Burnout is a common problem in contemporary workplaces, but it’s complex and often overlooked, says one organisational psychology expert.
Many people don’t pick up on the warning signs of burnout before reaching crisis point, says Dr Sarah Cotton, organisational psychologist and director at consultancy Transitioning Well.
It’s like the frog in the boiling water — things heat up too slowly to notice, but before long it’s too hot.
Typically burnout is accompanied by three things: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced productivity.
“You know when you’re dealing with someone and they’re absolutely spent. And they go, you know what, I’ve just got nothing left in my tank. … Sometimes it’s hard for them to even really function,” Cotton said at last week’s Not For Profit People conference, hosted by EthicalJobs.com.au in Melbourne.
“When I’ve talked with people who are dealing with burnout, often what I hear is people saying, ‘I just feel numb’.”
The six biggest factors behind burnout
Cotton’s PhD research and work experience helped her identify six “pain points” that can lead to burnout.
The first is expectations misalignment — the job is not what was expected. For purpose-driven people, this might be taking on a position that turns out to have little social impact, for example. Organisations can manage new staff expectations by conducting entry interviews — like exit interviews but at the start — to ensure there’s a realistic understanding of what the job entails.
Second is unsustainable workload. Where possible, ensuring resources are matched to the tasks required can help prevent the financial and human costs of staff burnout and high turnover.
Third is mission exposure risk. Frontline workers in areas like human services can suffer vicarious trauma from working with people in crisis. Rather than simply treating this as part of the job, organisations need to be sure support services are in place.
Fourth is working on autopilot, where staff are disengaged and just going through the motions required of them.
Fifth is a passive-aggressive workplace culture. This is increasingly being recognised as a common phenomenon. It often takes the form of false consensus around change.
“When there’s agreement, but there’s not agreement. There’s agreement, but nothing ever changes,” Cotton explains.
“You come out of a meeting, great, everyone’s on board — then you try and actually implement that change and the resisters subtly make themselves known. … The level of frustration that can hit people, a lot of my clients call it ‘crazy-making’.”
The final one is a poor work-life culture.
“There are so many demands these days, and separation between work and life is almost non-existent,” Cotton says.
“I believe it’s one of the biggest pain points.”
Finding a balance
Having clear boundaries between work and life is very important — as is being able to clearly communicate them to those who want to impinge on your personal time.
Just remember — no matter how much work gets done, “there’s always going to be demands and there’s always going to be deliverables,” says Cotton.
Understanding how we manage this balance can help identify where problems might arise.
You may not realise it, but you probably have rituals that provide a buffer between home life and the office. This might be listening to music on your commute or drinking a coffee before turning on your computer. While typically small, such habits play an important psychological role in preparing us for the day ahead and winding down in the evening.
“There’s always going to be demands and there’s always going to be deliverables.”
Bad habits can disturb our ability to balance work and life. This might come from other people, whether an unsupportive partner or a boss who always wants us to do more.
You might be interrupting someone else’s productivity — think about whether you really need to go and ask your colleague that question while they’re otherwise occupied.
Or perhaps you’re interrupting yourself. Research shows humans tend to perform poorly when we try to multi-task, so scrolling through Facebook while on that conference call is probably a bad idea.
Think about whether you’re sabotaging your own downtime. Most people will say they intend to spend the time at home with their family engaging and enjoying their company, but in practice we often let smartphones and work emails crowd out these intentions.
Use trusted external systems like calendars and other databases. It can be draining trying to remember every little detail about everything, so placing that information in a place you can easily access it allows you to use that energy elsewhere. Just make sure it’s a trusted system, otherwise you’re not really going to let go of the information.
“You shouldn’t feel selfish for ensuring your basic physical and mental needs are met.”
When you do decide to make some changes to your work-life balance, make sure you ask what the possibilities for flexible work in your workplace are, Cotton suggests. There are often more options than you realise.
This requires workplaces to create a culture where flexible work is accepted. Many people still report leaving early to pick up the kids as the “walk of shame” in their office — and of course many aren’t even able to access flexibility in the first place.
And finally, practise self-advocacy — or what others might call self-care. You shouldn’t feel selfish for ensuring your basic physical and mental needs are met. There’s little point trying to do it all when you’re so drained you can’t do anything properly.
As Olympian Libby Trickett once put it: “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”