Burn, baby, burn: What is Burnout and how to stop your staff from having it

how to prevent staff burnout
We could open this article with a list of alarming stats about how we all work more hours, suffer from more anxiety disorders, and experience so many more job stresses than we did a few decades ago. God knows those stats are easy to come by.

We’ll spare you the numbers though. Suffice to say, overworking is all too common and it’s not a good thing. You probably already know this. 

But what about “burnout”? Is it a real thing? Can it be prevented? Can you change your work environment in ways that will rekindle the extinguished spark in the hearts of your staff? That’s what we’re going to explore today. 

What is burnout 

Firstly, what is burnout? There are a lot of varying definitions, but we dug around and found one that sums it up pretty well: 

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress,” says HelpGuide.org. “As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”

So someone with burnout is drained, exhausted, and frankly just over it. To the point that they feel like everything is hopeless and they can hardly carry on. 

Yes, burnout is serious. Symptoms of burnout cross over with those of depression, but burnout is generally considered to be specifically caused by and related to work-related stress. 

Three flavours of being over it

In a 2014 study, researchers surveyed hundreds of workers and used the data to distinguish three different subtypes of burnout:

  • Frenetic. The frenetic type works increasingly harder in their quest for success. Their ambition leads them to being overloaded and overworked until they reach a point of exhaustion. 
  • Under-challenged. Monotonous, boring work is the culprit for this type of burnout, because without some challenge or stimulation there’s little chance for personal development. The under-challenged type ends up feeling indifferent toward their work as a result.
  • Worn-out. The worn-out subtype suffers a lack of dedication and neglect and tends to give up or lose motivation when faced with stress or the absence of gratification. 

All three types of burnout lead to a level of disengagement from the job, meaning they’re not just bad for the health and happiness of the staff member, they’re bad for their employer as well. 

Okay, so you get that burnout is bad news. What can you do about it?

Preventing burnout in the workplace

While some preventative measures need to happen at an individual level, there’s also a lot that workplaces can do to provide a healthy job structure and workplace environment for employees. 

Here are some strategies:

  1. Encourage breaks and social time. Downtime is crucial to our mental wellbeing. It’s what allows us to recharge, refocus, and return to work ready to take on our to-do lists (however long and daunting). As a workplace, you should foster the kind of environment where breaks are promoted, not frowned upon.

    Encourage staff to get away from their desks during their lunch breaks — moving around, getting outdoors and socialising are all great ways to relieve stress — and have HR policies in place that ensure annual leave and holidays get used up.

  2. Give staff a voice. How can the staff in your office communicate their concerns and requests? Is there a regular forum for raising issues? Do they have ample opportunity during staff meetings to be heard? Do they know who to speak to if they have a problem or complaint?

    Open up channels to give staff a say in what goes on in and around the office. Even if their requests can’t be met, it’s important that they feel they’re being heard. 

  3. Be flexible. This goes for job roles as well as schedules. The more flexible you can be, the more potential you have to fit people’s needs and keep them happy on the job.

    Imagine, for example, if you could mix up someone’s job role so they get to do more of what they love. This is particularly useful for preventing the under-challenged type of burnout described above.

  4. Offer recognition. Feeling unrecognised and unappreciated is a fast track to becoming disengaged with your job. There are plenty of ways to implement employee recognition programs in the workplace. But even simpler than that is to foster an environment where progress is celebrated (as well as achievements), where positive feedback is given, and where staff are genuinely made to feel good about their contribution. 

  5. Let employees know support is available. Make it clear to staff that support is available if they need it, and that there’s no shame in asking for help or for personal time if their mental health is at stake. 

    And do watch for early signs of burnout: you can conduct regular staff surveys to gauge stress levels and give people the opportunity to discuss how their work is going.

    If you can catch stress before it becomes overwhelming, you can prevent the ultimately more costly and damaging occurrence of total burnout. 

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