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Burnout Is Not About Your People – It’s About Your Workplace

Written by: Ellyn Schinke, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

I’ll never forget one of the first organizations I spoke to about booking a speaking engagement. In big, bold letters on my website speaking, I wrote that burnout is about your organization, not your people. And yet the first person I spoke with said, “Oh no. It’s not our leaders. They’re doing great. They tell them to have boundaries. Our people need help.” And this is a pattern I’ve seen play out time and time again.

A businessman is tired of working with documents piled up on a desk with two colleagues standing next to him.

“Our people need help with managing burnout.”


“Can you help our employees?”


“It’s the individuals. It’s not our organization.”


I get where these well-meaning executives are coming from. From their perspective, their management and leadership are doing and saying all of the right things. They’re telling their employees not to check email in the evenings. They’re telling their teams to take time off. They’re asking for feedback. They have an open-door policy. But, more often than not, these executives, leaders, and managers that seek me out as a speaker are lacking something crucial: perspective. They’re not seeing and experiencing what their employees are.


They’re not seeing the manager that says, “don’t check your email after hours on the weekends,” and often breaks their own rule, frequently sending out “just a quick note” at 9 pm.


They’re not seeing the person who hasn’t taken a vacation day in 2 years get promoted because “we can always count on them.”


They’re not seeing the manager who says that they’re open to those crucial support conversations and then who seems to get uncomfortable and shuts them down quickly whenever they come up.


These well-meaning and deeply caring executives, leaders, and managers have lost the perspective of what it’s like as an employee to hear your company say, “we hear you. We care about work-life balance,” and then seemingly ask for more in less time every single time.


Nope. They don’t see that. They see a team member who needs better self-care, who has no boundaries, or who doesn’t know how to rest. But who taught these employees to be that way? Who made them think that that’s what their organization wanted? Who rewarded the very behaviors with promotions and bonuses that you’re now trying to discourage? I hate to break it to you, but we did. The very leaders, managers, and executives that we believe are doing everything right.


It’s easy to point the finger at the individual and what they’re not doing. But here’s the secret: burnout is not just about self-care. It’s not just about habits. It’s not just about self-management, and I can see how we think it is. The WHO (World Health Organization) didn’t help with this, in my opinion. When they first recognized burnout in 2019, it seemed like they were shifting the blame from the individual to the corporation, but their revision that burnout is “not a medical condition” and their definition that burnout is stress that has “not been successfully managed” seems to again be putting the blame on employees.


If the WHO had designated burnout as a medical condition, burnout would be more of a liability for employers. However, as soon as you take that back, which the WHO promptly did in 2019, the blame shifts back to the employee. The message we’re sending is, “You haven’t managed your stressors successfully. You haven’t managed your workload successfully.” But what about the employer that has unrealistic expectations and isn’t listening to you when you keep saying that it’s too much? What about the employer who has rewarded the very behaviors that they’re now telling employees not to engage in because of burnout…


One of the foremost experts on burnout, Christina Maslach (a social psychologist at UC-Berkeley and the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory), said it best in an interview she did with the Harvard Business Review: “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,” she explains. She goes on to say that just looking at the person is basically saying “’ you’re the problem’” and how it makes burnout “that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them.” Picture me nodding furiously because that is exactly the issue with this approach to burnout.


It’s not just about having more grit. It’s not just about a shift in mindset. It’s not just about mindfulness. And it’s dangerous for organizations to think this way because, honestly, it does nothing but drive people away from their organizations.


Gallup has done several really fantastic surveys on employees to help us understand what contributes to burnout. In one, they studied 7500 full-time employees and came up with a list of 15 factors and designated the top 5 causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work

  2. Unmanageable workload

  3. Lack of role clarity

  4. Lack of community and support from managers

  5. Unreasonable time pressure

These are workplace factors that contribute to burnout. It’s not a lack of sleep. It’s not a lack of self-care. It’s organizational. So, frankly, putting the onus on employees isn’t likely to fix the problem anyway because it doesn’t tackle any of these things.


