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What is burnout and how can we combat it?


Burnout is back and, without intervention, it will become a mental health crisis for employers. What was once a badge of honour for eighties’ yuppies is currently on course to create an epidemic of workplace stress-related challenges. 

Over the past months we have been increasingly hearing stories of people struggling to cope. It’s hardly surprising. In the year since Lockdown 1.0, it seems everyone has hit a wall at least once. Amid the emotional rollercoaster of work stress, home-schooling, social isolation and concerns about the future, it’s inevitable that people will struggle and buckle under the strain.

Feeling emotional and exhausted 

Burnout has been studied since the 1970s, when University of California psychologist, Christina Maslach, developed a tool to assess it. According to Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, burnout arises when three factors coincide: 

  • An overwhelming feeling of emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment 
  • A feeling of lack of accomplishment

Many people we speak to report constant low levels of stress. ‘Just about coping’ is a common refrain. But when this state continues over a length of time it can lead to burnout.  People feel they are repeating the same patterns of work with little pay off, they can’t see themselves moving forward and it becomes harder to be optimistic. They become cynical and negative, which are Kryptonite for Laughologists.

Which is why we’ve been battling back against the burnout. Many of the organisations we work with understand the challenges their people are facing and are introducing measures to help, which include hosting our lunchtime laughter sessions on resilience.

Long term, however, the issues are systemic, because home working will likely become part the norm for those in knowledge-based industries. So, to tackle them we’ve been encouraging our friends and colleagues to look at working practices.

Ideas to tackle the issues that cause burnout

One bugbear we hear a lot is the number of unnecessary video meetings people are expected to attend. Zoom meetings have become ubiquitous and while there is no doubt the technology has been a saviour for many workplaces, it has also altered the way people communicate. Zoom/Teams calls must be scheduled and structured, and without any office-based interaction, communication has become increasingly formalised. 

To tackle this, we recently set up collaboration events with one of our clients. We still had to rely on Zoom, but we tried to use it in a different way and created an informal environment using breakout rooms of up to three people. Each group got to talk about anything within their room for ten to fifteen minutes. At each interval we rotated participants into different rooms with different people. It was like speed dating, but you didn’t have to fill in a form afterwards to friendzone Barry from Milton Keynes because, although you loved his fungal infection anecdote, you didn’t feel any chemistry. 

These events aimed to create the type of spontaneous ‘social bumps’ that happen all the time in physical offices and lead to collaboration and idea-sharing.

Another way to free teams from Zoom tyranny is to encourage at least one day a week when meetings are banned. This helps people complete tasks and get on top of workloads. The only communication tool available on these Zoomless days are telephones. And any communication should be spontaneous, not scheduled, like in the old days. How radical is that?

Of course, these measures need buy-in from the top, but if you really want to protect your people, they need to be considered. 

The other challenge people report is boredom, largely because we spend every day in the same environment. This is a harder issue to solve, because, as it stands, venues such as cafes, gyms and office spaces are closed, and we can only make essential journeys. But leaders can encourage walking phone meetings and urge their teams to get out and find different, safe spaces in which to take calls.

Thoughtful and human leadership is the answer

The onus here is on thoughtful and human leadership. Indeed, a new study into the effects of the pandemic on workforces by Durham University Business School recommends that business leaders make efforts to understand how their team’s individual differences and resources impact their work-related well-being.

The study says leaders should create working conditions that preserve the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. 

“Helping employees to recognise signs of stress and their causes, maintaining an open-door policy for discussing problems, and providing training in managing workloads are all simple but vital steps,” the authors write.

Hope is important for psychological uplift

The good news is that we now have hope. The vaccine roll-out is going well and all the signs point to a relaxation of restrictions within the next few months. Hope gives people a psychological uplift. We need it to move forward and to feel good about the future. Hope is how we keep going.

Leaders can use this hope to boost their teams and reduce any feelings of cynicism and detachment.  Spend time planning post-pandemic activity. Discuss what will happen when teams get together again. Allow everyone a chance to make solid plans. Avoid talking about dates. Instead, focus on actions and activities. This will create a vision, something to hang on to. 

Realism is important. It’s up to organisations to work with their people to find a way forward. Things are going to change. We are still in for an extended period of flux, but taking measures now to address burnout and boredom will undoubtedly alleviate bigger problems further down the road.

Stephanie Davies


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Are organisations and companies just paying lip service?
Join some of the most interesting and respected voices in positive psychology for our Our Big Chat about…Thinking outside the tick box, inaugural webinar. Our two and half hour interactive event will look at the best mental health strategies for organisations, identifying what works and what doesn’t.

Dave McPartlin:

Dave is the Headteacher of Flakefleet Primary School.
Creating the right environment for people and communities to flourish

Sunita Hirani

Sunita is one of the BBC’s key equality, diversity and inclusivity experts.
Why inclusion is essential for mental wellbeing

Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Cary is one the world’s most influential voices in occupational health and wellbeing.
Enhancing Mental Wellbeing at Work. Evidence based strategies for creating a wellbeing culture at work.

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