We are well aware of the consequences of a demanding job on our health, relationships and identity. But we have probably become so accustomed to embrace the chaos and crazy, and gained immunity against serious introspection, that we are hardly able to identify a burnout, in the self, or others, until it is too late. We have all known the start-up founder packing his/her bags and leaving for an indefinite meditation retreat unannounced, and the sales representative who broke down unexpectedly because he/she couldn’t meet the targets.
While it is appealing, to pack your bags and take a break, roam the mountains and the beaches (pull off a la Eat, Pray, Love), when you burnout, sadly, doing so would be akin to putting a single band-aid on a broken bone, in hopes that it will heal. The constant environment of stress we exist in, prevents us from distinguishing between stress an, its’ much more serious and dangerous manifestation, an occupational burnout. Maybe the colloquial use of the term has popularised it, but not many fully understand the gravity of the term. Although many studies have been undertaken to study occupational burnout, beginning in the 1960’s, the modern discourse heavily borrows from the works of social psychologists Christina Maslach, Susan Jackson and their colleagues Wilmar Schaufeli, and Michael Leiter.
What is a burnout?
Burnout is an individual’s response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors within the workplace (Maslach et al., 2001).
A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by a long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.
The above definitions, although differently worded, capture the essence of what a burnout is, namely, a response to certain situations, exhaustion, and a sense of delusion. Personal situations and developments do result in similar symptoms, but occupational burnouts, although equally serious, probably go unnoticed. At the core of it, a burnout is characterised by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. The interplay of these, along with distress, cause dysfunctional attitudes, drop in performances, health-related issues, depression, physical and emotional fatigue and many more problematic challenges.
What onsets a burnout?
One is likely to attribute such a condition to mainly an excessive workload, impossible deadlines, or simple disbelief in one’s work, but in reality, several factors bring about a burnout. An occupational burnout will not hit you like a tidal wave, but build slowly, through the interplay of several factors. Modern work-life is anyway like fighting a battle on the front-line everyday, which usually begins with and ends in a long commute. The six major risk factors identified for burnout are: mismatch in workload, mismatch in control, lack of appropriate awards, loss of a sense of positive connection with others in the workplace, perceived lack of fairness, and conflict between values.
Hence, overwhelming workload is one of the many factors which might result in a burnout. Others could be a conflict or ambiguity in role, lack of appropriate resources, lack of social support, lack of feedback, amount of control over resources or processes, lack of social, financial or intrinsic rewards, perceived or actual bias.
How does one identify a burnout?
That’s the tricky part. Identifying a burnout, especially in the self is difficult. Most cases of burnout go unidentified until they become severe and propel an individual in a downward spiral. It is extremely essential to differentiate stress from chronic stress, which may lead to a burnout. Although stress, no matter how short lived, is known to be harmful to the health, it is the consistency in stress that you need to watch out for. For example, ask yourself, what is the biggest stressor in your job right now? If the answer is a certain project, event, presentation – or anything with a deadline, post which you know things will be slow, and you will get a chance to enjoy the work you do, the stress is induced by a certain task, and is likely to subside once the said task is over. Continued underperformance, growing list of to-dos, a sense of disengagement from the team and work, absolute loss of motivation to do better, and in most cases, consistent denial about all these things, is likely to point towards a graver issue.
Are you overly cynical at work? Do you often want to run away from your job and your work responsibilities? Are you constantly low on energy and find it tough to concentrate? Do you have a constant physical ailment – backache, fever, breathing problem, headache, which was recently developed? Are you easily irritated? Do you struggle to keep performing the tasks you used to ace before? Do you have to push yourself everyday to work, or do you often think about quitting? Do you have trouble following the habits of food, exercise, sleep and work that you did before? Are you denying yourself the answer to any of these questions, despite knowing better?
If a considerable number of above questions are answered in affirmative for you, or for your colleague, it would be best to stop and make an intervention.
What can you do?
As an individual, if you think you are close to a burnout, it is best to seek help from people around you. Let the boss and the team know you need to take it slow, and spend some time revisiting your career goals, to make necessary changes in your life. You will need to incorporate a positive approach towards work – putting your peace of mind and health first – and go back to things that make you happy. Analysing your job, role and work, will come in handy, if you are planning to make big changes to your career. You will have to consciously take back the control which you had somewhere let you, while eating right, sleeping sufficiently and exercising regularly. You will have to derive strategies to deal with such situations in a better manner, to make it work best for you. Obviously, if the way you carried on things resulted in a burnout, something was amiss. Hence, your best shot to progress forward is to re-evaluate, re-prioritise and re-focus. Know what will prevent you repeating the same mistakes, and reach out to your support system, or professionals, for help.
As an employer, you need to ensure that the work culture in your organisation doesn’t push anyone to the edge. Making channels and platforms to resolve the disconnect, and genuinely help employees reach a harmonious work-life balance is essential. As a leader, you need to ensure that the distribution of workload is not overwhelming on your team, and you provide your employees with the flexibility to pursue things outside of their job. An assistive and supportive role is non-negotiable, which makes the leadership approachable in such a crisis. Ensuring your employees’ well being, physically and emotionally, will benefit you in the longer run. Hence, you need to make a conscious choice to not chase the short-term growth by asking all your employees to activate their Turbo Mode on, but to ensure a sustainable, holistic and inclusive growth. Resolving discrepancies in workload distribution, control, rewarding fairly, fostering a community with common values, and ensuring a minimum level of flexibility will go a long way in ensuring happy and healthy employees.
The fact is that nobody is immune to falling prey to the phenomena of a burnout. Susceptibility to a burnout is not a function of strength, character or moral fibre, and leaves practically every working individual at risk. Your burnout can solidify its roots the on the very first day of your new job, where your role is nothing like you were told or imagined, or when you were transferred out of your department.
To quote a wildly shared picture on the social media recently, a lot many people today are burning out before they have a chance to shine. Identifying the problem is winning half the battle, and from then on it does get better – if you wish for it to. Furthermore, a burnout, although a terrible experience, might have a silver lining after all. It forces you to start afresh, with a new perspective and new set of priorities. A burnout proves that at the end of it all, you are still human, who cares, thinks, acts and behaves independently – and that you have the power and capability to turn things around. Now whether, you succumb to this realisation, or choose to work on it, is entirely up to you.