Burnout: When Perfection Becomes the Enemy of the Good

Workplace burnout can lead to a slew of physical and psychological ailments. Serious conditions range from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes to mental and emotional illnesses.

The World Health Organization officially redefined burnout in 2018 to refer specifically to an occupational context. The goal was to lessen the stigma around it, encourage sufferers to seek help and highlight its prevalence.

Spotting the symptoms

The term "burnout" was coined by psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, as he had noticed the effect that spending long hours in his medical clinic was having on his staff. The clinician categorized the syndrome into 12 stages that descended toward mental illness and career disintegration. Some important levels include:

  • Compulsive need to prove oneself.
  • Inability to switch off.
  • Erratic sleeping and eating.
  • Withdrawal from and shutting off social interaction.
  • Blaming others.
  • Behavioral changes.
  • Inner emptiness.

How can managers and colleagues identify the malaise before it results in complete collapse? Perhaps they do notice some of the more visible manifestations. Are employees constantly showing up late to work, if at all, or are they routinely calling in sick? Do they treat co-workers badly, appearing obstructive and uncooperative? Do they make frequent careless mistakes, as if they are distracted and apathetic? Are they cynical and critical? Is it clear they have become disillusioned with their job and find the work unsatisfying?

Seeds of discontent

Burnout tends to take root in certain environments. It is not merely the result of an over-engaged or perfectionist type of personality, although those traits can contribute, of course. Often a particular job is structured as unrealistically demanding in terms of time and effort or imposes conflicting demands. Is the job either boring and monotonous or chaotic and unpredictable? Either end of the spectrum can be tiring to navigate.

The employee feels out of control and is confused about expectations to be met. He or she may experience a lack of recognition for the work being performed or inadequate support or backup from managers or the team. As those complaints stack up, the imbalances seem unfair and the worker feels devalued.

Other interpersonal factors may compound the misery. A negative work culture can set the stage for additional isolation. Being micromanaged is bad enough, but it may be exacerbated in an organization where a worker has few office friends for consolation or perhaps has no healthy work/life balance away from the office. Workplace dynamics might also play a part. Not only is the victim being undermined by colleagues, but he or she also even may be subject to the whims of an office bully.

Beating the burnout blues

There are solutions to help manage burnout before it becomes entrenched. Employees who suspect they are slipping into a dark zone are advised to begin with a few practices:

  • Take regular mental and physical breaks.
  • Enjoy creative outlets such as pursuing hobbies or taking classes.
  • Exercise more, and add yoga or tai chi to their routine.
  • Try to get more sleep.
  • Don't hesitate to seek support, whether from friends, family or colleagues.
  • Work (maybe with their supervisor) to set goals and realistic expectations. Learn to say no!
  • Delegate work where they can.
  • Keep a clean, neat workspace, and find some corner for occasional privacy.
  • Plan their workload.

Supportive and attentive managers can gently direct their employees to implement some of these suggestions. In addition, it is up to managers to offer increased access to behavioral health services and well-being resources. They might consider simple ergonomics too, such as standing desks or laptop stands.

Most important, establish boundaries. Mute Slack notifications, emails and phone messages, and try to rebalance workloads by hiring more people, outsourcing and reassigning projects.

All managers should actively encourage personal time off and set an example by taking it themselves. When companies ask employees what they need and want, the answers are not surprising: more PTO, four-day workweeks, and flexible and remote schedules.

In 2021, Portugal took a bold move and made it illegal for supervisors to contact employees after work hours. Managers, take note!

Write a comment

Comments: 0