Self-care hacks and tactics have limited efficacy. They’re band aids to a much larger problem. You might be wondering, then, why I and other burnout and stress coaches teach them. Well, the answer is simple: they’re some of the only contributors that we have control over. I’m a big believer in controlling the controllable and that’s why I coach what I coach, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to point out the responsibility of organizations, too.


Fortunately, there are also things that employers can do to support burned-out employees, and - honestly - they’re not overly complicated or costly. In Gallup’s same study where they identified burnout contributors, they identified fixes that employees had pointed to that would help.


First things first, management training. Managers can

  • Listen to work-related problems. Even if you can’t do anything about them at the time – and as a former manager I realize you most likely can’t – simply listening to and understanding your employees’ needs is a huge step forward. I understand, though, that sometimes this might feel uncomfortable for managers. I believe compassion and empathy training should be a part of every new managers on-boarding.

  • Encourage teamwork. Social support is one of the most important factors in burnout recovery and coworkers can not only provide that, but they often understand the job stressors of their peers sometimes more than managers do.

  • Make everyone’s opinion count. When we feel our opinions are welcome and make a difference, it makes us feel like we have ownership and a sense of control. Considering how big of a contributor a lack of control plays in burnout, this is huge!

  • Make work purposeful. When our work has more purpose or a mission behind it, it means so much more. It’s not just about the paycheck for most people. It’s about meaning and it’s up to the managers and leadership to make that evident.

  • Focus on strengths-based feedback and development. This is honestly what I could’ve improved the most. We spend too much time as managers looking at the gaps, weaknesses and KPIs that aren’t being met. However, if we focus on strengths and giving an employee to do what they do best, they’re 57% less likely to burnout.

But it’s not all about managers. Heck, managers can burn out too and we need to remember that. Organizations can make larger changes as well to support their managers and employees.

Can you…

  • Invest more in manager training? Empathy and compassion go a long way…

  • Shift to strengths-based development vs. a KPI-centric focus?

  • Place performance expectations and metrics within employees’ control?

  • Reduce noise and interruptions (cough MEETINGS cough) in the workday?

  • Design jobs to allow for more autonomy? Remember, a lack of control is one of the biggest contributors to burnout!

  • Audit your workspace lighting. This enhances productivity and promotes positive emotions! Natural light is GOOD!

  • Provide collaboration spaces that are inviting (not sterile).

  • Ask your employers for what they need more? Maybe they don’t want a rooftop volleyball court or a new in-office fitness center. Maybe they want you to pour those resources into support staff OR all they want is for their to be good coffee consistently in the break room…

  • Consider if you’re encouraging the very behaviors, you’re saying you discouraged through the people you promote, bonus, and otherwise reward?

All of these are things that organizations can do to ease burnout in their employees. They’re a great starting point because they’re straight from the mouths of employees and what is burning them out at work. But that’s just scratching the surface of what it takes to create an anti-burnout culture…


Take a good hard look at your organization and ask yourself - with ruthless awareness and honesty – if you’re part of the problem. In what ways might you be perpetuating the very burnout that you’re trying to fix? And how can you change?


Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


 

Ellyn Schinke, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Ellyn Schinke is a former scientist turned top coach and international speaker specializing in burnout and stress management. After burning out while pursuing her Ph.D., Ellyn was sick of all the cookie-cutter, BS burnout tips online and sought out the real, tangible tactics that would actually make a difference in her life. As a result, burnout when from being her lifestyle to her passion. Now, she's focused on helping corporate professionals and businesses free themselves from burnout and take back their lives. Ellyn is the founder and CEO of Coach Ellyn LLC, one of the top burnout coaches on Google, host of the Burned Out to Badass podcast, and more. Her mission: Make burnout a choice.

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