Managerially caused burnout syndrome: “Sorry, it’s you, not me!”

By Kenneth Bo Jensen, Commercial Director, Talents Unlimited

Burnout syndrome, also known as work-related stress, has long been seen as an individual problem. A common sentiment is that people need to learn how to say no, how to relax, and perhaps even be more resilient anyway.
However, more and more evidence has built up in research that these advice column explanations are actually damaging rather than helpful. Why is this the case and why can’t you simply learn to take care of yourself? These questions are explored in the following.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a term originally from the 70’s that has been discussed ever since it was first coined. It has fundamentally been hard to define the concept due to the large variety of factors that are potentially relevant when dealing with burnout. The latest attempt happened in May of 2019, when the WHO (World Health Organization) included burnout as a disease ac-cording to ICD-11 and widened their description from the previous ICD-10. This inclusion might lead to an understanding of the phenomenon as something non-preventable you might catch, akin to an infectious disease. It’s more correct, however, to see it as a syndrome caused by poorly handled problem management.

The exact WHO definition is:
Burnout 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.

In addition, it’s important to note that burnout can only occur professionally:
Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

The financial consequences of burnout

A study from Stanford University demonstrated that work-related stress in the United States costs society about 190 billion dollars each year, as well as tragically claiming 120,000 lives. For comparison, the familiar insidious mental health diagnoses of depression and generalised anxiety combined carry with them a cost of 1 trillion dollars and hit 615 million people every year according to WHO estimates. These numbers only relate to directly correlated lost productivity, ignoring associated treatment costs. A separate estimate trying to incorporate every penny lost puts the dollar amount at $500 billion for work-related stress instead, vastly upping the ante. An APA study claims employees suffering from burnout are 2.6 times more likely to actively seek other jobs and are 63% more likely to take sick days from work. Whichever numbers are presented, there is little doubt that burnout is expensive, both financially and health wise.

It’s you, not me – top reasons for employee burnout

Christina Maslach, professor emerita in psychology from University of California Berkeley, is one of the world’s leading experts on burnout and burn-out measurement methods, and she is worried that the WHO definition might cause more harm than good. Although it is perhaps a better attempt at an encompassing definition than previously, putting burnout into the ICD-11 index is not without negative implications, according to Maslach. Many companies might look at an employee suffering from burnout and think, “we need to treat this person”, “you shouldn’t work here right now while you are dealing with a problem” or similar, probably well-intentioned sentiments. Suddenly, burnout as an illness becomes an issue on the part of the employee, rather than something caused by problems in the organisation that hired them in the first place.
This point is supported by a study done by Gallup on 7,500 full time employees and their experiences with the factors leading to burnout. The following 5-point list summarises the most common reasons employees cite as burnout-inducing.

1. Unfair treatment by the workplace

When employees strongly agree that they experience unfair treatment at their place of work, they are 2.3 times more likely to display the aforementioned WHO symptoms of burnout. Unfair treatment in the Gallup study could be negative bias, colleagues being favoured regarding provisions or bending regulations for some, but not others. When employees don’t have confidence in their managers, colleagues, or the organisation, the psychological bond that makes work meaningful is broken.

2. Unrealistic workload

In sports psychology they call it mental quicksand – it describes how poor performance can cause athletes to feel overburdened. This results in a further drop in performance, which at this point hurts their self-confidence, once again perpetuating the vicious cycle of even worse performances. High performing employees can go from being happy optimists to enduring feelings of hopelessness when they drown in an over the top workload. Once their deadlines are out of control, they look to their manager to help them draw the line on what they can and should do, and what they shouldn’t be burdened with, perhaps by finding others to delegate to.

3. Lack of transparency regarding role

A newer study from the U.S. showed that only 60% of employees could respond that they strongly agreed with what was expected of them in their work. When expectations are ambiguous rather than defined, burnout hap-pens more often. The best managers have conversations about responsibilities and performance measurement with their employees, and they work with them to make sure these expectations are clear – and crucially, mutually agreed upon.

4. Lack of communication and support from the manager

Managerial support and frequent communication creates a psychological safeguard that ensures that employees know their manager has their back, if something goes wrong. Employees that strongly agree to statements on having the support of their managers are 70% less likely to be hit by burn-out. In contrast, negligent or confrontational managers leave employees to be underinformed, alone and defensive.

