Burnout – passion imploding

Burnout is a topic that we increasingly have to deal with; in our consulting as well as in coaching, both in Germany as well as South Africa. To understand the complexity of a burnout process, a consciousness regarding private aspects as well as organisational aspects is required. In this article, we share some general observations and aspects regarding burnout.

1. Burnout is a process that cannot happen to every person

High performers and people who have high expectations of themselves are generally at greater risk to experience burnout. These are usually people who are very passionate about what they do, and who go beyond what is expected of themselves in their work. In order to be personally satisfied with their work, they aim to do more in less time while striving for perfection. Performance limits and early warning signs are often ignored and are interpreted as temporary disturbances. Examples for these early warning signs are:

  • inability to regenerate on weekends or in holidays
  • sleepless nights and general insomnia
  • continuous pain in the neck / shoulder / back area
  • headaches and migraines
  • social isolation and growing lack of control over one’s own emotions

In case of the above symptoms continuing over longer periods of time, there is also a growing decline of performance which is then addressed with an even stronger effort to perform. And unless this cycle is interrupted or prevented, exhaustion and burnout may very well become a reality. It is important that both managers and their employees know how to recognise the early warning signs and implement preventative strategies.

2. External circumstances

Many articles have been published regarding causes and factors promoting burnout within organisations. In essence, the following aspects have been researched and found.

The financial crisis, pressure in the economy, and the increasingly faster “efficiency” spiral is forcing many companies to react with rising pressure on their employees’ performance. The workload and task complexity constantly grows, one change or restructuring is followed by the next. The increasing pressure is perceived as (passive) reaction to external circumstances, and there is no room for the question whether everything is realistically possible.

Middle management is most affected by this increasing pressure, yet can do very little to actively create the change. The sentence “this is impossible” is not an option. This creates a feeling of helplessness and ‘being externally controlled’ amongst middle management. Once middle management is weakened, an important pillar regarding change implementation is threatened – they are the stabilising pillar for employees, and provide an important decision-making function.

Through increasing sick leave and effects of the ‘inner resignation’ of many employees, the pressure on (still) functioning and healthy employees grows.

The atmosphere is increasingly aggravated, and the first warning signs in the teams are noticeable: individual employees are not managing their work loads, start arriving earlier and leaving later, the whole team lacks initiative and motivation, there are many complaints and worries; the manager himself / herself acts more by exerting power or pressure, and does not ‘lead’ any more (does everything himself), etc.

3. How can an organisation deal with the challenge of burnout?

Below are a few aspects of human resource development and organisational development that can address burnout.

a. Coaching as support of executives and employees has proven successful. With this intervention, coach and coachee develop actions together, and work on reducing the feeling of helplessness and ‘outside control’. In coaching, different levers can be used to bring the coachee forward:

  • your own expectation towards your performance
  • time and self management
  • taking rest periods and limited availability into account
  • aspects of individual work organisation
  • the ability to set boundaries, say no / decline tasks, etc.

b. Supportive interventions in Human Resource Development, such as trainings related to the above-mentioned topics; and leadership development regarding personal leadership styles provide two benefits:

  1. They contribute to the (professional) qualification of employees, and thus to more responsibility-taking
  2. They ensure that burnout is seen as an important (and not seldom) topic that needs to be addressed.

c. The communication regarding performance limits, exhaustion and ‘burning out’ is mostly observable in informal settings. It is therefore helpful to create such informal settings in organisations. This can be within annual conferences, team events or even regular meetings regarding specific professional topics (“how energetic are we at the moment? Where do we gain our energy and trust? etc)

d. The behaviour and action of managers are additional important levers. The most effective aspects are the following:

  • steering of overtime; balancing work time and rest time
  • annual appraisals
  • better information regarding company goals and the usefulness of every role and task
  • being a role model regarding work-life-balance and own energy management

Burnout is a topic that we have to address. “Only someone who has once ‘burned’ for something can experience burnout”. Therefore it is important to remember one thing – at one point; the burnout had a positive core. We should connect to the competency of ‘burning’ and actively tackle interventions to counteract the burnout.