There has been some recent interest in burnout after it became an "occupational phenomenon" according to the World Health Organisation and was included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). What the heck does that mean? Burnout is finally a 'thing'. We're treating this new development with cautious optimism though.
s a team who specialises in burnout prevention and recovery, you’d think we’d be over the moon! While this is a fantastic first step, we have a long way to go to truly support employees who are experiencing extreme stress and exhaustion. One thing to remember is that, here in Australia, psychologists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-6) as their bible for diagnosing mental illness, not the ICD. So this means that to mental health professionals in Australia, burnout still isn’t technically a diagnosable ‘thing’!
Where are we at?
The progress made in the research and literature around burnout is patchy. A few well-known academics made early inroads in terms of describing the experience of burnout, but treatment protocols and recovery frameworks really haven’t followed. As a result, burnout has been treated with a mishmash of pharmaceuticals and therapies best suited to depression, or not treated at all.
There has also been an assumption made that burnout is a form of depression. However, recent research is pointing to what we at MCC know to be true, that burnout and depression are related but they’re not the same thing.
All of this together means that there’s confusion about exactly what burnout is and how to help people avoid it or support them to recover.
What are the signs of burnout?
This is a process of disconnection. Of removing yourself from people, situations or outcomes in order to better cope with what’s going on for you.
This depletion of energy could be the cause of burnout (I am exhausted, which leads to me disconnecting and not feeling like I’m achieving much) or the effect of burnout (I’ve disconnected from others and I’m not achieving what I think I should be, which leads to me feeling exhausted). The experience of burnout can be quite individualised.
Reduced sense of accomplishment
This is where the feeling of “am I getting anywhere?” comes from. A sense of spinning your wheels and not getting any traction. You can begin to feel lost or that you have no real understanding of why you’re bothering to work so hard.
What can workplaces do to help?
The first step is to recognise that as a HR team, and more broadly as a business, that you have a responsibility not to send people home broken and exhausted. This might sound obvious, but if more organisations took this responsibility seriously, we’d be out of a job!
Burnout needs to be tackled from three perspectives. If any one element is missing, you’ll find unsustainable work practices cropping up in your business. You’ll also notice stronger turnover of talent, more absenteeism and lower productivity. Let’s explore the three core elements:
At systemic level, workplaces need to focus on creating and communicating a clear and compelling purpose. Strategies for executing on this purpose need to be well thought out and receive support not only from the exec, but also from influential people within the business. Only then will action follow strategy and change take hold. Empathy and compassion need to be infused into everything that you do. Not just your interactions with your clients, but in employees’ dealings with each other.
Leaders within your business need to have the skills and confidence to translate the organisational purpose into messages that resonate with their team members. They’ll need the emotional intelligence to pick up when they need to have a tough conversation and have the conviction to follow through on this. Being aware of the impact that their behaviour has on others, leaders must use this insight to influence and inspire, rather than pushing and breaking people.
On an individual level, people who are highly stressed and close to burnout need to be supported to simplify their actions and reactions, understand their own contribution to their stress and burnout, truly understand their potential and build the resilience and strategies that it will take to overcome burnout.
In our experience, if any one of these elements are missing, individuals don’t get the support they need to do their best work, and organisations suffer because they’re not allowing people to work to their potential.
The addition of burnout to the ICD is fantastic, but as living, breathing organisations full of human beings who have heartbeats and families, we have a long way to go. Let’s keep taking it step by step. One courageous decision at a time.