5. Unrealistic time pressure

When employees say they often or always have enough time to complete their assigned job duties, they have 70% less chance of burning out. Often unrealistic deadlines and significant time pressure paint the picture of a manager who is unaware of how much effort the employees’ tasks require. Further, impossible deadlines and pressure can create a snowballing effect in such a way that a single aggressive deadline missed leads to falling be-hind with other things.

It becomes clear when looking at this list that the reasons for burnout do not lie with employees or any perceived weak constitution which is fixable simply by becoming more resilient. Rather, most cases of burnout are very much avoidable – but only if management does their preventative work well enough. It is the job of the manager to ensure that employees have positive experiences, and they must be able to identify the factors in their working environment which may cause burnout in their team. Doing this optimally requires transparent expectations, removal of barriers and facilitating co-operation, as well as fully supporting employees.

Ways to improve as a manager mindful of burnout

Thankfully burnout isn’t chronic, and its development can be reversed if the manager acts appropriately going forward. Here are five efforts that Gallup have identified as closely correlated with lowering the rate of burnout:

1. Listen to work-related problems

It sounds basic, and it’s a good thing that the best way to bring down burn-out is something as simple as being a manager that actively listens to work-related problems. Employees that have a manager who is willing to listen to their problems – and also the problems they believe the company is facing – have 62% less chance of burning out. Listening to your employees is the first step towards understanding their needs and thereby supporting them.

2. Encourage cooperation

Colleagues can add a further layer of support for burned out employees. Colleagues often understand the stress of the job better than the manager, and managers are not always aware of the exact requirements of employees’ daily tasks (see point 5 on the list of top reasons employees burn out). Therefore, it is up to the manager to create an environment where their em-ployees thrive, and colleagues know to listen to and help each other. In a word, managers must develop the internal communication and cooperation in their team, rather than work to minimise it across colleagues.

3. Hear out everybody’s opinions

Managers should actively listen to their employees’ opinions and ideas. When employees feel that their ideas for improvement are not only welcome, but can make a difference, they feel included and more important as a result. This leads to taking more responsibility for their own performance, even if the manager ultimately does not implement their idea. What’s important is for them to be heard in the process, as ownership minimises burnout and gives employees a sense of control over their work, rather than just following orders robotically.

4. Make the work meaningful

Employees have a significantly decreased chance of experiencing burnout if they feel their work is meaningful. Not just the overarching purpose of the organisation, but their own position as well. People do not work solely to collect their pay, but also to satisfy a need to be a useful cog in a machine they enjoy identifying with. It is therefore important that the manager does more than talk about the larger mission, as he or she must also show the employee how their own individual work makes a difference.

5. Focus on strength-based feedback and development

Employees that have the opportunity to work with their strengths have a 57% lower likelihood of experiencing burnout. Employees perform at their best when they work with their strengths, are recognised for them, and are supported by their manager to find tasks and cooperate in ways that maximise those strengths. The optimism felt when developing strengths reduces stress and can help focus employees on their successes rather than their burdens at work.

These pieces of advice are banal at first glance and something that seemingly all managers should know. Sadly, we see again and again that despite being aware of the benefits outlined above, managers oftentimes neglect to follow through, often due to their priorities remaining at a strategic rather than tactical or operational level (simply because it may be more fun). Sometimes, managers don’t feel like they have the time to put into such man-management, and other times because it’s uncomfortable to have a plan and then have it challenged. Many factors can be at play, but whatever they are, it is unwise to drop the employees down the list of priorities, as they are not only important from a human perspective, but also key for the financial wellbeing of the organisation.

Ways the organisation can improve to reduce burnout

There is little doubt that burnout is a symptom of the higher pace of the modern workplace, with increased complexity and high demands of workers to always be on. Simultaneously, technology especially has blurred the lines between work and free time, with many people available close to 24/7. It is important not to forget that employees want to work hard and be productive – it’s just necessary to find the right balance and management style to sup-port it. That is why we say managers are really managers of talent, whose most important job is to remove the barriers holding back their employees from success. The key for an organisation is to focus on establishing the right managers first, ones who are prepared adequately with the right tools and insights. Nothing has a larger impact on the burnout frequency of employees as the direct supervisor. Here follow 3 things an organisation can do to minimise burnout:

1. Measure performance KPI’s that are within the control of employees

KPI’s help employees and managers alike figure out how the company is do-ing. It’s natural that they also influence conversations about performance and are used as determinants for financial incentives for the employees. For this reason, employees who agree that they have significant influence on the state of their KPI’s are 55% less likely to experience burnout. Conversely, when employees are measured with KPI’s they have low or no influence on, they have an increased chance of suffering from burnout and anxiety. Hard work suddenly feels irrelevant when external factors can easily disrupt any trace of it on the KPI’s. Suddenly, their performance markers cause frustration and hopelessness, with no way out of the hole for the individual.

