Rain on their parade:<br> How to spot and prevent burnout syndrome

Hannah Sims · 11 Nov

What is burnout syndrome?

It’s when workers work too hard for too long and become emotionally and physically exhausted.

It was originally coined in the 1970s to categorise doctors who, through severe stress, had lost interest in their work despite high ideals.

Turns out the 1970s aren’t so far away: news headlines show that 1 in 10 doctors this year has been referred to a ‘burnout clinic.’


In other professions, too, burnout is increasingly common. It’s an HR buzzword at the moment - it’s increasingly hard for employees to switch off if they’re constantly connected to the office and, more than ever before, people are working flexibly- it’s one of the most highly-sought perks in any job.

Work:life balance is out, work:life integration is in.

But there is a difference between working hard and burning out.

So what does 'burnout' actually mean?

Burnout can manifest itself in a number of ways but it’s not as dramatic as the name suggests. People might feel ‘frazzled’, ‘exhausted’ or just ‘wired’ all the time. Often, people will say any word instead of ‘burnout’ to convince themselves that their workload is under control and they’re not failing: just like the original doctors in case studies, hard workers with high ideals are especially vulnerable.

Burnout is a breakdown that comes from high functioning. It’s that wired sleep you might experience from being constantly on. It’s not being able to wind down in the evening or sleep properly. It’s a state of constant exhaustion where caffeine is needed at one end to prompt you to keep going, and wine is needed at the other end to try and bring you down at the end of the day.

Burnout is hard for people to recognise for themselves- does that mean it’s impossible for you to see?

Actually, as a manager, you could spot it sooner than the employee themselves.


The difference between working hard and burning out

Working hard can be done for short period at the end of a deadline. It’s controlled and has its limits.

Burnout is working even when there isn’t work to be done.

Leaving an appliance constantly on, leaving music playing even when not listening to it: wasteful activities we’d never do at home… yet we’re happy for this to be the default settings for our own brains.


How to spot it

If your employee is checking emails at all hours and working late constantly- they could be approaching burnout.

If they are putting in hours but not being very productive- they could be exhausted but unable to switch off.

If they are not themselves, if they’ve lost a sense of humour- these are symptoms, too.

If they skip lunch breaks and complain of having no time. If they blame others or get defensive over their work- burnout can mean emotions run high.

Find out what’s driving your employees: what pressure are they under? It might not be pressure the company has explicitly put on them- it could be their own exacting standards. What is pushing your team to burnout? Fear rather than satisfaction? It’s time to address this unhealthy state.


How to stop it

1) Show employees that you recognise the issue and are sympathetic to it. As a source in a consultancy company says, “Consultancy is burnout central”. So, management consultants have policy on burnout. As jobs get more stressful, this isn’t a bad idea to adopt. Post this article. Make sure employees know you’re aware of the issue.

2) Check workloads and encourage your team to push back if they juggle the demands of multiple people. If people work hard there is a tendency to think they are coping and put more work their way.

3) Set an example: whether that means switching off your work phone after work and not answering emails, or simply being mindful of your own wellbeing.

4) Make sure people take their assigned leave- leave is there to be taken. Make sure you kick them out of the office before the end of the year.

5) Encourage changes of scene, breaking up the working day with different tasks and fresh air.

6) Make sure that your office doesn’t promote presenteeism - being present at work for more hours than is required - and that people are encouraged to be productive and work smart, rather than live in the office.

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