“I’m so burned out,” is a phrase many of us have called upon to describe a state of being tired or stressed, but this year especially, the condition of burnout has been percolating in the public conscious as a condition to regard in measures more serious than colloquial. And in May, the World Health Organization‘s International Classification of Diseases sanctioned it as an “occupational phenomenon.” In other words, burnout at work is a serious issue of which we should all be aware. “Generally, burnout is described as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness in the workplace, and chronic negative responses to stressful workplace conditions,” says Mary Ann Baynton, director of strategy and collaboration for Canadian advocacy platform Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.
It’s not rare, either. A 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 workers found that 23 percent reported frequent burnout at work and 44 percent reported occasional burnout, meaning nearly three quarters of employees surveyed had experience with the phenomenon. So, what we can we do about it? Richard Summers, MD, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Workgroup on Psychiatrist Wellbeing and Burnout, tells me that to really change, the intervention needs to happen on the organizational level, not the individual level. “Burnout is the problem that a well individual has with interacting in a stressful and complicated workplace, so the intervention has to be in the workplace.”
Essentially, if the people you manage are burnt out, the onus might be (gulp) partially on you. Luckily, there are quite a few tips that experts in organizational behavior and psychology tell me can be implemented in order to mitigate the effects of stress over time, thereby reducing burnout.
It’s important to think about an employee’s burnout potential before you’ve even hired them for a role, says data scientist Jeffrey M. Stanton, PhD, whose research focuses workplace satisfaction and stress. “The employer needs to be careful in designing the job and making sure they’re hiring people that fit the job well,” he says.
One conceptual tool that can help is the person-environment fit, which looks into how well a candidate’s personality, needs, values, and abilities align with the perceived (rather than objective) realities of their job. The worse the fit, the more likely an employee is to experience stress and eventual burnout. Since research shows that shared values between employee and employer are a critical piece of this puzzle to prevent burnout at work, providing intel about the company’s ethos and culture in the interview process may be helpful.
While a great boss can help make an unhealthy workplace palatable, even the healthiest of offices can become untenable under toxic leadership. Dr. Stanton agrees, noting there is often turnover when a manager is replaced by someone less competent at being a boss.
“There are plenty of bad leadership habits (e.g. micromanaging, changing your mind frequently), and many of those will cause stress to the employees who work for that person.” —data scientist Jeffrey M. Stanton, PhD
“There are plenty of bad leadership habits (e.g. micromanaging, changing your mind frequently), and many of those will cause stress to the employees who work for that person,” says Dr. Stanton. So, he says, by carefully hiring for leadership positions especially and further developing skills with additional training opportunities, employers can largely help shape this situation.
It makes sense that one of my most burnout-inducing professional experiences was when I was a member of a six-person team, wherein my job duties extended way beyond the scope of my job description and title. To avoid stressful situations like this, Baynton says it’s important that employers provide clear expectations from the outset and get confirmation that employees understand these expectations.
From there, says Dr. Stanton, employers should refrain from adding to these expectations, willy-nilly. “There’s an issue called role overload, where, basically, you’re hired for one job role but you actually end up having to do another role as well—one that you really aren’t knowledgeable about,” he says. “That’s a major source of stress, being asked to take on responsibilities that you’re not sure you’re capable of.”
When you don’t work for yourself, keeping track of the bigger-picture reason you show up each day can be tough to keep in mind. Over time, losing a sense of the “why” behind work—outside of a paycheck—can contribute to feelings of burnout, which is why Baynton recommends managers help their direct reports understand their value to the organization and their contributions to the organization’s goals.
“Reasonable work hours can increase productivity, while longer hours may have the opposite effect,” says Dr. Summers. “[Employers need to be] willing to enforce reasonable work hours, including by sending employees home at the end of their regular workday if they have trouble setting their own boundaries.”
“Something that’s very important is the sense of control that an employee has,” says Dr. Stanton, who adds that generally speaking, stressors are more impactful on people when they don’t feel as though they can control their environment. “When an employer places demands on someone such that they don’t have any choice, there’s no way for them to sort of self-regulate the amount of work they do, the tension they’re under, or when they handle challenging tasks, the chances of burnout are much higher.” One way for cultivating a sense of autonomy is allowing flexible schedules, which acknowledge that different lifestyles and preferences may benefit from different working hours. Another? Remote working options or any other methods for facilitating flexibility.
Dr. Summers says adopting a participatory management style can help employees feel as though things aren’t just happening to them but that they’re part of it as well, and Dr. Stanton agrees: “Having that participatory management style means that employees can have some influence on how things break out, and even if you solicit suggestions from employees but then aren’t able to follow all of them, just the chance of having your voice heard can also be a stress reducer,” he says.
“Having that participatory management style means that employees can have some influence on how things break out.” —Dr. Stanton
So if your team needs to hit a goal, rather than telling them how, ask for input and ideas first.
If any tasks feel unrelated or ad-hoc to someone’s core job, why do the tasks need to happen? Dr. Summers says reducing these time sucks can be helpful in reducing burnout, especially if the streamlining might lead to fewer working hours.
Because burnout is the result of a bad situation subsisting for a long period of time, Dr. Stanton suggests employers get ahead of this by being aware of what’s going on with employees. Whether by surveys, observation, interviews, or simple meetings to touch base, “just keep tabs on how employees are doing in one way or another so that you can detect those stressors before they turn catastrophic,” he says.
Organizational behavior specialist Fred Luthans, PhD, developed the Psychological Capital (PsyCap) concept, which consists of four scientifically-backed, trainable capacities: hope, efficacy, resiliency, and optimism, aka HERO. When fostered in individuals, HERO can be an effective tool for reducing burnout. “The beauty of these psychological resources is that they can be developed in a relatively short workshop session,” Dr. Luthans tells me. “They can actually use serve as a shock absorber for burnout.” HERO training relies on clinical psychology techniques in each of the four areas. “For example, there are experts in clinical psychology who have been doing hope training for years, and the same is true in the field of efficacy, also known as confidence, etc.,” he says.
But assuming you’re not trained in the fields of clinical psychology focused on hope, efficacy, resiliency, and optimism, how, exactly, should you go about training your employees to develop their PsyCap? Start by listening to this podcast, in which Dr. Luthans explains how to foster the concept in the workplace for a happier, healthier, (and more productive, to boot) team.