Since Anne Peterson’s “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” trended in January 2019, burnout has continued to receive attention throughout the first half of 2019, and rightly so. According to a June 4th Business Insider article, burnout is on the rise, with some health experts calling it a global pandemic, affecting employees from a range of industries across the world, in both developed and developing economies. It also costs an estimated USD $ 323.4 billion dollars in expenses annually, which includes the amount lost by higher rates of medical leave and absenteeism. It is a growing problem and there seems to be little traction in efforts combating its spread.
Burnout: A Brief Description
Burnout, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.
This clearer definition follows the WHO’s inclusion of burnout in 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.
While the symptoms and general causes of burnout are generally well-defined and have been narrowed down, specific causes vary from individual to individual, depending on the type of daily stressors experienced as well as other contributing factors: personality, personal working style, working environments and individual coping mechanisms. Some employees may be particularly stressed by office politics, others by menial, repetitive tasks, others by long “To Do” lists that never seem to end. Even the very perception of being unable to cope with one’s workload or high personal expectations can contribute tremendously to burnout.
There is thus no magical pill that can ‘cure’ burnout. Moreover, two or three key employees experiencing burnout can lead to increased pressure, workload and stress on their team members, resulting in an increased likelihood of them experiencing burnout as well.
When viewed from this perspective, burnout is a condition that is contagious, which is why it threatens to evolve into a much bigger problem than it already is.
Moreover, the type of people burnout typically affects exacerbates its impact on organisations. Harvard Business Review identified in an article last year the type of people who are at risk: highly engaged, motivated, high-value employees who are capable and determined. These employees tend to be identified early, and they often get entrusted with new opportunities, responsibilities, and challenging work that their managers don’t feel comfortable delegating to others.
What comes with such work, however, are high-expectations and, consequently, high levels of stress, both external and internal. When these employees are unable to cope and burn out, finding a replacement is often much more challenging and costlier than if their volume of work had been calibrated in the first place.
Putting Out The Fires
As with most preventable conditions, the best way to stem the spread of burnout is to put into place initiatives and actions that prevent burnout from taking hold. For this to occur, the systems and processes that govern the workplace must be calibrated to ensure that employees are able to maintain peak performance without compromising their long-term health and well-being, both physical and psychological.
Employers, particularly management level professionals who have more influence over workplace and working conditions, should take ownership and leadership in analysing and reconfiguring their working spaces and working cultures to mitigate the spread of burnout. This often entails ensuring that their employees have a sense of community at work, a collegial environment, reasonable workloads within reasonable timeframes, a sense of control or agency over their roles and responsibilities, adequate training and developmental programs, as well as work-life harmony.
Many companies have begun to take action. Over the past few months, more and more companies have begun to inquire about and implement PEPWorldwide Asia’s HealthPEP, a customisable solution to address health and wellness related problems at the workplace. An initiative such as the Personal Efficiency Program that has been the flagship program of PEPWorldwide for 35 years can also help companies empower workers with practical tools and skills they can use to manage their time, projects, and workflow in such a way that allows them to regain and maintain agency and control.
For high-potential executives who have been targeted for further grooming, one-on-one coaching might be a better solution. Executive coaches are able to offer solutions as well as the perspective of an objective observer; qualified, experienced coaches will often offer suggestions that are tailored for the executive’s unique circumstances.
Future-Proofing The Way Forward
Employees and workers are not just driving the success of their businesses today, they are often the source of solutions and ideas for their companies to continue to thrive in the future. Yet burnout is a malaise that threatens both the business’ present and future, which makes it all the more critical for employers to take action now.
While employers cannot exercise control over everything relating to their employees, they can exercise control over specific areas such as employee development, creating cultures of wellness, implementing company-wide health initiatives as well as providing employees with the right skills and tools to manage their workload, time, and stress levels. Only by employing wholistic measures will holistic results be achieved!
About the Contributor:
Hidhir Razak is the Corporate Relations Manager of PEPWorldwide Asia. An ardent believer of the power of storytelling and its unique ability to bring people and communities together, Hidhir is a reader, writer, and researcher by training. His articles have appeared on The Middle Ground, Yahoo Singapore, and Poetry.sg while his creative works have appeared in numerous anthologies and collections in Singapore. He holds a Master of Arts degree from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he specialised in English and Creative Writing.