Burnout is an Organizational Issue (and not a deficiency of self-care)

January 4, 2022

Burnout is at frighteningly high rates right now.  An Indeed study last month shows that burnout is on the rise. Over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021, up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.  Among all respondents, 80% believe Covid-19 has impacted workplace burnout. A 67% majority say burnout has worsened during the pandemic, while 13% believe it has gotten better.

At this point in history, burnout needs to be a focus of leaders since it impacts performance, culture, retention, creativity, profitability and joy within our work communities.  Yet, in most organizations, burnout is not viewed as a system-wide concern of the whole organization but rather an individual problem.  Leaders can be intentional about creating systems that foster engagement, relationships, moderations, and even joy.  While there are evidence-based concrete practices that prevent and manage burnout, few organizations adopt them as broad, cultural norms.  Instead of seeking to prevent burnout systemically, leaders often wait too long to reactively help their staff, individual by individual, only after they have become burned out.  

Last month, Kandi Wiens from University of Pennsylvania, co-authored another helpful and timely article on burnout in Harvard Business Review.   There was one sentence in her new article, which was not at all the thesis of the piece, but which I savored and reread several times because it beautifully summarized what I’ve been feeling over the past year and a half.  She wrote, “Since burnout is an organizational issue, and is not simply the result of a deficiency in self-care, the interventions to address it are more complex and require strategies beyond the commonly prescribed “get more exercise” or “get better sleep.”  

What is burnout?  It isn’t just extreme overwork or stress.  Burnout has three differentiators from distress.  It is characterized by  a) emotional exhaustion, b) cynicism and lack of enthusiasm, and c) lack of professional efficacy.  At the individual level, it causes physical illness, hopelessness, irritability, impatience, poor interpersonal relationships, impaired executive functioning, distractibility and memory loss.  At the organizational level, burnout causes lost productivity, employee disengagement, absenteeism, lower organizational commitment, and turnover.  Burnout also costs organizations as much as $190 billion annually in increased healthcare costs, which does not begin to include the costs of turnover and diminished productivity.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) made burnout an official diagnosis in 2019, even before the pandemic.  They describe it as " a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

When we think about mitigating burnout, we can apply Emotional Intelligence skills to support coping abilities for ourselves and weave those into our team cultures.  In Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee’s 2016 HBR article entitled “Why Some People Get Burned Out and Others Don’t,”  they studied 35 Chief Medical Officers at large hospitals around the country.  Sixty-nine percent of those CMOs were experiencing huge amounts of stress, yet the majority of them were not burned out using the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  Subsequently, they studied why those who DID NOT Burnout were able to stay engaged.  There are five skills that were particularly helpful to those resistant to burnout.  

  1. Don’t be the source of your own stress.
  2. Recognize your own limitations.
  3. Apply mindfulness practices to manage your anxiety.
  4. Reevaluate your perspective of the situations (eustress or distress?).
  5. De-escalate conflicts by putting yourself in other’s shoes.

Leaders, in particular, experience a unique type of distress that is different and more susceptible to burnout.  Richard Boyatzis, in Resonant Leadership, explores a concept called Power Stress, which is associated with holding great amounts of responsibility while also being independent.  In order to continue to be emotionally contagious in healthy, resonant ways, the leader must engage in what Boyatzis calls The Renewal Cycle.  If we fail to go to the Renewal Cycle, we will become dissonant and wreak havoc on our teams.  We can become emotionally exhausted, cynical, and deficient in professional efficacy, which is the definition of burnout.  The Renewal Cycle requires intentionally engaging in practices that foster 1) mindfulness, 2) hope, and 3) compassion for one’s self and one another.  The application of mindfulness, hope and compassion can look very different for each individual leader, however these three categories of practices are invaluable for preventing and mitigating burnout.

Leaders are wise to think through practices not just for themselves, and not just at the individual level but rather systemically at the organizational level.  What if we apply mindsets and behaviors that we know enhance vibrancy and flourishing at the individual level and begin successfully addressing burnout proactively within the culture?  What would you need to stop, continue, or start doing in order to weave renewal practices into the culture?  How would it look in your own organization if you intentionally incorporate The Renewal Cycle categories of practices at the organizational level?

  • Mindfulness, 
  • Hope, and 
  • Compassion 

Also, what if we applied the five practices that prevented extreme stress from morphing into burnout for those Chief Medical Officers and reframed them as organizational norms?  What if we taught, trained, modeled and behaved according to these five practices on our teams and within our entire organizations?  How might you concretely begin incorporating these at your organization?

  • Don’t be the source of your own stress.
  • Recognize your own limitations.
  • Use mindfulness practices to manage your anxiety.
  • Reevaluate and reframe your perspective of the situations, and 
  • De-escalate conflicts by putting yourself in other’s shoes.

You can take the first step of approaching burnout as an organizational issue by discussing this article with your team.  In practical and actionable ways, together you can choose three concrete behaviors that your team will adopt to begin the shift toward joy and meaningful achievement.  Approach this as an experiment and know that you will stumble.  Ask each other to serve as accountability partners in gently redirecting the collective norms towards positive and vibrant work-life integration. Through organization-wide behavior change, burnout will decrease and performance, retention, and joy will increase. How will you concretely address burnout in your organization?

Kedren Crosby is the founder and president of Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. She can be reached at Kedren@workwisdomllc.com or 717-327-7780.