Don [00:00:00] Burnout is stress. It’s a subset of stress, but it’s very specific. It’s stress with no resolution. It’s stress with no way out. It’s stress that you feel isolated and you can’t cope with or respond to.
Don [00:00:15] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”
Don [00:00:23] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and validated. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive.
Don [00:00:42] Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to our biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.
Kelly [00:01:06] Welcome. I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions.
Kelly [00:01:12] As always we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO Don Rheem.
Kelly [00:01:19] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.
Don [00:01:22] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.
Kelly [00:01:24] As we heard at the top of today’s episode, this week’s focus is on how leaders can manage and prevent burnout.
Kelly [00:01:30] Managers frequently spend a large part of their time tending to organizational customer and employee needs. We all are busy in this day and age. There are so many of us that have stressful jobs but a stressful job does not have to lead to burnout. Those two things are not the same thing.
Kelly [00:01:47] A stressful day is one thing, but a sustained level of stress with failure to recognize the signs of what stress is doing to yourself, to your employees and to your family and a lack of attending to that stress is going to lead to burnout.
Kelly [00:02:04] According to a 2016 study this happens all the time.
Kelly [00:02:07] 95 percent of human resource leaders admit that employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. We’re not doing a good job recognizing stress and stopping it from turning into burnout.
Kelly [00:02:19] So, today we’re going to look at the signs of burnout, the impact of it and three key things that leaders can do to prevent burnout from happening in their own lives in their own leadership.
Kelly [00:02:29] Don let’s talk about the signs of burnout. What does burnout look like in today’s workplace?
Don [00:02:34] In the science world, in the research world. It’s considered that there are three essential conditions of burnout or three dimensions of burnout.
Don [00:02:43] One is exhaustion. One is cynicism. The second is cynicism and the third is professional efficacy.
Don [00:02:49] Exhaustion is considered the most clearly the result of job demands including workload, emotional demands, unfavorable working conditions.
Don [00:02:58] Cynicism is when an employee gives up on the organization, lacks an association or connection with the organization, views it cynically, the organization lacks integrity, there’s nothing I can do here, this isn’t a good place to work.
Don [00:03:11] And then the professional efficacy is, can I make a difference? Do I have an ability to do the job I’m supposed to do? Do I believe I have that ability?
Don [00:03:20] That’s cynicism and professional efficacy are most strongly related to a lack of job resources, that it’s most likely to happen when people feel like they lack autonomy, they lack social support or getting professional feedback. That makes it harder. Exhaustion seems to be the most important predictor of things like absenteeism, not only being absent but the length of the absenteeism, the science shows is related to that.
Kelly [00:03:46] Can I just point out that absenteeism can happen while you still show up to the office?
Don [00:03:52] Well sure. You could still be at work and if you’re burned out you may be showing up but you’re just not getting the work done.
Don [00:03:57] The research also shows that the quantity of work could be the same but the quality of the work that person is doing who’s burned out goes down. So, I still may be producing 100 widgets a day, but 20 of them lack quality control and have to be redone or tossed out, so waste and scrap and things go up.
Don [00:04:20] This is a really tough issue. It’s also, the research shows, that burnout is more likely to occur in a younger generation, that is Millennials and Gen Z, than it is in older workers, people who have been working for 20, 30, 40 years.
Kelly [00:04:34] Is that a byproduct of the fact that generations are different or a byproduct of the fact that people who’ve been in the workforce longer have learned more specific coping mechanisms or ways in which they can work that will prevent burnout over time?
Don [00:04:50] You know some of the researchers actually refer to this as reality shock is the term they use. That just the reality of how hard this is to be a professional and to have all of these pressures and stressors on me that I’ve never experienced before. And this can relate in what some have referred to as a kind of an identity crisis due to their inability to socialize, what’s called, socializing in the organizations, to form connections to feel a part of it and to be there. It’s essentially something we’ve talked about before.
Don [00:05:20] You feel isolated you haven’t integrated and that can increase this sense of burnout. There is also a relationship between burnout and gender. And on balance, women tend to score slightly higher on the emotional exhaustion component of burnout whereas men score higher on the depersonalization, that is that personal efficacy in cynicism part of burnout.
