Avoiding burnout – the relationship between leadership, communication and workplace culture

Like physical health, mental health is a human reality for every person every single day. 

It’s a big challenge for organisations. And it’s not a new thing – it was there long before the pandemic, which has accelerated and drawn greater attention to it.  

Research by Deloitte shows that mental health-related illness costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year with related staff turnover costing a further £9 billion. And that was before the pandemic. 

In a recent Harvard study of 1500 business people, 85% said their wellbeing had declined and 89% believe their work life is getting worse.  Over 50% of all respondents didn’t feel that they had been able to balance their home and work life — with 53% specifically citing home schooling.  New Financial Times research also shows that 38% of Brits are “highly anxious”. 

The World Health Organisation now recognises burnout as a disease which it describes as a “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It refers to it as a phenomena in the occupation context not to be applied to describe experiences in others areas of life.  

The WHO’s definition is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is a clear public health consideration when we think about occupation which they can put out guidelines on how to improve. Secondly, it recognises it isn’t an individual or talent management problem, it’s a broader organisational one which can spread and impact on customers and communities. 

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight or in response to a crisis or emergency – it’s the result of situational stressors on the job that have been going on for a period of time. If we think back to when the pandemic first hit, it’s most likely we saw people cope incredibly well. What we are talking about here are the everyday things that begin to wear people down to the point where they’re saying they can’t do it anymore, or don’t want to be there.  

Christina Maslach, a Professor in Psychology who has spent her career studying occupational burnout, identified three overlapping dimensions to burnout: 

  • Exhaustion as a response to stress. This feels like, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t think straight. I want to go home, and I’ve still got more going on.” Feeling tired all the time or that you don’t have the energy to do the things you used to do 
  • Cynicism.  It’s not just you’re working too hard, but you’re getting to the point where you’re saying, “you can take this job and shove it!” Here you begin to get negative and cynical about the people, the place, and what’s going on. People start changing how they work and. rather than trying to do their best, they’re trying to do the bare minimum. 
  • Negative self-evaluation. You’re feeling not great about yourself. Maybe you feel you’re not good at what you’re doing, or feel you’ve made a career mistake and shouldn’t be there. You feel stuck, like there is no future for you at work.   

Right now I’m sure many people can relate to feeling tired and we will all be having different experiences depending on our jobs and family situations.  It turns out Zoom (or Teams) fatigue really is a thing, yet it’s not a new thing. Billons were already being wasted every year in unproductive meetingsThis has increased by 13%, with people now working an average of 48 minutes longer every day.  

Many people I talk to describe spending all day in one virtual meeting or another with little or no transition time between them. How many of these meetings are really necessary and how are they being prepared for and run? Years ago I remember doing an exercise with a team where we looked at all the meetings they were involved in during the course of a month and the ‘cost’ to the business based on calculating salary and time. It made their eyes water and led to an evaluation of which meetings where necessary, how long they needed to last and who absolutely had to be there. They also implemented check ins at the start of every meeting. This acted as a natural transition from whatever they were doing directly beforehand and to find out how everyone was feeling as a human being.  

From our own research its clear that many organisations have developed initiatives to support employee wellbeing. From yoga and fitness competitions to social activities and dedicated wellbeing technologyWhilst these are all great tools for supporting wellbeing, they put the responsibility onto the individual to take part and manage their own self-care. If someone is feeling exhausted and overwhelmed it’s unlikely they will take the time out for a wellbeing session on Zoom and an app won’t help to solve the problem. 

Leaders are tired too of course and many have been left questioning what they can do to support people, whilst at the same time taking care of themselves. The circumstances are hard for everyone and many are working in ways that aren’t sustainable.  

The reality is that most organisations will probably have practices that fuel a culture of burnout, so to deal with it they will need to make some changes. 

Josh Bersin, an industry analyst who has spent his career studying jobs, work, technology and HR says avoiding and preventing burnout takes 6 things which can be applied to any organisation, job or sector: 

Meaningful work.  Can you as an individual put your own energy into the job? Are the hours reasonable? Is the workload manageable Is it a good fit to your strengths? Are your teammates helpful? 

Hands-on management. Is your boss, manager, or team leader someone who cares? Does management clarify what’s important and what’s not? And will they listen to your input? Do you know what’s expected of you at work and what your priorities are?  

Positive work environment. Do you have the tools and equipment you need to get work done?  Do people appreciate you? Do you feel included and that you belong? Do you have the flexibility to work your own way?  

Health, safety, and wellbeing. Is the workplace safe, productive, and healthy? If you’re working at home can you see your computer ok? Is your chair comfortable? Is the workplace virus-free?  

Ability to grow. Is your job taking you somewhere? Are you learning something? Are there mentors or role models to help you grow? Is there a future in the company?  

Trust and purpose from leadershipDoes leadership paint a vision you believe in? Do you trust them? Do they care about you as a person 

Bersin says you have to think about these 6 things, not be afraid to make changes and provide the training for people to be able to coach and support others.  

Employee engagement, strengths and wellbeing author Tom Rath says organisations are the single best route to increasing the wellbeing of society. To do this they need to focus on how their organisational culture builds people up – employees, customers, communities – not how they can get as much as possible out of everyone.  

In Kevin Oakes book ‘Culture Renovation Rath cites some new measures of effectiveness that organisations need to think about including: 

  • Will people be a better spouse, parent, friend, child because they work here? 
  • If this person works for our organisation for the next two years, will they be healthier as a result? 
  • Can we prove employees will have less stress because they joined our organisation? 
  • Will people will be more involved and give more back to the local community? 
  • Do people feel they are serving a bigger purpose or mission working for us? 
  • Can individuals see if and how they are improving the lives of others? 

Communication is one of the common threads that runs through all of these that comes up time and time again in the conversations we have. When leaders communicate often, consistently and openly it helps to settle the brain – even if what we’re being told is bad news, it’s better than no news. Once we have information it lowers our levels of anxiety and we spend less energy thinking and catastrophising about it.  

Recent research by Harvard Business Review cited how they have communicated during the Covid-19 crisis as the main regret for more than a third of senior leaders, with 32% of employees surveyed claiming they needed more transparent and quicker communication.

Checking in frequently with individuals to find out how they are doing shows people that well-being really is a priority.  According to Harvard Medical School’s Helen Riesscommunicating empathically increases job satisfaction, reduces burnout, and is highly corellated with enhanced well-being.

The reality is if you’re a leader in an organisation, no initiatives to support a healthier culture will ever work unless you’re involved. That means not working through a holiday, at the weekend, late at night or sacrificing your own work-life balance to prove your commitment. Or having the expectation that others should do the same. You have to demonstrate you value wellbeing including your own because you set the tone and behaviour is contagious. If you don’t any efforts will be undermined because your team won’t follow or believe it’s important unless they see you doing it.  

There are many leaders in organisations who have passionately focussed on making sure people’s mental health and wellbeing has been considered, creating checks and balances to monitor individual impact as we have moved through the pandemic.  

It has also highlighted those leaders who aren’t setting the tone and demonstrating the right behaviours.   

What is clear is that those organisation who were already engaged in supporting employee wellbeing before the pandemic have been able to more successfully lead their people through it.  

Tackling this issue can feel overwhelming, yet an unhealthy culture directly impacts on financial stability so nobody can afford to ignore it. It’s vital to begin making small and practical changes that will protect organisations, people and society for the future.  

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