Since the start of the pandemic, employee “burnout” is on the agenda of most executive teams and BODs. Yet, this very costly and debilitating health issue started well before Covid-19 emerged from Wuhan City, China.
It turns out, the causes of “burnout,” are not always well understood by people in power; many C-suite leaders and employees themselves believe it’s simply correlated with the “demands” of work, such as weekly hours and pressure. And wouldn’t that make everybody’s life easier: to “fix” burnout, simply work fewer hours and reduce the pressure. Done. No more burnout, right?
Well, not exactly. There is another, much less appreciated factor, that’s crucial to understanding and ultimately avoiding this chronic health condition. Employee control.
Workaholics vs. Lazy People
But before I jump into the facts of burnout today, explore the importance of “control” and offer some actionable tips, I’d like to share a personal story that illustrates some of the confusion around the hard work/burnout relationship —— and why employee control should never be overlooked as a major factor.
When I lived and worked in France for almost ten years, my local friends liked to “remind me” of how the French were different from the Americans. It was quite simple, they would submit: you Americans live to work. We French work to live. In other words, in France, work is a means to an end and not really a part of “living” in itself. To the French, whose government legislated a 35-hour workweek in the late 1990s, Americans work too many hours and take too few vacations.
To the Americans, the French lack the virtue of hard work. Yet, when I was the CEO of a European operation with offices in six European countries, the joke circulating in our Paris office was this: “we love the 35-hour rule so much, we do it twice a week.” We were indeed a high-growth business with a highly motivated team. I don’t recall seeing or hearing symptoms of burnout.
Reflecting upon these stereotypes, I think my French friends and colleagues were half right: for cultural reasons, we Americans take too little time to recharge our batteries, spend time with our families, and diversify our life experiences, beyond our job. And, based on personal experience, the French workplace fostered fewer moments of feeling “out-of-control.” At the same time, what my French friends ignored was that work for many Americans could be “living” and genuinely fulfilling.
But in my view, these perceptions miss the point. An examination of the “burnout epidemic” we’re hearing so much about since 2020 illustrates the confusion around the effect of work intensity on personal health. The conclusions have significant implications for empowering people to avoid burnout. As we all know, burnout dramatically reduces an employee’s capacity to create business value and increases the risk of their resignation. The spillover can trigger other talent in the organization to also consider leaving.
So what are the causes of “burnout?” Are people simply working too many hours and under too much pressure to deliver?
Let’s Define Burnout
First, let’s define what we mean by “burnout”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
* Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
* Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
* Reduced professional efficacy.”
Burnout Is Everywhere
As you were reading this definition, you no doubt wondered if you, a loved one or colleague at work suffered from this “burnout” syndrome.
To get you grounded in this burnout phenomenon, here are some important facts:
- Americans judge their stress level to be unhealthy. A 2019 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that Americans consider a healthy stress level at an average of 3.8 (scale ranging from 1 to 10, where 10 is “a great deal of stress” and 1 is “little or no stress;”) however, they report having experienced an average stress level of 4.9.
- As in 2020, American workers across the board saw heightened rates of burnout in 2021. According to the APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,500 U.S. adult workers, 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.
- A survey by Indeed reports that 67% of all workers believe burnout has worsened over the course of the pandemic and 56% said their human resources departments did not encourage a conversation about burnout.
So What Gives?
So what’s causing this massive burnout phenomenon? My thinking about burnout changed considerably when I read Brian Klass’s recently published book “Corruptible.” In his book, Klass makes reference to Sir Michael Marmot’s research at University College London and leads us to some important insights that relate to burnout. Dr. Marmot studied the relationship between our work ——the number and the qualities of the hours people worked —— and the biological stress we experience. In his study, Marmot expected to find that people higher up in the hierarchy, because they were theoretically in higher stress jobs, had a greater chance of burning out. But that’s not what he found.
What he found is this: while higher ranked people are under more stress than those lower in the hierarchy, they also felt they had more control to shape events in the workplace.
Here’s how Klass explains it in his book:
- People who faced immense pressure at work were fine so long as they also felt a high degree of control;
- People who felt under a lot of pressure and didn’t feel they had a a high degree of control experienced much higher rates of burnout.
No Control x High Stress = Burnout
Marmot’s critical insight into the causes of “burnout” is highly relevant today. He concluded: “I realized it’s not just the pressure. It’s a combination of high demands [pressure] and low control. According to Marmot and his research team, the health of people who faced significant work pressure would be fine as long as they felt a high degree of control.
This finding raises a second question: why is “high stress” not necessarily bad for our health? The answer, according to Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, relates to our biology. Stress, it turns out, is a crucial tool for our survival. We employ it automatically for short-term needs e.g. presenting to our boss. But when we’re continuously in a stress mode, acute stress become chronic stress. And chronic stress leads to burnout.
Working in moments of high pressure or occasional weeks of longer hours when the experience is satisfying is not necessarily “stressful” from a biological point of view, and therefore may not cause burnout. But when we work in stressful situations over long periods of time with little control over shaping our workplace experience, we may face adverse health consequences, potentially leading to burnout.
Five Tips for Vaccinating Yourself Against Burnout
To reduce the risk of burnout, organizations need to explore ways of giving their employees, at all levels of the hierarchy, a maximum amount of feeling-of-control over their work environments, while ensuring it’s sufficiently aligned with the business goal. As a starting point, it’s essential to understand and accept that chronic stress ultimately works against the achievement of business goals.
So what to do?
In an ever-changing world, there will always be moments when we feel “out-of-control.” When we feel this way, we creatively adapt, and take back more control. These moments of acute stress are part of a healthy life; however, when this stress persists and becomes chronic, we may become unhealthy and less effective.
Here are five tips for mitigating the burnout risk. Each endeavors to give you and your colleagues more say over the everyday events and decisions that directly affect you.
Tip 1: Explore what workplace factors are making you feel “out-of-control.” Are there decisions that directly affect you that you’re left out of? Consider keeping a journal and monitoring when you feel long periods of high stress and connect it to a workplace event that triggered it. Consider specific actions you can take to gain more control over these kinds of workplace events.
Tip 2: Have those difficult conversations. If you pay attention to your “alerts,” you’ll know when a situation is stressful. When the stress lingers beyond a specific event, it’s time to have a conversation with the powers that can change the situation. And your conversation may lead you to a better understanding of why a decision was made; this in itself may alleviate some of your stress. Perhaps this is your boss. Don’t put it off –— it may lead to chronic stress.
Tip 3: Establish realistic personal boundaries. You know your limits if you pay attention to your body. Hard work is one thing, working in an environment where you lose control is another. Only you can know the limits that keep you healthy: make sure you stay close to them and avoid going beyond the edge too often.
Tip 4: Consider job alignment. When your job requires you to consistently allocate energy to tasks you don’t care about or your values are in conflict with your work culture, you can begin to feel out-of-control. Maybe you took the job to please other people or your expectations of the role did not match the organization’s. If this is the case, such misalignment can cause unhealthy stress and lead to burnout. When you conclude there’s a mis-alignment, explore your options and create a plan for change.
Tip 5: Pass it forward. This is where your empathic competency is an essential part of your leadership role. As a people leader, or even a self-leader, respecting and empowering healthy work habits around you is your responsibility and opportunity. By doing this as a people leader, your success at integrating your team’s efforts and interests around a business goal is enhanced.
At Mach10, we support many clients who recognize this and want to work toward positive change and improved leadership effectiveness. If we can support you, please schedule an exploratory conversation.