I burned out toward the end of my law practice 10 years ago. When I first started researching and teaching about burnout prevention, I underappreciated the complexity of the topic.
I inherently thought that I must have needed better stress management techniques; so to me, the fix was simple — just get better at managing stress. Eventually, I learned just how complex burnout is and that it occurs over time and within the context of a multilevel system that influences the stress process.
I also learned that quick fixes aimed at individuals only aren’t going to be nearly enough to prevent it. You can’t yoga your way out of burnout. Instead, specific job demands and job resources (as defined below) either accelerate or slow the burnout process. And strategies to prevent burnout need to be applied in a systemic way for individuals, teams, and leaders. Here are some ideas:
Minimize job demands — Job demands are the aspects of work that require sustained physical, emotional, or psychological effort and energy. The following job demands have been shown to be particularly predictive of burnout:
- high workload and work pressure, especially if there is inadequate staffing (this has become a more pressing concern for organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic);
- role conflict (incompatible or different expectations);
- role ambiguity (lack of clarity about direction and who does what); and
- unfairness (lack of transparency; arbitrary decision-making or favoritism).
Job demands, in combination with the general and everyday systemic and organizational challenges you and your employees or leaders experience, can create a lot of stress. In addition to its effects on problem-solving, concentration and attention, chronic stress and burnout are associated with errors. One study found that physicians who reported a major medical error in the prior three months were more likely to have symptoms of burnout and fatigue.
Maximize job resources — Job resources are the aspects of work that give you and your teams motivation and energy that can stimulate growth, learning and development. Importantly, certain job resources have a consistent negative relationship with burnout
and these are the ones to prioritize:
- regular feedback;
- social support; and
- a high-quality relationship with your manage
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how valuable autonomy can be to employees and how necessary feedback and support are from both peers and leaders.
Increase recognition — Being recognized feels so good because it’s a true sign of belonging, and it should come from both leaders and peers. I used to teach resilience skills to soldiers, and the Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) attended one of our trainings. The SMA is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the Army. As he was preparing to leave, he called all of the training team to the front of the room. We didn’t know what was going on, but after saying a few words, the SMA gave each of us one of his coins — a symbol of recognition, gratitude and hard work. He shook hands with each of us and thanked us for our service to our country. That coin is one of my most treasured possessions, and that moment is one I will remember for the rest of my life. Research suggests that while we adapt to money pretty quickly, we never quite get used to feeling recognized.
Strategies to prevent burnout need to be applied in a systemic way for individuals, teams
Educate your leaders — Leaders need to be educated about burnout, its causes and symptoms, so as not to unintentionally make burnout worse by dismissing it or thinking that it’s the same thing as general stress. Telling people to “take Friday off” or “just go on vacation” will not alleviate burnout. Research shows that burnout rates do decline during and immediately after vacation but return to pre-vacation levels within four weeks.
Leadership behavior also drives how well-being and stress are experienced by teams. The Mayo Clinic evaluates its leaders frequently, and it has found that each one-point increase in composite leadership score was associated with a 3.3% decrease in burnout and a 9% increase in the likelihood of professional satisfaction in those supervised.
Leaders also need to understand the burnout business case and how it impacts an organization’s financial health. Burnout is closely linked to turnover, absenteeism, decreased productivity, quality, safety and patient or client satisfaction. All of these issues have a quantifiable impact to the organization’s bottom line. One study found that people who experienced burnout at one point in time had 168% higher odds of leaving their organizations within two years compared to those who did not experience burnout. Those who reported an intent to leave were three times as likely to actually leave.
Debrief — Teams that spend 12 to 14 minutes debriefing at the end of a project or during a pivotal point in a project show less burnout. Why? Team members leave feeling supported and that they have a sense of clarity about individual and group expectations.
Make it a habit to discuss what you intended to do, what actually happened, what went well and what you would do differently. You can debrief on your own as well — I ask myself a version of these questions after every program to help me recognize what I missed and how I can capitalize on wins moving forward.
With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no end in sight, mitigating stress and preventing burnout are issues that leaders and teams will face well beyond 2020. The time to start acting is now in order to preserve your company’s most valuable resource — its people.