How leaders can deal with burnout

Source: Management Team (26/03/2018)

You can hardly open a newspaper, magazine or management book nowadays without finding something about burnout. As a manager, it is not only very important to be able to detect burnout among your staff in good time: it is just as important to be able to be aware of your own stress. Given the overdose of information surrounding this buzzword - some of it contradictory - we have provided a clear summary here to help you, as a manager, to get things straight in your head again. 

Back to basics

We first find ‘burnout’ used in the current sense of the word in the work of psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger. Back in the 1970s, he described the process by which young volunteers in the healthcare sector lost motivation and became emotionally exhausted. In 1981, the American professor of psychology Christina Maslach introduced the first version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is still the test most often used to identify burnout today. Today, burnout is defined by the Dutch labour and organisational psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli as a syndrome of extreme fatigue, depersonalisation and lack of trust in one’s own abilities. Research by the Canadian burnout expert Michael Leiter has added that these three aspects do not all have to be present simultaneously.

The difference between stress and burnout

Heavy traffic, deadlines, teenagers who are late for school again, an overflowing inbox... we all know what stress feels like. It can improve our concentration and lead to high performance, but it can also give us that infamous knot in the stomach, difficulty sleeping or irritability.

Fortunately you can do something about it, sometimes simply by changing little things. For example, you can turn the situation around (by leaving for work earlier) or reducing the consequences of stress (by meditating daily). If you really want to tackle the root of the problem, however, you need to become aware of the underlying causes in order to get your life back under control.

There is a real link between stress and burnout. People who experience burnout say that they have often been suffering from chronic and extreme stress. All the same, it is important to know that not everyone who experiences any form of increased stress necessarily burns out: far from it, in fact.

There are several risk factors in the workplace that influence burnout: having high demands imposed on you, not being able to plan your own tasks, a lack of breaks and having the feeling that you are not sufficiently rewarded (in terms of time off, financial rewards etc.) for the work you do. Last but not least, your personality also plays a role. Neurotic employees and those that are very committed to their jobs suffer burnout significantly more often than their extrovert colleagues, for example.

The burnout tornado

Being sucked down into a burnout might well be compared to a tornado. Higher up, the wind speeds (i.e. symptoms) might not really make themselves felt, but they can wreak havoc down on the ground. Vague complaints like difficulty sleeping, anxiety, restlessness and reduced social contact gradually give way to clearer symptoms in which hormonal imbalances and a weakened immune system often play a role. Reduced cognitive activity due to disrupted energy levels leads to overcompensation, which means you end up in a vicious circle. If you do not treat burnout in time, your body’s energy batteries end up completely flat. Serious physical and mental complaints ultimately force you to take the time to recharge your batteries. ‘Taking the time’ usually means six months to two years at home, and during the first few weeks you mainly need to catch up on a lot of sleep.

What can you do as a leader?

Self-diagnosis hardly ever occurs. So it is important to recognise the symptoms in your staff, and to do so in time. If you suspect someone is struggling with this problem, it is important to intervene as soon as possible and talk to the person about it. After all: the earlier you can intercept the problem, the easier and quicker it will be for that person to get back to normal. Clearly it is not easy to broach the subject the first time, but when you finally do get the issue out in the open, it is extremely important to listen to your employee or colleague very attentively, show that you are not judging them and then refer them to the right person. As a leader, furthermore, you can play an important role in informing your team. You can also contributing to helping the person reintegrate smoothly when they come back to work.

However, you need to know your own limits as a leader too. People who spiral down into burnout often deny that they have a problem and will not always be prepared to talk to you about their problem. This makes it equally important to organise ongoing coaching so that your staff are also trained to recognise the signs.

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