Burnout- what managers need to know

When it comes to issues of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue at work, most people think of these as issues for the individual.   For example, it is common to hear views like ‘If only the person did more exercise, was more assertive, or took an occasional bubble bath they would cope better.’

The first problem with this ‘self-care’ mentality is that it blames the victim.  It focusses on the shortcomings of the person experiencing the burnout and implies, very strongly, that it is the individual who should change their behaviour.  

Secondly, by focussing on the individual we miss the opportunity to look more broadly at what is happening systemically.  We fail to ask the bigger (and more difficult) questions about “why is our organisation causing people to burnout at all?” and, “how can we reduce it?”

To be clear, burnout is real.  The Black Dog institute describes burnout as a syndrome affecting people’s mental and physical health, with the costs to the Australian economy caused by absenteeism, disengagement and illness at $14.81 billion per year.

Burnout is also recognised by the World Health Organisation and the checklist of symptoms includes the following. 

1. Feeling physically and mentally exhausted

2. Trouble sleeping

3. Anxiety or depression

4. Weak immune system resulting in constant sickness

5. Lack of focus and concentration

6. Emotionally fragile – socially withdrawn

So what to do?

The myth of work-life balance

Firstly, let’s avoid doing more of what doesn’t work.  For example, work-life balance is a worthy goal in itself and can support wellbeing.  But it is not the antidote to burnout.  There are no studies to show improving your personal life will counter the harm caused by a stressful work situation.  This assumption, that ‘getting a life’ can counter a negative work situation is a bit like putting one hand on a hot plate, and the other hand in the freezer, and thinking you will be okay on average.  People just don’t work that way.

So what does help?

Job Crafting

Job crafting is based on the observation that the most satisfied and engaged workers are those who have departed from their written job description and are doing at least some of their job on their own terms.    

In his book ‘Authentic Happiness,’ Martin Seligman describes applying job crafting to help law firms prevent burnout among their employees.  Just like anyone else, lawyers have different personality types and bring different strengths to their jobs.  For example, some lawyers have good people skills.  They are extroverted and enjoy chatting with clients.  Others prefer doing research and preparing documents behind the scenes.  By simply recognising these differences it becomes possible to allow individuals to play to their respective strengths; that is, to do more of their ‘good thing’.  It makes sense to allow extroverted lawyers to take over more of the meeting and greeting with clients, while allowing the more introverted lawyers to do more of the documentation work etc.  With these simple changes everyone wins, employees are happier, and productivity actually goes up.

Job crafting is not just for professionals.  Amy Wrzesniewski, from the Yale School of Management, interviewed more than two hundred hospital cleaners to establish the link between job crafting and staff morale. She found those who simply followed their job descriptions were the same workers who complained about their jobs.  They were more likely to say, “I empty bedpans, how do you think I like my job?” 

In contrast, those who were doing more of their own thing on the job were happier.  For example, some cleaners liked to take note of which patients had no visitors and, whenever possible, doubled back to spend time with them.  Some cleaners took pride in monitoring the busy routines of the doctors and carefully working around them to maximise the time doctors could spend with patients. One cleaner, working in the coma unit, described rotating the paintings and furnishings in the rooms. When asked what he was doing he said, “I’m no doctor, but a change of scenery might spark something.”

Of course, some jobs are more flexible than others, and thus more conducive to job crafting.   But even the most rigidly defined jobs allow some scope for crafting, for example taking on additional tasks that a person is passionate about. 

Smart managers support job crafting.   Smart managers allow individuals to do more of the tasks they enjoy, and a little less of the tasks that are better suited to others.  And the evidence supports this thinking.  There is a growing body of evidence that job crafting promotes wellbeing, physical health and resilience, leading researchers to suggest more employees should be allowed to craft their jobs.

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