21 January 2020

To Tackle Burnout, We Must First Understand What Causes It

Burnout is now an officially recognized medical diagnosis.

According to the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases, it is described as:

A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

So, we know what burnout is, but are we clear on what causes it? We often discuss it as a natural consequence of grueling hours and an always-on work culture – but this is only half the story. In addition to overwork, there are numerous psychological factors that result in employees becoming exhausted, negative, and unproductive. Here are just a few examples.

1. A toxic workplace environment

In toxic workplaces, fear is the predominant factor behind decisions and actions. Employees fear their managers – they fear what will happen if they underperform, or if they do or say the wrong thing.

This leads to a culture of conformity, where nobody dares challenge the status quo or speak their mind. Ideas are suppressed, creativity is stifled, and trust breaks down. Working in such an environment can leave the most resilient person with shredded nerves.

2. Feeling that you can’t be yourself

Another symptom of a toxic workplace is the feeling that you can’t be yourself. Instead, you put on a professional mask and act in a way that is inauthentic. Doing this day in, day out can be soul-destroying.

So why do we do it? The main reason is self-preservation. In businesses where diversity and inclusion are not top of the agenda, people may feel like they have to act a certain way just to fit in, even if it means denying their true selves.

3. Not feeling appreciated

If you consistently put in the effort but nobody seems to notice, it can be totally dispiriting. Yet this is the sad reality for many people in the workplace. Over time, this lack of appreciation can lead to a sense of professional disillusionment.

Recognition is such a simple way to engage staff and show them that they are valued – all it takes is a comment or message. Yet so many businesses fail to get this right.

4. Working in a way that undermines your own values

Our values define who we are and how we relate to the world. When we are forced to work in a way that runs counter to our own beliefs and ideals, we do profound psychological damage to ourselves.

If employees are expected to leave their values at the door – whether as a result of social pressure or shady work practices – they will soon become disillusioned and cynical.

5. A lack of support

Everyone experiences problems at work, but what if you have nobody to turn to for support? Instead of discussing your issues, you internalize them. Of course, this shouldn’t happen – managers should be on hand to provide support, guidance, and advice when needed. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Some employees would rather suffer in silence than share their issues with their manager, for fear of being judged negatively. Over time, problems grow out of all proportion, causing employees untold mental stress.

6. A lack of direction or meaning

Ideally, work should be more than just a way to pay the bills. It should be something that provides our lives with a sense of meaning and direction. When we feel that the work we do is insignificant or pointless, or if it isn’t clear how it benefits others or where it is heading, it can be incredibly dispiriting.

All work has meaning – otherwise, the job wouldn’t exist. But when we fail to provide clarity around goals at both an individual and organizational level, this meaning can easily be lost.

So what can we do about this?

The factors above have one thing in common – in the long run, they result in a psychological disconnect between the person and their work. In addition to the physical impact of a grueling work schedule, this psychological disconnect can cause employees to become mentally drained and disengaged, leading to burnout.

Work takes up a huge part of our lives. If we don’t feel a strong emotional connection to what we do for a living, it can feel like an endless struggle. This is why businesses must do everything they can to meet their employees’ psychological needs.

Of course, no two people are the same. Everyone has different preferences, as well as different tolerance levels to physical and mental stress. Some thrive in high-pressure, results-driven environments, while others find it overwhelming. The only way to understand – and fix – the factors that cause burnout is to understand your staff – and that means listening to them.

By having regular conversations with your employees, you give them an opportunity to voice their concerns. If their workload is too heavy, or if they feel work isn’t challenging enough, they can say so. Once these issues are out in the open, they can be fixed. Of course, this only works if your workplace culture is based around honesty, trust, and support.

Without these conversations, we will only see the effect that burnout has on people’s work. We will see the drop in productivity, increased sickness absence, and poor performance, but we won’t understand the root causes, nor the physical and psychological impact it has on the individual.

Really, burnout shouldn’t happen. This is the 21st Century – the fact that so many people reach a state of mental and physical exhaustion at work is shameful. But it will continue to happen if we fail to understand and meet our employees’ needs. 

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Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards is a Content Writer at MHR

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