As a collective, we’ve been living with unprecedented stress for an extended period of time due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the raft of complex issues it’s brought to our communities. And if stress goes unchecked, it can lead to burnout. While we can’t change many of the challenges the pandemic has raised, we can choose to learn from them – adopting better habits and healthier ways of living and working.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. The process is gradual with the signs and symptoms starting subtly and becoming worse over time – it saps our energy, reduces our productivity and can leave us feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. The negative effects of burnout impact pretty much every area of our lives and the journey to recovery can be a long one, so addressing the causes and symptoms as soon as possible is essential in preventing a major breakdown.
How we can recognise it
The signs and symptoms that alert us to burnout are varied in nature and intensity depending on the individual – see our checklist for examples of some common signs and symptoms here. The checklist can be emailed to your team or downloaded and printed. Take it along to a team meeting as a conversation starter.
What we can do about it
Everyone experiences stress and has different ways of coping with it, so let’s not be too hard on ourselves or others in those times when things get to be a bit too much. It’s far better that we acknowledge our reality and get to work dealing with the negative impacts of stress than let things get to the stage of burnout.
Getting ahead of burnout is much more successful as a team effort when everyone is doing their bit, so here we suggest some things both individuals and organisations can be doing to avoid or address burnout. While we’re referring to the work environment, the same ideas can be applied outside of work.
Ideas for individuals
As with most conditions, prevention is better than cure. Pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you and take action before stress gets the better of you.
1. Take responsibility for yourself – Fill out our Signs & Symptoms checklist then have a good think about what triggers these sorts of reactions in you and what you can do about them.
2. Look after yourself and actively de-stress – We have lots of suggestions in our Resource Library, such as 64 ways to take care of yourself and Using a few minutes for self-care. Use our ideas to prompt your own and jot them down so you have something to refer back to.
3. Make it a part of your daily routine to take breaks – From micropauses during work time (stand up, take a walk around the room, stretch to alleviate tension, roll your neck and shoulders, take a series of relaxing breaths) to taking a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes away from your workstation (have a bite to eat, get outdoors, go for a walk).
4. Make every effort to leave work at work! Read our blog on work-life balance for some ideas.
5. Check in on colleagues and keep the conversation going – If you’re feeling stressed, it’s likely others are too and bringing that out in the open and chatting through the issues and some potential solutions can be a great support.
6. Don’t wait until things get really bad before you talk about how you’re feeling. Seek out people you trust for support – colleagues, your manager, a peer supporter, your EAP provider. If you are already burnt out, it’s imperative that you seek support.
Ideas for organisations
An organisation’s people are one of its biggest assets and their health and wellbeing is an invaluable resource. What can you be doing to ensure your workplace and expectations aren’t adding to burnout in your organisation?
1. Set great examples for your team – As a manager, role model smart habits. Let your team see you practicing what you preach: take breaks during the day, encourage people to get away from their workstation and (if possible) spend some time outside, plan times to take your annual leave so there is complete break to look forward to.
2. Support your team with inspiring language – Have a mantra of, "We are in this together". Mean it and act on it.
3. Be a voice for your team – If the workload is genuinely too heavy, take it up with the decision makers; can deadlines be adjusted, tasks reassigned, more resources supplied?
4. If a particular project does need all hands on deck, make sure this doesn't become a habitual way of working. Ring fence that piece of work and once it’s complete, be sure to acknowledge those who were involved and thank them for their efforts. Observe and check in with everyone about how they’re feeling (including yourself!), and take action if you see signs of over-stress or burnout.
5. Involve your people – You don't have to come up with all the answers yourself; encourage your team to be open with you and each other about where they’re at, and give them the opportunity to contribute to the issues/solutions conversation. Make it a habit to chat formally and informally about how people are feeling, and be open to their feedback. Take some ideas out of our resource, Key skills and strategies to build your resilience, and share with your team to get the conversation going.
6. Pick up on potential issues – Keep your eyes, ears and mind open so you will recognise when stress is getting the better of people. Don’t ignore the signs and hope they will go away. If the workplace and/or specific types of projects are burning employees out, something needs to change, and that needs to be led from the top.
7. Have support systems in place and make sure your people know about them – For example, a culture of openness and caring, an ongoing focus throughout the year on mental health and wellbeing, access to someone in authority, an employee assistance programme, peer supporters, mental health days, planned leave, sufficient breaks, a time out room. As the saying goes, people do the best they can with the resources they have, so support your team with good quality resources and support systems.
8. Come at the issue from a variety of angles – Because we’re all different with varied coping abilities and the causes of burnout are also varied, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so it can be helpful to have a bunch of options for people to try out. Be understanding when some things just don’t work for some people, and try something else.