in the future first, and using those answers to inform your decisions.
To help you find the insights you need quickly and easily, we’ve created a free-to-use Workplace Strategy Tool—with which you can survey your own team using our curated questionnaire, access the data immediately via your own personalised results dashboard, and get free, professional advice on the best workplace solutions from our team of experts. Check it out below: