Minisode: Burnout in the Workplace with Jenn DeWall

Hi, everyone. It’s Jenn DeWall with The Leadership Habit. And today, I’m talking about a very important issue and an issue that likely you may be experiencing yourself. And that topic is burnout. That’s right. We know that burnout was an issue prior to the pandemic, but that the pandemic has actually made it worse. And of course, we know there are a lot of reasons. There’s a lot of ways that our lives have changed.

Our organizations have changed that have really caused us to have to do more with less, maybe absorb additional roles. And so we can see burnout, and it might look like having more mental health challenges. If you’re struggling from anxiety, that could be worse, feeling like maybe you can’t get out from the pile of work that’s on top of you or maybe depression because we’re isolated. We’re not having that return to normalcy, or we might just be exhausted. Or we might just be indifferent, right? We might be complacent.

We may not feel that we have the energy anymore to keep going, to want to do it in the best way as if we would on our best days. And this is important to remember that if any of this is ringing true for you, or you’re starting to think, am I showing signs of burnout? Am showing signs of this? Start to recognize that if it’s you, it likely could also be your team, too. And the biggest challenge with burnout is we often just believe that it’s an individual problem instead of an organizational problem.

What is Burnout?

But what is burnout? The concept actually originated in the 1970s, but in 2019, the World Health Organization officially included burnout in its international classification of diseases. It is a global issue. It is not something that’s specific to one country. The consequences or the results of burnout may differ by each country, but every country has this challenge.

Now what’s important to know is maybe a little bit of data to help you understand how this is showing up. Harvard Business Review did a survey, and what they’ve found— and this survey is from fall 2020— so this is very recent results. What they found is that 57% of employees felt that the pandemic had a large effect on or completely dominated their work. Now that’s not surprising again, as we may have had a lot of changes, maybe there were layoffs. Maybe we needed to change the way that we do business. So there was just a lot of change. People were being asked to adjust to new processes or learn things a new way, which can be very taxing. Here’s another statistic that they found from their survey that 56% said their job demands had increased. Is that true for you? Because if that’s true for you or have you notice that to be true of others in your organization, burnout may be an issue for your organization.

And that get this one— and this one might be the biggest indicator of the fact that we need to be more empathetic, calm, and kind to understand that people are really suffering right now.  85% of the respondents—and again, these respondents are managers and above. This is also in your frontline workers— that 85% said that their wellbeing had declined—85%! We are working in environments where people don’t feel the same. They are challenged mentally. They’re challenged physically. Maybe they’re becoming teachers and having to practice or do virtual homeschooling with their kids. This number should be assigned that your organization needs to do something.

What is the Cost of Burnout?

Because what’s the cost? Let’s talk about the cost to your organization. If your staff is burnt out, of course, you’re going to have disengagement because they may not have the energy to adapt to a new change or try something new, or you might see conflict on the rise. People are very tired. They’re not mentally where they would typically be given different circumstances. And so they might be creating more conflict, or they might be more irritable and annoyed, or maybe they’re a little bit more resistant.

What other problems does it cause? Productivity, right? We likely won’t have the faculties to be able to focus on many different things at once because we already have a million things going on in our brains. And then we’re looking at this and trying to do the task at hand, but then we’re clouded by our mind saying I’m just tired. I have so much to do. And so again, we’re not as focused as what we would want to be in, right? Not as productive. So we can talk about why we need to care as a leader is just to, again, paraphrase this, we need to care because it’s going to impact the organization’s engagement.

It’s going to impact turnover. If people are feeling burnt out, pushed to the math, asking to do more with less, with no reprieve in sight, they might start to look for other jobs. And yes, this is true even in the global recession because there’s only so much that people can take. So we know that turnover is an issue, conflict communication. We may not be very intentional with our communication. We might slide in a few more, “well, per my last email,” because we’re exhausted, and we don’t want to go through the process of maybe explaining something to someone.

So we’re not as empathetic or not as connected, being mindful of this as it may more or less be a sign of burnout and less of that person. So practice your own empathy to say, huh. And be a little curious about what’s going on. Especially if an employee or yourself is showing up in a way that you don’t typically do, instead of saying, well, Hey, John is really being, you know, not the best that he could be. He’s a little short right now. Well, maybe John could be experiencing burnout.

What Causes Burnout in the Workplace?

So what are the causes of burnout that we see right now in the pandemic? Well, for some, it’s Groundhog Day. It’s just that routine. That’s the same day after day. We don’t have stimulation in the same way. We’re not socializing. Maybe we’re not interacting or involving ourselves with our community. And we’re just fatigued with feeling like we’re just going through the motions.

Or another cause of burnout is virtual homeschooling. A lot of people are, they never wanted to be teachers, but now they’re finding themselves to be teachers. And that is the hard job. Teachers do difficult work. And many parents are trying to do both their own job while also supporting and helping their children be as successful as they can be. And maybe there are just challenges in figuring that out in their schedule with wanting to actually regulate depending on the age of the child, you know, how they’re spending their time or feeling like you have to maybe invest more time and then go back to your work.

So you’re also seeing this shift in the work schedule where parents may be waking up earlier before the children are up, and they’re working that way. So they actually ended up working longer days. There’s less sleep, less time for recovery, less time to focus on their own self-care—also, financial challenges. There are many people that were impacted by job loss and job loss, or it could even be medical bills or things like that. But job loss having to then think about how are we going to feed ourselves? How are we going to pay our mortgage? How are we going to support our children? Those come into the workplace. It’s not as if they can say, well, these worries that I have aside, I will button those up, and I will not bring them into work. No, those are absolutely concerns. And they are going to cause challenges.

And we’re looking at our workload, also remote working. Now we know that this is a big challenge for burnout, and we see it in different ways. So remote working could be that we’re doing more with less. We don’t get the feedback. So we’re working harder to prove it and show that we’re doing a great job. Or we’re not setting proper boundaries. Meaning we see that laptop. It can come with us anywhere. And so more often than ever, we’re logging on, we are so connected to work, and we’re not taking the proper time to separate ourselves from it. It’s easy, right? When you have your home office there, you can just run up and do something. And I’m sure if any of you are like me, Oh, let’s just do this for 10 minutes. And all of a sudden, you’re up there for an hour. And again, you’re not focusing on feeling yourself. So you’re creating burnout by not separating yourself.

In addition, our health, if someone is struggling because of the virus itself, maybe they have other health things going on outside of COVID. Maybe they are suffering long-term consequences from COVID. Those are things that are going to disrupt the way that we show up in our work.

Or an unsustainable workload. Now this one I see more and more with organizations that maybe had to lay off, or maybe they had their sales completely disrupted. We are finding that organizations, you know, they’re trying to sustain. So then they’re asking more of their employees. But the challenge is that these employees are trying to keep up. They’re trying to drive those things again, assuming positive intent, but there’s no end in sight. They just keep being asked to perform at a hundred miles an hour.

Here’s another cause of burnout. We’re not even giving people an incentive to do more with less. There are no rewards. This is what you can look forward to. This is the benefit that will actualize once you’ve completed this.

Another cause of burnout is feeling powerless, feeling maybe more like a victim. And that we’re at the mercy of our situations like, Oh my gosh, I have so much going on. And I can’t even get out of it. Sometimes burnout can cloud our ability to see our solutions, and that’s totally normal. And of course, an ever COVID job that can create burnout is when we’re in the wrong job. Maybe we’re using skills that aren’t natural to us, skills that we don’t even enjoy. And trying to do that, or especially being asked to do something that’s outside of your expertise, because maybe there was someone that had to be, let go that can be more taxing, there’s a learning curve. There there’s a confidence gap there. So, work on being mindful of these things within yourself and your workforce.

What Can We Do About It?

So why do we need to care again? Because burnout is more than just an individual problem. And this is from Harvard Business Review- it is an organizational problem. We are going to see, you know, impacts productivity. You’re going to see more sick days, maybe less responsive communication. And you will see these things personally at your team level and organizational level.

So how can we reduce burnout? One thing we can do as ourselves or individuals is adding joy into our life. Thinking if I am burnt out, maybe this is an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to give back, and an opportunity to share by being able to serve and help someone that may be struggling in a different way than we are. We can also practice gratitude, but we’re also giving back and helping someone else live their life better. Maybe put food on the table, whatever that may be. And the reward of that for yourself can help to offset that stress. So find opportunities to serve. And if it’s not outside of your organization, you can still think how could I potentially make someone’s day today at work? What could I do to just put a smile on someone’s face and fun fact, I said this on the past podcast with Brad Montgomery, the great thing about smiling with your mask on, for some of you that might feel more uncomfortable is that no one’s going to notice. They’re not going to think you’re bananas just because you’re smiling. So smile, that mask is a protective thing that people can’t see. So just smile. And you’ll notice that there’s a physical shift in your own energy and attitude. So find those opportunities—number one.

Number two is to evaluate your own energy bank. Now, every single one of us has our own energy bank. And let’s say at the start of the day, it’s at 100% full. We’re well-rested, ready to seize the day. And then as maybe we’ve talked to people, maybe there are some people that actually drain our energy. So then our energy bank goes down. Or here’s the opposite. Then all of a sudden, we do a project that we really enjoy, and our energy bank goes up. Now, what you don’t want to find is that you have an energy bank that’s completely going to zero. Meaning you’re taking on too much or around the wrong people. You’re doing tasks that drain your energy or tasks that you feel like you can’t do. And if you find that your day is consistently full of energy drainers, this is an opportunity to think, what can I do to change this?

Because you need to fuel yourself, you will never be your best self, your best leader, your best team member if you do not have the energy to do it. And you can’t keep running on empty. That is not sustainable. So think about all of the things that affect your energy. Put them in a category. What are the things that you do on any given day that are adding to your energy bank, making you excited and making you feel fulfilled, and the things that are taking away? And if you start to notice that there’s an imbalance, think about what are the things people, situations that I need to say no to that I need to stay away from, that are draining my energy, that I can control.

Another thing that we can do to reduce burnout is to create a list of all the things that are causing stress or burnout. Many of us suffer and just have this running list, almost like a headline in our head. That’s saying, Oh my God, you have to do this. Oh, but did you think about that? You’ve got to email Jackie. You have to create that product. You have to do— insert whatever that is for you. The challenge, if it’s in our head, we can’t create a strategy around it. And it actually adds more stress. You can think about this feeling as just individual thorns in your side. Every stressor is just pushing in and making that burnout worse, and we need to pull it out. Create the list of all the things that are causing stress or burnout and put it on paper, and then ask yourself, what are these things on this list that I can control and start thinking if I can control that, what needs to happen?

Now again, when we feel burnout, we often feel like the victim. We feel like we’re powerless in our situations. And so one way to combat it is to recognize the areas, opportunities, situations that we do have control over. Another way to reduce burnout, of course, is sleep. We know that sleep is so important, and yes, it may be very challenging with the responsibilities, the workload, whatever is going on in your life to prioritize that. But if there’s one thing above all else, maybe sleep is what you’re doing. It’s the one thing that can allow you to recharge. It’s the one thing that’s telling your brain –aah,  we can rest.

And one last consideration on how to reduce burnout that I want to throw out there is to stop the celebration and praising of long hours. We know, and there’s much research out there that will say that your benefits of someone working longer than a 55 hour week drop. There’s not really a sustained benefit. People aren’t doing things to the best of their ability. Yet, we have created cultures in many organizations that say, wow, you did 80 hours of work this week. Holy cow, look at you!  No, no, no, no, no, no, no. And yes, I know that those people can do great things, and I don’t want to in any way imply that it’s not worth it. But at the end of the day, the thing that we need to consider is what our energy is like? Is it really sustainable? And chances are, it’s not sustainable. But if we keep rewarding it, you’re sending a message in your culture that says, yes, the expectation is that you work all the time, that you do not take breaks.

