We live and work in a burnout culture (long read)

*Update 11.10.2022 check out The relationship between loneliness and health, JRC129972.* What is the state of burnout these days amongst our colleagues? Do we know what proportion of us are feeling burnt out? What is it to be burned out? Where are we on this topic? What help is available? Are there any negatives to seeking help?

Burnout was already a problem prior to COVID 19: so much so that in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon and conceptualized it as a syndrome: Z73.0 Burn-out State of vital exhaustion: a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Burnout: ‘A work-related condition of emotional exhaustion in which interest in work, personal achievement, and efficiency decline sharply and the sufferer is no longer capable of making decisions. The condition is brought on by the unrelenting stress of pressure at work and is frequently experienced by individuals in jobs involving considerable involvement with people, who derive a major part of their self-esteem from their work, and have few interests outside it.’ (Oxford Reference dictionary)

An analysis by the Independent Health Insurance Funds (MLOZ) [in Dutch only] warns that the number of people off sick with burnout increased by 66% in 2018-2021 and demanded ‘a critical look at the current approach to these issues’. (The Brussels Times, 07.07.2022)

People suffer burnout and workplaces and their cultures are a big part of the cause

Work absence is an important matter and long-term sick leave is a challenge for all concerned. A great deal of sick leave involves a psychosocial disorder, including burnout, which has its own particular difficulties in terms of returning to work and the potential for relapse (The Antwerp Management School (AMS)). This makes sense if you think of putting someone back in an environment which is unchanged, an environment which caused (or contributed significantly) to colleagues becoming unwell in the first place.

Look back at the definition of burnout above: sometimes the people burning out are the very same colleagues who enjoy their work and gain a great deal of satisfaction from it. So, let’s be honest and admit that our relationship with burnout is conflicted. Some of us love the very things that cause us to burn out. We all want our contribution to be meaningful, to have a good career and to contribution as professionals. Thus, we tell ourselves that hard work is a sign of moral and professional character. We are impressed by the person who has success and recognition even though we know that this person has paid a big price for it. We even use burnout as a term of self-praise or sometimes as something earned through effort, something to strive for. Often, when we say we are burned out, we are signalising that we are exemplary workers, people who give everything they have to their jobs. Unfortunately, we often do not realise the harm that these beliefs and throwaway comments can do, both to ourselves and to those around us. Check out whether you are at risk of burn out.

Misunderstandings and where to find out more

Many people think burnout is a problem for the individual, that one person who did not fit. This is not true! Individuals exist in systems and environments; therefore, we have to look deeper at the entire system where the people work. On the same idea, within the book Burnout fix (Available on FIND-ER, along with many burnout resources (also check out burnout on EU Learn)) Jacinta M. Jiménez talks about six specific mismatches between the nature of a person and the nature of their work that lead to burnout.

Fairness: How is it possible that you have been working really hard at your job yet there’s no clear job promotion or career perspective for you (e.g. our non-permanent colleagues such as contract agents (CA), local agents (LAs) and temporary agents (TAs)). Similarly, no matter how much or how well our secretaries and clerks (AST/SCs)[*] colleagues work, their advancement is very slow and very limited. When you have a lack of fairness, that’s going to damage motivation and can make for a less-than-optimal work environment.

Workload: If you have a huge workload and you don’t have the resources, whether that’s time, people, equipment, budget, that is also going to damage morale and can lead to consequences even more serious than burnout.

Community:  We are human beings. First and foremost, we are wired to connect, that’s how we’ve survived for centuries. We could not have survived without one another. When we feel a breakdown in community at work, we feel lonely, we do not feel like we belong (a sensation that is set to be exacerbated via the open-and-dynamic spaces/hot-desking approach and the shared-space policy), that can undermine all of HR’s efforts towards ‘putting people at the heart of our organisation’.

Values: If your boss is telling you to do something that feels out of alignment with what you stand for, or you see that the system being unfair and this goes against your beliefs and values and what was promised, this will also wear you down.

Reward: We all like rewards. We want to feel rewarded for our efforts and when we are not being rewarded fairly or being acknowledged (this can be intrinsic, social or economic reward, not limited to the material) it is easy to become demotivated and disengaged. This situation is made worse when the few formal rewards available (e.g. promotion/reclassification) are sometimes distributed in a less-than-transparent manner or when an upgrade results in no tangible benefit There can be a sense of ‘I worked so hard for this’?

Control: Where we don’t have control over our environment, it’s a recipe for learned helplessness where you fall into thinking, ‘why even try if I have no way to influence my environment. I’m just going to plod along/give up/’quietly quit’!’ Yes, quietly quitting or no longer going above and beyond is nothing new! Incredibly, staff willingness to give extra effort when required was at 94% in the last staff survey (November 2021) where will that figure be at the next survey?

Many possible causes

So a burnout, much like everything else in life, is due to a combination of factors. It’s not only from overworking, it’s can also be linked to a mismatch between our capacities as humans and the nature of our work, the culture of our organisation, the behaviour of management etc.

If you can figure out which of those six mismatches align with what might be going on for you, you are in a much better position to address them. So it’s really important for all of us to understand that a burnout situation is not just on the one who burned out, it’s not because that one person is weak or has poor coping strategies, a lot of it has to do with our jobs, our environment and what’s important for us.

What does burnout look like?

