Are you at risk of burn-out?

It’s official.  ‘Burn-out’ is a Thing – or rather it’s a syndrome.  The World Health Organization has reclassified it in the latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), that will come into effect in January 2022. Burn-out will be officially listed as an ‘occupational syndrome’ that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The ICD goes further and specifies that it is a work-related term and “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Research by WHO suggests that burn-out occurs when the demands of a job far outweigh the rewards, recognition, and times of relaxation. Workers who are burned out can feel like their ambitions, idealism, and sense of worth are slowly draining away and whilst the financial implications from loss of productivity are clear, burnout also impacts public health.
A study of nearly 9,000 workers found that burn-out was a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease. Neuroimaging studies have found similarities between the brains of those who suffer from early-life trauma and those who deal with clinical burn-out in adulthood and the psychological effects include insomnia, depression, use of antidepressant medications and psychological ill-health symptoms.

The new WHO definition suggests that burn-out is characterised by “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.”

This makes sense.
A certain level of stress can be good – it can motivate, energise and stretch us to learn – but it needs to be in balance with individual capacity of physical, mental and emotional energy, knowledge and skills. Stress that is out of balance over an extended period of time – chronic stress – is debilitating.

Intentionally fostering wellbeing in the workplace is the antidote and prevention for burn-out.

The figure below shows the impact of an imbalance of performance demands and individual physical, mental and emotional energy.

The Pain zone is where we are not feeling well or doing well. We feel de-energised, disconnected and overwhelmed. This is a pain point – our work performance is low and we don’t feel able to do anything about it. Helpless and hopeless.

In the Anxiety zone, we may be performing well, but not feeling well as we achieve these good results. Constantly ‘on’ and powered on adrenaline, we feel anxious and stressed about how to (whether we can?) keep going. We are mentally and physically fragile.

Both the Anxiety and the Pain zones run the risk of burnout.

The Apathy zone is where we have energy – we are feeling well – but we’re not being in our performance. This lack of stretch and challenge creates underperformance. We are ‘cruising’, and as a result can feel lethargic, unmotivated and apathetic.

The High-Performance zone is the sweet spot, where we have the energy to meet performance demands – we are feeling well and doing well. In this zone, we have the physical, mental and emotional energy to meet demands and we make progress as we are stretched and supported to achieve high performance. Because of this, burn-out is not an issue in the High-Performance zone.

Research indicates that leaders can play a critical role in reducing the risk of burnout by intentionally supporting wellbeing for themselves and their teams.

What could ‘Leading for Wellbeing’ look like?

There is still significant debate about the best approaches for systemically supporting wellbeing. However, there is a growing consensus that enabling people to fulfil four basic psychological needs supports wellbeing over time. These are:

  1. autonomy – having a sense of freedom of choice
  2. competence – being able to do one’s work, learn, and grow
  3. relatedness – connecting deeply with others
  4. a sense of physical and psychological safety

Specific leadership practices have been found to support these needs in workplace settings.

  1. Provide choice and control

The Wellbeing Lab’s 2018 Workplace Wellbeing survey found that a sense of autonomy and agency was a key driver for individual wellbeing. Leaders who acknowledge worker perspectives, encourage self-initiation and offer opportunities for choice and input, foster intrinsic motivation and self-determined actions from their teams, as they feel their behaviour is internally directed rather than externally controlled.

  1. Focus on relationships

The Wellbeing Lab’s 2018 Workplace Wellbeing survey also found that organisational decisions and actions can undermine workers feeling well, particularly in relation to building encouraging and supportive relationships. Leaders can counter this by communicating in an informal rather than controlling way, creating a sense of community at work and intentionally fostering conditions that build strong social relationships.

  1. Enable mastery and high performance

The critical role leaders have here is in providing a workload that’s not too burdensome; access to skills and resources needed by workers to do their job well and a safe physical and psychological environment for when things go wrong – as they inevitably do from time to time!

Wellbeing is the antidote and prevention for burn-out and leaders have a critical role to play in fostering it in the workplace  – for themselves and their team.

The three evidence-based leadership practices given here will help begin to create an environment of autonomy, mastery, connectedness and safety that will support your own wellbeing and that of your team. 

Want to know more about how to Lead for Wellbeing? Click here to find out more about Paige’s Feeling Well and Doing Well at Work program.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders elevate their impact to lead teams who deliver results and create a culture that feeds high performance.

Feeling well. Doing well. Leading well.