Burnout is often associated with the individual, with many seeing it as a personal issue rather than a systemic one. As such, there exists a common misconception that it can be solved simply through better time management, work-life balance, mental health care, and individual resilience. While these practices are certainly necessary for our wellbeing, they may simply be band-aid solutions to a much larger phenomenon1. A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) study found that burnout-related productivity loss costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion every year2. The COVID-19 crisis has also undeniably added to the strain that we are feeling, with approximately 89% of global respondents stating that the quality of their work-life was deteriorating3. The signs are pointing to a deeply prevalent issue that is evolving rapidly day by day. It is therefore essential that we adopt a more birds-eye view of things when it comes to burnout, starting with the wider shift in responsibility from the individual to the workplace.
As of 2019, the WHO has officially started to recognise burnout as an occupational phenomenon that may require care4. Burnout is defined as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterised by 3 main factors:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
To effectively address burnout, we must also understand the inherent causes behind it. The broader perspective frames the issue as an organisational challenge5. Specifically, burnout tends to occur when there is a mismatch between an organisation and its employees in the following areas:
- Autonomy: Denying employees control over their personal growth, workload and schedules can make them feel suffocated and lead to burnout
- Sense of belonging within the workplace: Being isolated from team members, colleagues and peers can lead to increasing feelings of loneliness and mental strain, especially during the pandemic
- Workload levels: Overwhelming workload levels can cause employees to work overtime frequently, leaving them with chronic exhaustion, prolonged stress, fewer opportunities for self-care and hence, a lack of work-life balance
- Recognition: Employees are more likely to be cynical and disillusioned when they feel underappreciated and undervalued by the company
- Fairness: Feelings of negativity arise easily when employees feel they are unfairly treated, be it having to take on extra work or not having their efforts recognised, especially when others are receiving more favourable treatment
- Organisational values: Employees can find it difficult to open up about their emotions and struggles when organisational values are not aligned with that of trust, respect, vulnerability and empathy
As we discussed in a previous article on work-related stress, the effects of burnout are multi-faceted and ultimately concern our Whole Person Health. This is because burnout does not just affect our mental health; it can also lead to physical conditions such as circulatory problems, gastrointestinal problems and musculoskeletal pain6. When left untreated, more serious complications can arise, including depression, cardiovascular diseases and even various cancers7. It goes without saying that when our physical and mental health suffers, so does our productivity, relationships and financial security. Occupational burnout has profound effects that stretch beyond our professional lives. However, much of the solution can be found right at where it all began - the workplace.
Building a workplace that can effectively address employee burnout
Burnout is more than an individual’s problem, which means that the answer cannot be found in any one person either. To effectively address burnout in the workplace, each and every single employee will have to play their part in creating a more supportive environment in addition to any top-down changes. Here are 3 main guiding points that may help inspire a strategy that is specific to your workplace:
1. Make open and honest communications a norm
It takes time to build trust, but one of the best ways to do so is simply to lead by example. When leaders and managers take the lead in encouraging vulnerability and showing empathy, it makes employees feel more at home sharing about their issues and struggles. This can similarly be applied on a broader, inter-employee level. It might mean taking the initiative to regularly check in with our fellow coworkers, actively listening to their concerns, and making an effort to understand each other’s needs. With time, these efforts will open up more opportunities to hold meaningful conversations, such as that on burnout and stress. Being able to do so respectfully and authentically is the first step to identifying important concerns and will subsequently set the wheels in motion for better, future workplace initiatives.
2. Foster a sense of belonging
Belonging is the feeling of security and support that comes with acceptance, trust and inclusion within a certain community. It is also the fundamental drive to form and maintain relationships with others. At the workplace, having a sense of belonging is a major factor for productivity, collaborations, and even our mental wellbeing. This goes back to the first tip on honest communication - we are more likely to confide in someone when we believe them to be trustworthy. And when we are able to relay our problems to our peers, we are also less likely to feel lonely, isolated or burnt out. Other than working on the way we communicate, this sense of belonging can be similarly fostered through non-work-related, team-bonding events or something as simple as a buddy system. At the end of the day, the definition of belonging can differ from person to person, so it is important to find out what will or will not work for your workplace.
3. Show support by focusing on the positives
In our previous points, we mentioned the importance of being able to share our troubles and concerns with the people around us to prevent occupational burnout. It is, however, also equally important to pay attention to the positives around us as a way to reinforce optimism and remind us of the meaning behind our work. When we are mentally exhausted or burnt out, it can be all too easy to over-dwell on the negatives, which is why we may have to rely on our peers to provide new perspectives or celebrate our achievements when the need arises.
Over to you
By creating a more open, inclusive and positive workplace that encourages, supports and celebrates all employees, we can greatly reduce the chances of burnout. However, it is important to understand what works for your team and get everyone involved in fostering a mental health-friendly culture. While leaders and managers can take the lead in doing so, the responsibility ultimately falls onto the rest of the company to reciprocate in kind. Only with this can there be positive results in reducing burnout in the company, putting everyone on the road to better Whole Person Health.
1. Song, Z., & Baicker, K. (2019). Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes.
2. World Health Organisation. Mental health in the workplace.
3. Moss, J. (2021). Beyond Burned Out. Harvard Business Review.
4. World Health Organisation. (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases.
5. Lievens, D. (2021). How the Pandemic Exacerbated Burnout. Harvard Business Review.
6. Cigna (2019). Chronic Stress: Are we reaching health system burn out?
7. Singapore Business Review. (2017). 72% of Singapore firms affected by workers' mental stress.