Burning Issue

The costs of workplace burnout are far too high, but what can we do about it?

By Amy Thomasson

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In a Quantum Workplace survey of the most commonly used words at work, the word busy ranked as lucky number 13. In fact, it ranked higher than innovation, teamwork, or integrity as common descriptors of the workplace experience. Despite an onslaught of productivity apps, life hacks, and project management software, many of us feel, and make sure to tell others, that we are busier than ever. In fact, we wear our busyness and lack of leisure time as a badge of honor, with long hours at the office and constant connection to our email used as a signaling device to show our organizations and coworkers how singularly irreplaceable we are.

While we may receive external validation from projecting our busyness to the world, at what point does that badge of honor become a mark of concern? How do we guard against busyness turning from stress to overwhelm, leading to the dangerous and costly issue of burnout?

A Gallup survey conducted last year of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work often or always, with an additional 44% reporting that they sometimes feel burnt out. That means that two-thirds of full-time workers are feeling the burn on a far too regular basis.

The costs of burnout are not only harbored by employees in the form of detrimental impacts to mental and physical health. This burden is also carried in the form of quantifiable costs by employers, as well as the general population in the form of healthcare costs. According to a study called the ‘Employee Engagement Series,’ conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace®, 95% of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workplace retention. The Harvard Business Review reports that the psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in U.S. healthcare spending.

The costs of burnout are far too high, but what can we do about it? As the marketing director of a membership association, I decided to do what I often do when seeking insight, perspective, and thought leadership – seek guidance from an expert member. Luckily, since I work for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, I didn’t have to go far to find an expert in burnout, stress, and their effects on the mind and body. Doctor Renée Reynolds is an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at State University of New York at Buffalo and Medical Director of Pediatric Neurosurgical Outreach and Education at Kaleida Health. She recently published an article on burnout in neurosurgery residents and now shares her insight on how the general working population can greater understand and be vigilant in guarding against burnout.

Understanding the Difference Between Stress and Burnout

“Stress and burnout are conditions that fall on a spectrum, but the line in which one ends and the other begins is blurred. Stress is the body’s reaction to physical, mental, or emotional changes that produce a need for response. Stress can be both positive and negative, with positive or healthy forms of stress initiating our bodies to respond by being more alert, motivated, and prepared to form the necessary response.

Stress can become negative when it is overwhelming, continuous, and difficult to formulate a successful response to. Burnout, however, is always negative and while stress is not a disorder, burnout is. With stress people are often still interested in exerting effort to remedy the situation and often have reduced levels of stress with time away from the stressor. Burnout is an extension of stress where the individual’s coping mechanisms have been depleted leading to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment. Instead of responding with more effort and emotional commitment, an individual has little or no energy to address the stress, and their emotions become flattened to it. An additional key feature of burnout is that recovery time away does not produce a sense of rejuvenation upon return.”

Applying Lessons from Medical Resident Burnout to the Office Environment

“Through my research, I have learned many things that are applicable to the general working population. The first lesson is that contrary to what many people may think, burnout is not a condition of the weak or indolent. It is those who are most engaged, dedicated, and hard-working that are most at risk. It is also this same population that has more difficulty recognizing burnout in themselves. Anyone is at risk developing burnout, and the general working population and workplace environment face the same challenges identified in medicine regarding the lack of education, recognition, and ability to address burnout.

The second important lesson relates to personality types that lend themselves more to experiencing burnout. As mentioned earlier, although everyone can feel the pain of burnout, Type A personalities, perfectionists, and workaholic mentalities are most at risk. These are typically individuals who work in stressful environments that are either chronically frustrating due to the lack of power to change the environment or to have control over challenging situations. This, however, does not preclude other personality types from developing burnout, and we should be on guard for burnout in all employees.”

Steps to Guard Against Workplace Burnout

“The first step is recognition. Professionals should be educated about burnout and the potential signs and symptoms, as well as the negative effects it can have on their professional and personal lives. Ideally, this education would come from the employer, but if not, individuals should take the initiative to educate themselves to protect their health and wellbeing. Major warning signs of burnout include low energy, disengagement, frequent sickness, lack of relaxation, and reduced coping ability.

The second step is to develop resiliency techniques to combat burnout. These techniques are varied and each individual may respond differently to each technique. Some revolve around physical fitness and wellness, others focus on fostering personal relationships, while yet others focus on open discussion of feelings in a constructive fashion.

It is acknowledged that the factors contributing to burnout may not have perfect solutions, however, small changes can have major impacts. As an example, within the medical arena one of the most common complaints is a lack of time to devote to personal interests, relationships, and wellbeing. One small solution is to make an internal agreement to avoid checking email and turning off audible alerts and trivial devices at the end of the day to protect what time is available for the things that you value for your personal wellbeing. Often, even the sound of the receipt of an email on one’s device increases internal stress by subliminally feeling the need to respond and address. Additionally, it further depletes the limited time available to rejuvenate yourself. Engaging leadership to prioritize these changes further supports the initiatives to combat burnout and is paramount to the success of these strategies.”

While looming deadlines and near-constant connectedness has tightened the vise grip of pressure many of us are feeling at the workplace, it is possible to recognize the symptoms of burnout, develop tactics for mitigating personal risk, and communicating openly about stress and burnout with others. Through mindfulness and organizational support, you can abate the indicators of burnout before they become a dangerous blaze.

About the Author

Amy Thomasson is director, marketing for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. She can be reached at athomasson@cns.org.

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