We need to rethink how we approach burnout

Last updated on 
July 28, 2020

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When we think about burnout at work, we tend to view it in terms of individuals. If someone burns out, we might think it’s because they’re taking on too much, get easily stressed or are unable to switch off – and by treating burnout as something that is highly personal, many companies deal with it on a case by case basis. There’s a tendency to believe that by reducing an employee’s workload, adjusting their role or giving them time off, the situation will improve.

But how useful is it to keep putting the individual employee at the center of workplace burnout? By focusing on the personal, do companies unwittingly distract from their own role in creating the conditions for burnout? And if burnout solutions are always delivered on the micro individual level, are businesses missing an opportunity to develop and protect other employees from a similar fate?

Burnout as an “individual issue”

The term “burnout” first originated in the 1970s, and has since become an HR buzzword. Since then it’s increasingly been turned towards tailoring support and approaching workplace problems on an individual level. There’s a general sense that different employees burn out uniquely depending on their particular blend of personality, workplace challenges and personal stresses. It’s frequently assumed that people who are more emotionally volatile or sensitive are more prone to burnout, meaning solutions often takes on a highly individual flavor.

A 2016 study found that a common factor in people being able to deal with stress and prevent burnout from occurring is emotional intelligence (EI). People with higher EI are better able to understand the origins of feelings of frustration or anxiety, allowing them to consider different ways to deal with the problem. On top of that, people with high EI are better able to self-manage, which means they’re more likely to stay calm and control their impulses. This study led to many people believing that the causes of burnout lie with the individual, and that the solution to burnout at work was to apply personalized treatments to each employee: do more yoga, practice breathing exercises, build up your resilience, etc.

Treat companies, not people

When, in 2019, the World Health Organisation included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, many people assumed that burnout was now considered a medical condition – which again furthered the notion that burnout is all about the individual. But newer research suggests otherwise, and proposes that personalized solutions might actually do more harm than good. The leading expert on burnout, Christina Maslach, believes we are approaching employee burnout from the wrong direction.

“Categorizing burnout as a disease was an attempt by the WHO to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies,” Maslach says.  “When we just look at the person, what that means is, ‘Hey we’ve got to treat that person.’ ‘You can’t work here because you’re the problem.’ ‘We have to get rid of that person.’ Then, it becomes that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them.”

Burnout as a workplace problem

From work overload to team inequality and community breakdown, burnout can be caused by a multitude of things. A recent Gallup survey of 7,500 employees found that the most common causes of burnout at work are:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of clarity about role
  • Lack of communication and support from management
  • Unreasonable time pressures

Clearly, these factors relate more to organizational structure and company culture, than an individual’s personality. If an employee is tired, stressed, or feeling overworked, being told to take some leave ultimately won’t resolve the problem – management instead needs to dig deeper into what’s causing them to feel like that and actually do something about it.

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The solution to employee burnout

By reframing how they approach burnout, companies and managers can be a lot more effective in how they tackle employee burnout. If an employee feels isolated or unsupported, it’s not enough to send them encouraging emails, or tell them you’re here if they need to talk; it’s about working out why this employee is feeling isolated and why they don’t feel supported.

“burnout is a problem with your company, not your employees.”

This is where asking questions and collecting data becomes crucial: without asking employees what they want to change, you can’t tackle the root problem. You can go about this using a variety of methods, from one-on-one conversations, team away days and staff forums, to anonymous surveys and focus groups. Crucially, creating opportunities and spaces for employees to share feedback and discuss ideas is something that needs to be woven into regular management – it’s not a one-off box-ticking exercise. You need ongoing input to make the work environment feel safer, happier and healthier for everyone.

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Of course, this doesn’t mean you should scrap the individual lens and embrace a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone does have different personalities, stresses and grades of mental health, and these need to be supported in a way that best suits each individual. You still need to monitor each employee’s risk factors (including hours worked, overtime and capacity, working patterns, rest, and  workload) and offer proactive support where these show irregularities. Burnout itself doesn’t always stem from negative issues or feelings – it can be the result of “positive” high engagement at work.

Ultimately, every case of burnout should be treated as a company failure, and solutions should therefore go well beyond the individual level. If your company already offers things like mindfulness classes, resilience training and free yoga sessions, that’s great – but these alone are not the entire solution. If you really want to address burnout at work, you need to do more listening and introspecting; you need to recognize that burnout is a problem with your company, not your employees.

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