In the last 2 years, our research team has been studying how to perform at high levels without burning out. Here is a summary of what we learned in 2023 and what organizations can do to support their people.
1. Many people are working at unsustainable levels
It has been eye-opening to see just how overloaded and exhausted people are. Organizations seem to know this but are unsure about what to do about it.
2. There is no single cause of burnout
We read various books and LinkedIn posts this year that declared that burnout is caused by ‘x’ and the solution is ‘y’ (and they had a book on Y). In our interviews with people who had burned out, it was never that simple. The causes of each person’s burnout varied. And therefore, so did the solutions.
Beware of simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. And perhaps skip the book.
3. There are individual and organizational causes of burnout
In our interviews, burnout often occurred when a combination of factors occurred at the same time.
The most common individual factors we heard were:
- Extreme work ethic
- Values misaligned with company
- Can’t switch off from work
The most common organizational factors were:
- Unsupportive/ bad boss
- Unrealistic workloads
- Toxic-bullying workplace
Watch out if several of these things are happening to you at once. Bad things can happen.
4. There are 3 degrees of burning
Burnout is often talked about as black or white - you are either burned out or you aren’t. We learned it was more of a slippery slope. In our interviews, we identified there were 3 degrees of burning people experienced.
· 1st degree burn – a heavy period of stress, feelings of overwhelm, but continuing to work effectively
· 2nd Degree Burn – chronic stress, feelings of fatigue along with decreasing motivation and effectiveness. Moving into ‘survival’ mode
· 3rd Degree Burn - the full experience of burnout. Mind and body start to shut down, simple tasks become unmanageable, emotions become unpredictable and hard to control.
5. Different levels of burn require different levels of solutions
Many well-meaning organizations are offering 1st degree solutions (yoga, take a day off) for 3rd degree burn. This felt like gaslighting to many we interviewed. Organizations need to match the solutions to the level of the burning
· 1st Degree Burn – Self-care: taking breaks, exercise, yoga etc
· 2nd Degree Burn – Mindset/behaviour change: creating boundaries, saying 'no', putting self first sometimes
· 3rd Degree Burn – Deep life changes - Change of workplace, career, what you value in life, a new vision for the next chapter of your life
Read more on the solutions here - https://bit.ly/48GJdJh
6. The people most at risk are your best people
We didn’t meet many selfish people who burned out. Instead, it was the most committed, most collaborative and hard-working people who sacrificed themselves. In other words, your best people. Don’t take advantage of them. Look after them. You'll want them going forward.
7. Rest is not the solution
We learned that there is a common pathway that leads into and out of burnout. Most people try rest as the solution. But we saw this was a false path. For after they rested, they returned unchanged, to an unchanged workplace. Then burned out again. Avoiding and getting over burnout requires change. We call this path the burnout/ growth curve - https://bit.ly/3GQ3HmY
8. We need individual and organizational level solutions
After working with organizations to prevent employee burnout it is clear to me that you need a dual strategy – help individuals to update their ways of working plus reduce organizational stressors. The organizational solutions are most effective when they start: small, practical and easy to implement i.e. don’t overload an exhausted workforce with more work
This has been a great research project so far. We’ve learned a lot and hopefully you are picking up ideas that feel helpful to you. In 2024, we are pivoting our focus from the individual to the organization. There seems to be very little out there on how organizations can systemically decrease burnout while maintaining performance. That will be our focus and we’ll share everything we learn.
Thanks to our research team on the Perform/Grow/ Thrive Project for uncovering these insights and more to come: Ryan Bricker Lisa Mackay Iain Cleland, Matt Bartlett-Bond MSc GMBPsS, Karrie Wainscott, Simone Falkenstein, Dana Mix, MA, SPHR