How burnout is increasing

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By Jas Singh

An increasing trend I have noted over the past few years is the growing problem of burnout. It’s prevalence and impact is frankly speaking alarming.

One of the most extreme examples I have ever come across is a high profile executive who sits on the board of a FTSE 100 company. A few years ago I met him for breakfast and he looked like he’d just come back from a survival expedition in the jungle. He looked drained – simply awful. I wasn’t far wrong – he proceeded to tell me that he’d been travelling extensively due to a recent acquisition they had made and had been working fully every single day for FORTY SEVEN days! Not one day off. And pretty much from morning to night. A few weeks later I found out that he’d been admitted suddenly to hospital. His pancreas has packed up and he was diagnosed with diabetes – although there was no history of the condition is his family. He was less than 40.

Yet what most people don’t realise is that burnout doesn’t have to be as extreme. The official definition is that burnout is a psychological term that refers to long term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.

It can creep up on you. It can take time to build. Most people are not even aware that they suffer from it – unless they are unfortunate to suffer from physical side effects.

Yet in our ever increasing stressful world burnout is on the rise. Increased competition. Greater than ever average working hours. Digital access from anywhere. Global responsibilities.

In fact, in my experience often candidates wanting to change jobs can even be the direct result of burnout. Although dressed up with a myriad of excuses the underlying reason for wanting “a change” is that they feel burnout in their current role.

They need extinguishing after burning out.

They need to escape.

The Science

Believe it or not, burnout is a process which anyone in the wrong environment is heavily prone to. Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have theorized that burnout is a 12 step process starting with just the compulsion to prove oneself – characterized with perfectionism and ambition (can think of lot’s of people [including myself at times]– can you?!).

Essentially the steps escalate from working harder and harder to denying problems and withdrawal ending with the 12th and final step which is burnout syndrome – in this case physical (disease), mental and emotional collapse occur and the situation is a medical emergency. Frighteningly, even then often individuals are unaware of their condition or state.

Along the way there are many other threats. Burnout increases stress hormones such as cortisol that damages organs and nerve cells. It increases coronary heart disease, mental health problems such as depression and even reduces memory and attention.

Yet all the data proves that burnout is increasing as economic values are put ahead of human values. And one of the biggest causes of burnout at an organizational level is work overload – having to do too much work with too little resources.

Sound familiar?

How to prevent burnout

The opposite of burnout is a time-out.

Preventing (or at least reducing the risk) of burnout is relatively simple – although it doesn’t mean that it is easy to do for those who are “used” to working in a particular manner.

Top of the list includes ensuring that your work load is manageable. From first hand experience, I’ve noticed that most top performers actually say “no” much more “yes” compared to the rest of people when it comes to taking additional responsibility. They are careful to ensure they have the capacity to undertake the work and complete it well.

Regular disengagement is another key component to burnout. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to work 24 hours a day. Opportunities have never been greater. Business is now global with always someone to call. Remote working is possible. Digital devices mean you are updated real time anywhere in the word.

Yet successful management of energy requires rest. Like an athlete needs time to rest his muscles before he competes again, workers need time to rest their minds. Total rest requires the mind to be at low levels of stress – in balance with other things other than purely work.

Isolation is another contributor to burnout. Often we get caught up with work problems, obsessed with details and lose perspective. Working with other people always allows you to share your thoughts and see things as they are.

In a few instances I have even worked with a couple of companies who even offer support, advice and programs to employees that are suffering or at risk of suffering burnout. Using trained and skilled psychologists these companies coach and train to build schedules and programs that prevent burnout occurring. Not only are these companies genuinely going the extra mile to look after their people, you won’t be surprised to hear that the performance levels of their employees is outstanding.

It’s an initiative I believe all organisations should take part in.

Because do you want to hear the great irony of it all?

Employees suffering from burnout and who work excessive hours are usually the least productive people of all.

Conclusion

Burnout is an epidemic. But one that is not often discussed. Almost a taboo like subject – like admitting you can’t cope with your workload is a weakness.

But make no mistake – working excessively can kill you.

Hiring managers need to hire people who are dedicated, but not necessarily those who are obsessed. Besides, past a certain point performance actually starts to decline.

Have you ever suffered from burnout?

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