At the brink of burnout? Here’s why hustling harder isn’t the way out

Updated on Jul 01, 2022 10:17 PM IST

‘Burnout is primarily a relationship crisis between people and workplaces. And relationship problems require relationship solutions,’ says researcher Michael Leiter. Take a look at ways in which you and your workplace could collaborate to find a real fix.

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“It cannot be left to the individual to solve the problem of burnout. It is both an individual and organisational responsibility,” says UK-based psychologist Rajvinder Samra, whose focus is mental and psychological performance in work. Burnout is not a sign of a personal lack of resilience or poor stress management.

Why then is there so little attention given to this condition by employers and corporations? Partly because it is still defined primarily in terms of an individual’s experience (exhaustion, cynicism, decline in productivity). Compare this with debates about attrition rates, or discussions around The Great Resignation. In the latter two, there is a clear understanding and acknowledgement that the employee is responding to a set of conditions; that, at the very least, there are factors at play on both sides.

Because burnout is not viewed in the same manner, the solutions discussed tend to be personal too: work fewer hours a week, take more vacation days. The truth is, these aren’t strategies to address burnout, they’re mechanisms to cope with it.

If the job and workplace stay as they were, the stressors are there waiting when the employee returns.

What would a real solution look like? One approach is called the Areas of Worklife model, drawn from research by social psychologist and path-breaking burnout researcher Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Leiter, an emeritus professor of psychology at Acadia University in Canada and Deakin University in Australia. This model identifies six areas where employers and employees can work to identify and prevent potential burnout.

Workload: There are two key questions here: Is the workload sustainable? And is there time built into the system where an employee can recover and rest? Through the decades, there has been a consistent correlation between burnout and increased workloads. In a system that depends on employees being chronically overburdened, opportunities to rest and recover are either greatly diminished or cease to exist altogether.

Is your organisation dysfunctional in this respect? A good way to test that is to ask: Can I, as a high-performing employee, say no to more work with fear or recrimination or reprisals?

A good way to figure out if you are contributing to the problem is to ask: Do I delegate enough? And am I building enough breaks in, between deadlines, projects and goals?

Control: How much freedom an employee has in the execution of their job plays a key role, say Maslach and Leiter. There are two aspects to this kind of control. The first is participatory decision-making, particularly on matters relating to resources, innovation and the nitty-gritty of how a job is done. The second is the ability to establish boundaries.

If you’re a manager, a good question to ask is: Am I micro-managing people who don’t need it?

If you’re an employee, ask: Can my manager and I agree on hours in which I will not respond to work calls, texts or email (barring a work emergency)?

Reward: Salary, benefits and perks are part of the reward system. But so are feedback and acknowledgement. The social rewards of having people notice a meaningful job well done, and the intrinsic rewards such as the sense of pride that comes from doing such a job, can be crucial factors in the fight against burnout. It is the social rewards and the monetary ones together that create an environment where an employee feels their investment is worth the payoff.

For organisations and managers, it’s important to remember that feedback matters.

For employees, it can help to step up and ask for it.

Community: Who do you work with? How supportive and trusting are those relationships? Workplace community can make or break an experience at work.

People thrive in communities and perform best when they can share praise, comfort, positivity and humour with people they like and respect. This type of social support reaffirms a person’s sense of membership in a group with shared values.

Is your workplace socially toxic? Two questions can help determine the answer: Do we work well in groups? Do we have fair and effective methods for resolving disagreements?

Fairness: People judge their place in a community by how they are treated during decision-making and dispute-redressal procedures, say Maslach and Leiter. If a process seems fair, the favourability of the outcome can become almost secondary. If a process seems unfair, it can lead to a sense of alienation that contributes to burnout.

Fairness extends to acknowledgement of work, visibility, allocation of time and resources.

A simple question to ask on all sides: Would the same situation evoke the same response if the subject were another member of the team?

Mismatch in values: Burnout is about a lot more than being exhausted and overworked. The sense of being allowed to thrive and grow comes partly from the sense that one’s work, and the larger goal to which that work contributes, have meaning. It is important for both the individual and the corporation to work to find the best fit.

Steve Jobs, flawed as he was, put it succinctly in his question to John Sculley in the 1980s, when trying to woo him from PepsiCo to Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” It’s worth mentioning here that there is no right answer, or wrong one. It turned out that Sculley felt he would be more fulfilled at Apple, and joined as CEO in 1983.

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