Don [00:05:47] Sort of the science terms are that men tend to hold instrumental attitudes, that is, it’s about things and tactics and what I can get done. Whereas women are more emotionally responsive and seem to be willing to disclose emotions and health problems more easily as a part of burnout. It might just simply be that women are more self-aware of what’s happening to them and they can talk about it in real time, whereas men are less able to do that typically.
Kelly [00:06:11] Do leaders experience this in higher droves potentially than the masses of the employees?
Don [00:06:21] There is evidence that managers who tend to feel more isolated in what they’re doing and in their work, unlike the team they’re their direct reports who are a team and they can socialize together and load share together, managers sometimes are in a much more isolated position. And the more isolated you are the more likely you are to experience burnout as a condition of your work.
Kelly [00:06:41] I know we’re going to get into some of the prevention strategies in just a little bit but that clarifies for me the difference in the transactional culture at work, in the relational culture at work and in a transactional culture where they don’t have those relationships to help them, they’re going to be more likely to experience job stress that results in burnout over time.
Don [00:07:05] Yeah and the results of this burnout are pretty powerful.
Kelly [00:07:11] So what are some of the impacts that we see maybe on a day-to-day and maybe over time, related to burnout in leadership?
Don [00:07:19] Here again, I just turned to some of the research to say what have researchers found across organizations so that it’s more generalizable and we can rely on it.
Don [00:07:27] Withdrawal behaviors develop. They’re five key outcomes.
Don [00:07:31] So people are much more likely to avoid what discomforts them. And the organizational conditions that can cause burnout are certainly discomforting. So they withdraw, they leave work early, they arrive at work late, they take longer breaks and they stay away from the workplace as much as possible.
Don [00:07:49] The second is an increase in interpersonal friction as they start to feel cynical and callous towards others. That’s the dehumanization if you will that happens. Small differences can lead to monumental arguments and work assignments begin to seem like insurmountable challenges.
Kelly [00:08:04] It seems like we can also use that as a sign of burnout. If you are facing more conflict than usual with your employees or your colleagues that’s a clear sign that there’s something that’s not quite working right and you need to attend to.
Don [00:08:16] Yes. And so a manager could also be using these same five conditions to detect burnout in their direct reports.
Don [00:08:24] Researchers suggest that direct reports of a manager will probably be the first people to see those conditions in the manager. We’ve talked about feedback in several podcasts. If there’s a great, safe relationship on feedback employees can start letting the manager know what they’re seeing then that may be the first place that it’s noticed.
Don [00:08:43] The third area is declines in performance. That is, they just don’t perform as well and this is where we see that quantity might be the same but quality goes down. But certainly everything they do across the board around their performance declines.
Kelly [00:08:55] Performance declining in conflict and inside the team has significant negative ramifications in any employee. But when you take it to the leader level and they’re the ones who are struggling most with this they are causing impact far beyond what a frontline employee would. An unhealthy leader cannot lead a healthy team.
Don [00:09:19] So if this leader is, for example, withdrawing, more likely to have friction with their direct reports and their performance is declining, they’re more likely to be in their room in their office with the door closed. They’re more likely not to be in their office.
Don [00:09:32] And this connects to something else we see in the engagement world is communication is a key aspect and when employees bring up communication eight out of ten times they’re referring to the accessibility of their manager.
Don [00:09:45] And that doesn’t just mean if the manager is there or not. Is that manager perceived as being approachable and accessible to them? And when managers exhibit some of these burnout behaviors employees go whoa there’s no way I’m gonna go talk to Don, he looks like totally fried today, that’s going to have a big impact.
Don [00:10:03] The fourth impact is a really really important one. It’s what happens at home. For the manager, for the family of the employee, whether it’s a manager at one of their direct reports and just as this burnout leads to behaviors that have a negative impact in the work life they also take it home.
Don [00:10:20] We talk about how the limbic system in the human brain, where all of the emotional processing takes place the epicenter of fight, flight or freeze. The limbic system doesn’t know if it’s at home or at work. So if things are toxic at work that toxicity goes home and it has an impact on family life.
Don [00:10:37] That’s one of the primary drivers of E3 Solutions, of our company, is yes we’re helping organizations create high-performance cultures. But what really makes us feel good at the end of our day is that we know when organizations and managers do a better job of creating this environment where people can perform at high levels at work. They go home as better parents and better partners and that’s what really keeps us going because we were working toward healthier families.