So you can’t sit in a town hall meeting and encourage your employees to value their work-life balance or to just make sure they get that rest if you’re also rewarding people for working 80 hours. And you see that all the time, that there’s this behavior of obsessive work culture that you know, that is not necessarily broadly announced and celebrated, but it is celebrated. They may not be announcing it at their town hall, but it’s celebrated in the form of promotions in the form of, Hey, you did a really great job, way to work that much! No, you have to be the one that says that is not a healthy way, nor is it a sustainable way for our team to achieve our goals. So stop celebrating and praising long hours. We’ve got a life to live, and you know what? We weren’t born just to work. We were born to enjoy a variety of things in our life! Encourage your employees to get out there and also find those meaningful ways, so they can live a greater life that has more value. That’s not maybe only tied to work.

How Can We Help Our Team?

Jenn DeWall:

So what can you do with your team? This is the last piece in closing because you might have seen yourself in many of these situations that I described, but I want you to think about your team. What can you do with your team? So the first thing I would do is to check-in. Now you might feel like it’s easier because of your time to do this in a group meeting. But if there’s not a lot of trust, or if you’re in a culture that rewards long hours, they may not feel comfortable saying that they’re burnt out. So be mindful of your own work culture and whether or not people are going to answer that question.

Honestly, if you said, Hey, is anyone feeling burnt out here? Or how’s everyone feeling? Some people may or may not feel comfortable. So I would suggest having these conversations in one-on-one meetings so you can get to a better understanding of the challenge for them. You can identify opportunities for how you can potentially help and serve them. Or maybe you can find ways that you can support in the form of development and the form of delegating work. But you’ve got to have that one-on-one to talk with them and understand the root problem of their burnout. Encourage mental health breaks. Mental health breaks might just be getting up and walking around for 15 minutes, doing a walk outside, connecting with a friend, watching something that makes them laugh. But you’ve got to again be the leader of it. If you do not model that behavior, people may believe, even though you’ve never had the conversation that you don’t support people having breaks— that they have to keep going and going and going.

There’s no time for fun here. So remember that if you don’t explicitly say it, you can’t just assume that people know it and just getting people to be more mindful. Take some breaks. Another thing is to set the work boundaries and set the email boundaries. If you truly want your staff to take a break, you need to make sure that you’re saying, I want you to work between the hours of nine and six. Anything that happens after six, you can address the next morning and the same with emails, stop weekend email exchanges. When you email someone on the weekend, you are telling them, I also expect you to be on email. Now I know what you might be thinking. You’re like, no, I don’t expect that of them. I’m just sending the emails. No, that’s what you’re telling them. And so if you must write an email on the weekend, I would suggest putting it on a timer, waiting for it to be delivered.

And last, another thing to do with your team. If you are going to have a sensitive conversation with them, or if something bad has happened at work, make sure that you’re resolving or having these conversations before the weekend. Don’t let your employees drive up their own anxiety, worrying about what Monday will bring, what work is going to be like, have those conversations on a Friday. So they can truly marinate in that feedback or listen to that and then use the weekend to recharge.

Now, one of the worst things you can do is schedule a meeting with someone. Hey, we really need to talk about your performance on a Friday at three o’clock. What do you think the employee’s going to do? They’re likely going to say, Oh my goodness, am I doing okay? Am I not doing enough? Do I need to work this weekend? Just to show that I’m doing enough. And that email wasn’t the intense trigger. Someone to not be able to relax, refuel and recharge, which is what we want, especially if you even want them to be level-headed in a conversation that may be sensitive. So be mindful of when you’re sending sensitive emails, or you’re communicating something sensitive. That is not something where they have to wait two days and anxiety to be able to figure out the information.

Now, this was my take on burnout and some of the things that we can do, but if you join us later this month, I’m actually going to be talking to an expert on burnout. And this is a very, very important topic. This is why we are going to do it twice because many people right now today are extremely burnt out. Thank you so much for listening until next time.