Burnout, in addition to the Oxford and WHO definitions above, is the experience of being chronically stretched across a gap between your ideals for work and the reality of your job. When this gap becomes bigger and bigger, you find it harder and harder to hold on to both ideal and reality. You lose elasticity and at some point, you break. The researchers dealing with burnout measure it on a three part scale: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. That is, when you’re chronically exhausted by your work, when you treat the people you work with as problems, and when you feel useless at work … you are burned out! Most people will experience at least one element of burnout at some point in their careers. And some will undergo all three.

So let’s tackle each of these 3 components to understand better and recognise easier the signs of burnout.

  1. Mental and physical exhaustion. That is when you feel like you go on a vacation and you don’t feel restored after this vacation. You take time off work, but you don’t feel better. You will hear people saying: ‘I feel tired when I have to get up in the morning and face another day on the job’. ‘I feel emotionally drained by my work’. So it’s that really deep, deep level of exhaustion. This is why G2004 rand the alarm bell when talking about the right to disconnect.
  2. Cynicism and detachment. This is a really interesting one because a lot of times, people who are most engaged in their work are the ones who actually are more prone to burn out because they are passionate about it, care about it and want to give everything to it. Ironically, a lot of times these people end up cynical even though they were the most engaged ones in their work. Therefore when cynicism shows up you become less interested in your work, and you will hear people saying: ‘Just leave me alone. Don’t bother me, I just want to get my work done. I’m not enthusiastic about my work’. The technical term can also be called ‘depersonalization’ where you just don’t feel connected to what you do anymore.
  3. Feeling a lack of effectiveness. In this category are those people who are competent and able to do their job, but they have reached this point with burnout where they don’t feel confident about getting things done. They don’t feel like they’re making an effective contribution. They feel like they’re kind of drowning or can’t catch up and they can’t effectively solve problems.

When all these three components come together, that is when burnout happens and it is the most damaging form. You can still contribute to our survey on burnout, by giving us your input. At the same time, it is interesting to know that people have different burnout profiles. So one person may be really feeling the inefficacy but not so much the exhaustion and maybe a moderate level of cynicism, where someone else could be heavy on the cynicism but not feel much exhaustion.

What is to be done under these circumstances?

Burnout is widespread. At the same time, we have to be realistic and to understand that burnout has a big cost for us all e.g. due to absence, staff turnover (where people don’t stay long in a team or department), diminished productivity, medical, legal, and insurance costs. Lately we have all changed our lives substantially because of the pandemic. Burnout is a growing phenomenon and the silver lining could be that, due to the pandemic, people and institutions are actually paying more attention to it: wanting to address it and wanting to find solutions for it. Check out HR’s list of actions and resources.

If you read about burnout in business magazines and life-hack websites, you find a lot of quick-fix advice for how you, as an individual, can deal with your burnout. E.g. just learn to say no, reorganize your schedule, be mindful. These are just superficial recommendations: they leave it to the individual worker to heal their own burnout, but the individual did not cause their own burnout! The organizational culture and workplace did.

To end burnout culture, we must change our environment and our organisational culture. For these changes the leadership has the most vital role. The change cannot be bottom-up in the case of burnout. Meaning that the management has a crucial role. At the same time, bear in mind that within the institutions there are almost 8000 non-permanent colleagues (e.g. CAs and TAs) who have a very unstable working situation which by now it is clear that it generates the most cases of burnout. Therefore, G2004 believes that:

  1. Managers to be trained in the area of the burnout and to be explained what it means, how it manifests and how affects people and teams. Managers to organise team-building events or other type of events in order to improve the communication within their teams and whenever they see people that manifest the burnout symptoms to try to reach that person. We drafted the Central Staff Committee note to the Mediation Service asking for feedback on its repeated recommendations for management training (see particularly footnotes 5 and 6).
  2. Managers to recruit people when they need to, because sometimes they are told that the recruitment process will take too long and then they turn inside and they try to find solutions within the same unit or directorate and in the end they appeal to those people who were anyhow helping before especially because they were not able to say NO.
  3. Managers to work with a coach. When you have responsibility of other people’s lives it is advisable that you can communicate with a neutral person and also to try to find understanding of the different situations and circumstances without being bias and let yourself influenced by your emotional intense baggage.
  4. Managers to create a psychological safe environment. Psychological safety is where there’s a drive to minimize and manage negative emotional and cognitive states such as fear, blame, uncertainty, insecurity, distress in favour of states which facilitate respect, tolerance, collaboration, trust, satisfaction, enthusiasm, and security. This provides the context in which the value of the employees brain potential can be maximized, what we call a high-performing neural environment.

Poor behaviour and interactions, a recipe for burnout (and harassment?)

Research conducted in collaboration with Harvard Business Review taking data from nearly 20000 employees from around the world found that the single most powerful manager behaviour that makes a difference across multiple employee performance and well-being outcomes is RESPECT. Without respect, certain behaviours that individually can seem inconsequential, but cumulatively create a culture which just decreases productivity. A culture rooted in respect promotes greater enjoyment and satisfaction, better health, and well-being, and has a clear impact on employee engagement.

 Creating a culture of psychological safety requires your team to consider both the way they act towards and the way they respond to the people that they work with. By exhibiting pro-social states which positively facilitate team-working, each person can collectively contribute to generating of a psychologically safe workspace. Isn’t it amazing? That just these small things can have such a radically positive impact on people!

As always, we would love to hear from you. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us or leave a comment below.

If you appreciate our work, please consider becoming a member of Generation 2004.

[*] In spite of the name of this function group, remember these colleagues are also e.g. drivers and body guards.

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