Don [00:11:02] The fifth area, it just results in overt health issues for the employee. They’re much more likely to be sick. It’s going to be harder for them to recover from injury or sickness as a result. They’re just going to file more health insurance claims. We know this is true. In an organization, if wellness, employee wellness is a part of the rhetoric or the mission and vision of the organization your values. This is something that has to be attended to. You can’t ignore these symptoms of burnout. You want to move as quickly to remedy as you possibly can.
Kelly [00:11:37] So what are those remedies what are the prevention strategies or remediation strategies when somebody is experiencing burnout?
Don [00:11:45] Here again this is something you brought up at the top of the broadcast Kelly. Burnout is stress. It’s an example, it’s a subset of stress. But it’s very specific. It’s stress with no resolution. It’s stress with no way out. It’s stress that you feel isolated and you can’t cope with or respond to.
Don [00:12:03] So there’s lots of stress at work and there always will be and stress isn’t necessarily the enemy. Stress is ameliorated is mediated is softened if you will when certain conditions exist in the workplace. So yes employees are going to be stressed. We’re not trying to coddle employees here. But what we want to make sure is when they feel this stress they have some of the key things that we know that will make it easier to cope with and respond to.
Don [00:12:29] So what we want to be able to provide in the workplace are buffers, if you will, to this stress that takes place and we see three, key areas where these buffers in the science also support a focus in these three areas.
Don [00:12:42] The first would be autonomy. The second is adequate feedback, lots of feedback and support. And then the third is social support, that is, high-quality relationships inside the organization.
Don [00:12:54] When we feel stress, if we feel it in isolation and if we don’t feel that we’re in a supportive atmosphere, we feel less likely to be able to cope because as our listeners hopefully know by now, the human brain is not designed to work in isolation.
Don [00:13:08] So, if I’m feeling stress and I have no support structure around me that’s going to be a problem. So autonomy is a way for an employee to respond to stress if something happens, can they take action on themselves to respond to the stress.
Don [00:13:25] Let’s talk first about autonomy as a leader, as a manager.
Don [00:13:29] You would think that the leader, the manager has lots of autonomy, but in fact, they often don’t especially mid-level managers or supervisors often feel like they’re just at the end of the process.
Don [00:13:39] They’ve been given a quota, they’ve been given a number and they’re supposed to produce on it, so they don’t feel like they have much wiggle room. So what does a manager supposed to do?
Don [00:13:49] Well one thing you can do is ask for more autonomy from senior leadership. Say that you need a little bit more space, there’s context here they don’t understand, you’d like to try something new, you want to work with the team, you need a little bit more time. So seek and ask for autonomy for yourself.
Don [00:14:04] There also is an issue of autonomy around how well is my team working. If I have a highly efficient team, if my direct reports are engaged, I do feel like I have more autonomy because my team is more responsive and so I have more of an ability to affect outcomes and change what’s going on in my world.
Don [00:14:23] And you can also get more autonomy by getting permission from your team. Let’s be more inclusive with the team, share with them changes that are coming down the pike and things you need them to do and you’re going to have to ask them to go above and beyond. But to be inclusive, to do planning with them, to include them on the decision making could be a huge way of where a manager can get more autonomy in what they’re doing.
Don [00:14:46] The second issue is feedback and the ability to give and get feedback from the people above them. So for the manager, this is sometimes tough because they’re seen by more senior leaders or the next level of management as being able to be on their own and not needing it. We had one senior leader tell a manager recently, we found out in a one-on-one, this senior leader said, look, you know what, you’re doing well, I’ll just tell you if you’re doing something wrong.
Don [00:15:13] That’s not the kind of feedback that helps managers. Managers are human beings like everybody else. They want to know, how am I doing? Am I doing this okay? Could I do it better? When managers aren’t getting feedback from senior leaders, from more senior leaders, they feel more isolated and as a result, in that isolation, you’re less able to cope with the stress that you’re feeling.
Kelly [00:15:34] You also brought up a good point earlier that the people closest to you, your direct reports who see the work that you do day in and day out are most likely to be able to recognize burnout in you soonest even sometimes before you recognize it in yourself. Which goes back to the episode we talked about last week where you’re soliciting feedback from your employees. If you open the door to that conversation, make it safe for the employee to share feedback from you, if you’re experiencing significant burnout, the employee in those individual one-on-one conversations is going to be one of the first ones to say something’s not working quite right here.
