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The Problem of Burnout

Burnout is a popular word that has been used to describe chronic work stress. While it may sound like yet another buzzy term that’s constantly thrown around, the numbers are real and daunting. A 2021 survey found that 84% of Canadian workers have felt burnt out during the pandemic with at least 34% of working Canadians describing their burnout level as high or extreme. The prevalence of burnout in today’s world has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to officially recognize and include it in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

84% of Canadian workers have felt burnt out during the pandemic with at least 34% of working Canadians describing their burnout level as high or extreme

2021 Pulse of Talent: What today’s employees want and need,
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What is Burnout? Definition & Symptoms

Burnout is a person’s response to chronic work-related stress and their effort to adapt or protect themselves from that stress. According to ICD-11, burnout can be indicated by

  • feelings of exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance from one’s job,
  • feelings of cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • reduced professional effectiveness.

Burnout generally manifests as a combination of emotional, physical, and behavioural signs and symptoms. Emotional symptoms include detachment, cynicism, feelings of self-doubt / self-failure, loss of motivation, and helplessness. Physical symptoms include physical exhaustion, pain and headaches, appetite and sleep changes, and lowered immunity. Behavioural signs include withdrawing from responsibilities, isolation, procrastination, increased food, drug and alcohol use, anger, and poor workplace behaviours (absenteeism, lateness, leaving early).

Symptoms of burnout manifest regardless of the type and cause of burnout.

Types of Burnout

While burnout is typically associated with being overworked, research has found that there are three clinical subtypes of burnout: frenetic, underchallenged, and worn-out. Each subtype is differentiated by how an individual copes with stress and frustrations at work.

Frenetic – The most common type, frenetic burnout is caused by work overload and is often seen in highly involved, overworked, or ambitious individuals. Individuals who suffer from this type of burnout experience physical and mental exhaustion from not finding a balance between life and work. Frenetic burnout results from high demand (e.g., back-to-back tasks) and low work-life balance (e.g., no time for oneself).

Underchallenged – Caused by a lack of personal development or alignment with their work, underchallenged individuals experience disinterest or boredom due to monotonous work. As a result, they are unable to justify investing further effort when their work does not provide them with the necessary satisfaction or motivation to do so.

Worn-out – Characterized by a lack of autonomy due to rigid organizational structure, worn-out individuals feel that they do not have control over their work/work results and are not acknowledged for their commitment and efforts. This type of burnout then leads to a mental resignation from work responsibilities. 

Tackling Burnout

Burnout is a workplace problem and should be treated as such. While a person can experience feelings of anxiety and depression from daily life stressors, burnout is mainly a result of work-related stressors. Burnt out employees may start underperforming, have lower job satisfaction, engagement, and commitment which may translate into increased employee absenteeism, turnover, and lower organizational business metrics.

Assess your organization

Many common techniques for tackling burnout (e.g., incorporating exercise, healthy sleeping habits, meditation) solely focus on addressing the symptoms of burnout rather than its root cause. Instead, leaders should take a more holistic approach and start by taking a frank assessment of their own internal practices and structures. What aspects of your culture/organization play a crucial role in developing root triggers of burnout such as consistent heavy workloads, poor work-life balance, misalignment with work and organization values, routine tasks, little autonomy, and lack of recognition/rewards? What mechanisms, systems, and structures can be established to instead build resiliency?

Addressing the 3 types of burnout

Those with frenetic burnout tend to overlook their needs to fulfill work demands. To tackle this, organizations can focus on job redesign to reduce tasks as well as revisit vacation, time-off policies, and mental health and wellness benefits to see where the gaps are and identify how employees can best utilize these options to maintain a state of balance when they are engaged in their roles.

In the case of individuals with underchallenged burnout, it may involve clarifying job expectations, incorporating more challenging work in their roles, or involving them in other projects to increase the variety of their work.

For the worn-out burnout type, individuals may need more autonomy or believe that their manager trusts them to gain a sense of control over their work. One of the most important ways to empower employees is to ensure they have a clear sense of the boundaries within which they can make decisions. Leaders can also look at how employees are regularly recognized and rewarded and increase efforts to do so. Recognition and rewards don’t always look like a promotion but could be a verbal thank you.

Individuals also have control over their response to feelings of burnout. Taking a similar holistic approach, individuals can first identify what type of burnout they are experiencing, dive deeper into the root causes, and then focus on what they need to create and sustain a state of engagement or calm. Some options may include: seeking support from coworkers/supervisors, therapy, etc.; changing perspectives on the way they work by incorporating more work-life balance, identifying loves and loathes and expanding on the former, and taking time off; changing sleeping and eating habits; and re-evaluating priorities to ensure that more time is spent on what they find most important or valuable. This may require setting boundaries and exploring new and old hobbies.

What’s next?

When tackling burnout in an organization, it’s important to remember that each individual has different needs. Therefore, leaders must keep this in mind when creating systems and structures to mitigate and address burnout. Leaders can use models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy to identify employee needs. They can also use Employee Experience Frameworks to identify root causes and underlying employee needs. Understanding burnout at its core helps us know when it is present in our organizations. The next step for People Managers is to utilize this knowledge, facilitate conversations with their people to find out what they need, and put that feedback into action to create a thriving workplace and culture.

Makeda Henry (MA Industrial Organizational Psychology, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner) is an Organizational Development Consultant at Realize Strategies. An expert in improving organization performance and employee experience, she applies her background in research and data to help client organizations achieve their full potential and foster positive workplace cultures. Feel free to connect if you have questions about improving your organization’s employee experience or would like advice on how to move your organization forward with your culture and people at the forefront.