2. Reduce noise and disruptions

Several studies consistently show that employees who are frequently interrupted have less output and of a lower quality in their work. The same is true for their happiness in the workplace. When disrupted, employees can have a hard time entering the zone and achieving a state of heightened productivity. As an interesting aside, a high percentage of companies report about equal or even better efficiency now that they are working from home due to COVID-19. It seems a logical assumption that this is related to the issue of interruptions in the workplace, and solid advice is to reduce burn-out and frustrated employees by fostering a culture of respect for others time. Concrete initiatives might be a focus on keeping interruptions to a minimum by e-mailing rather than calling for things that do not require immediate attention.

3. Design jobs to allow for autonomy

Job autonomy is understood as flexibility and control over the process of work in order to get the set tasks done. Employees are 43% less likely to experience significant burnout when they choose themselves how and when to complete their tasks, including how much time they are to spend on them. Naturally, deadlines and regulations are unavoidable in a working environment, but outside of broader control, employees should be allowed to work in a manner of their choosing for best results.

We have now looked at the top reasons why employees experience burnout, and what managers and organisations should do to support the reduction of burnout in the workplace. As a final aside, Maslach also employs Herzberg’s theory of dual-factor motivation in her arguments for minimising burnout. Although there are divided opinions on the efficacy of the theory, the perspective is interesting; perhaps satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not correlated in such a way that an increase in one results in an automatic fall in the other? If this is true, employees can be both satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time. Managers need to be aware of this and ensure an increase in satisfaction while still being mindful of the possibility of dissatisfaction on a different scale. An example is the satisfaction an employee might feel when his manager puts him in charge of a new, exciting project – the manager may believe he has done his job to support and make his employee happy, but this does nothing to alleviate the employee’s concern about frustrating process inefficiencies in his or her day-to-day job.

The effective way to manage these dual factors is to ask questions and maintain a close dialogue with your employees in an effort to understand them. It’s important to stress that a manager should not be superficial about it, as a first glance might only be enough to prompt people to give a bigger picture of their emotional state at work, while ignoring or trivialising the irritations they could feel simultaneously. Little things such as the new coffee in the cafeteria being worse than the old one, or the annoyances experienced when forced to work overtime on a less than inspiring task, must come to the forefront through continued conversation and caring.
The bottom line is: Burnout can be reduced simply by asking what your employees need! Remember, when it comes to burnout, the problem more often than not lies with you as the manager, not with the employee.

References:

(Brom, Buruck, Horváth, Richter, & Leiter, 2015; CMI, 1999; Heinemann & Heinemann, 2017; Moss, 2019; Song & Baicker, 2019; WHO, 2019)

APA (2015): Stress in America: Paying with our health, February 4th

Brom, S. S., Buruck, G., Horváth, I., Richter, P., & Leiter, M. P. (2015). Areas of worklife as predictors of occupational health – A validation study in two German samples. Burnout Research, 2(2), 60-70. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.burn.2015.05.001

CMI. (1999). Frederick Herzberg: the hygiene-motivation theory. In Thinkers. London, England: Chartered Management Institute.

Heinemann, L. V., & Heinemann, T. (2017). Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis. SAGE Open, 7(1), 2158244017697154. doi:10.1177/2158244017697154

Moss, J. (2019). Burnout is about your workplace, not your employees. Harvard Business Review.

Song, Z., & Baicker, K. (2019). Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 321(15), 1491-1501. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.3307

WHO. (2019). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases.

Wigert, B. & Agrawal, S. (2018): Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx?fbclid=IwAR30eTqlLtPDDSoy_Hpf_JnEBKUWmGmPtNTqg_1o8zc4Ud4BFb8rTswZUEs

Wigert, B. & Agrawal, S. (2018): Employee burnout, part 2: What can managers do https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237119/employee-burnout-part-2-managers.aspx?fbclid=IwAR39szjUQclj10YSJc5Dop1332plR5JRDUTiOO-go3G61nYcEyf0kfME-dA

Wigert, B. & Agrawal, S. (2018): Employee burnout, part 3: How organizations can stop burnout, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237185/employee-burnout-part-organizations-stop-burnout.aspx?fbclid=IwAR0j51XwpE3oRDzVXJwDrwKJRZ9uFMmWZ6LboForP5azoMJ-deAJ4pAB-Jg

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