Don [00:16:11] And they’re going to help you be more self-aware and they may help you just keep you from getting too close to the cliff as they let you know. And, this gets to the third point, strong social support and having these high-quality relationships.
Don [00:16:23] If a manager has high-quality relationships with their direct reports, those direct reports, their employees, their team is much more likely to care about them and to have that conversation. I’m going to say, look, Kelly, I know you’re totally dedicated to this job but I’m just seeing some things that kind of scare me about what’s happening for you. And they can have that conversation.
Don [00:16:44] But more than that, the key thing about social support is the ability to load share around the stress that you’re feeling. Can you simply talk to someone about it? Share with them how you’re feeling. That ability simply to share to get some empathy to get some validation and understanding around the stress is a huge part of what the solution is. We just can’t entertain that stress alone. It helps us to be able to share it with others and that’s how we are designed as a species.
Kelly [00:17:13] That social support is so important. It doesn’t just alleviate burnout but it prevents it in the first place which I think has been a critical part of our message from the beginning of E3, that we are hardwired to be in relationship with one another. And when we have safe and secure attachments we are going to experience burnout so much less than those people those employees those leaders who work in isolation.
Kelly [00:17:39] Yeah. You know that spot on. The more alone we are in the workplace, alone in our ability to affect change, alone in our ability to share our experience at work. The more the stressors, these common everyday stressors at work can accumulate and become overwhelming.
Kelly [00:17:55] You’re right. But it’s not just about being alone at work. We all have hopefully relationships outside of work that could help prevent this level of burnout. What does work-life balance have to do with all of this?
Don [00:18:09] Well work-life balance as everyone knows is getting a lot of attention. I prefer the phrase work-life integration. I’m not sure that work and non-work will ever be in true balance. I think the point of it though is, are we doing things outside of work that helps us cope with these stressors?
Don [00:18:25] Simply going home isn’t enough, simply going to the gym I don’t think is enough because you’re still entertaining a lot of these stressors in isolation. The integration for me is, can I go home at the end of the day and can I talk to my spouse, my partner about what’s going on at work? Am I integrating work and things that are going on at home? Am I getting help and validation and understanding and empathy there? And, I also just need to know that these things I’m experiencing at work I am taking home and how well am I integrating that when I get home?
Don [00:18:56] At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s about balancing these stressors. I think it’s about these things we talked about, creating the conditions where the stress is easier to cope with and is coming back to autonomy. Am I getting feedback and do I have strong social support and high-quality relationships?
Don [00:19:14] The highest quality relationship I should have would be what I have at home and integrating that relationship into the stress that I’m feeling is important, not to take it out on the person, but to share it and help that person load share with you.
Kelly [00:19:27] Leaders need to have strong relationships both inside the workplace and outside the workplace in order to prevent burnout. We don’t all have partners to go home to but we all have communities, places that we can invest relationships where we do have the opportunity for security, social resource support, felt sense of safety and that’s something that leaders need to be looking for both inside and outside the workplace.
Don [00:19:52] To button this up a little bit, Kelly, again from the standpoint of the science, the human brain is designed to accomplish work more effectively in groups.
Don [00:20:02] So whenever the brain suffers stress in isolation, where it does not have the advantage and the ability to load share with others, the brain is going to malperform and that’s what burnout is an example of. We’re pushing the brain to do something it’s really not designed to do well.
Don [00:20:18] Let’s not do these things alone. Let’s make sure we have the ability to have more control over what we do. Make sure we’re getting adequate feedback about how we’re doing so we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re doing a good job and let’s make sure we’re surrounded with high-quality relationships. That’s going to be above us, left and right with my peers with other managers and it could also include what I’m doing with my own direct reports.
Kelly [00:20:41] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening. Tune into next week’s episode on helping leaders stop reacting and start responding.
Kelly [00:20:53] Are you looking for science-based solutions to increase employee engagement and retention. Are you ready to measure key drivers of high-performance? Do you want your team to look forward to coming to work? Don’t wait. Check out e3solutions.com right now. Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the show. Each rating and review help other managers like you find this show and benefit from these episodes. Thrive By Design is produced and audio engineered by Megan Rummler. All music in this episode is sourced royalty-free from melodyloops.com.
Kelly [00:21:25] Thank you for listening and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. See you next week!