In the ever-evolving landscape of modern workplaces, the narrative often revolves around organisational culture as the linchpin for success or failure. However, beneath the surface of these discussions lies a potent adversary—burnout. It’s time to challenge the prevailing notion that workplace challenges are primarily rooted in culture and assert that, more often than not, they emanate from the pervasive force of burnout. Addressing burnout, the cause rather than the symptom, is the transformative key for organisations to navigate and thrive in today’s fast-paced economy.

What is burnout really, and why does it matter?

More than just a buzzword, burnout goes far beyond just feeling tired or stressed. It’s the end stage of chronic stress when the body has lost its ability to cope with the increased energy expectations it needs to be successful. This leads to:

  • Lower company morale and decreased engagement in company culture due to the emotional exhaustion associated with burnout.
  • Decreased innovation due to higher levels of pessimism and irritability caused by burnout making it harder for your team to be solution-focused, and leaving your team perseverating on what’s not working and everything that’s “wrong” with the organisation
  • Impaired productivity and lower quality client interactions because of burnout’s impact on mental capacity and focus. If your team is experiencing increased mental load, they’re not as able to focus on the task at hand because they’re constantly thinking about all the other things that need to be done.
  • Higher turnover and increased recruitment costs as individuals aren’t as likely to suggest that other people in their network come work for your organisation when they themselves are experiencing a burnout induced decrease in overall job satisfaction
  • Increased absenteeism and rising costs of benefits packages due to burnout increasing the use rate of extended health benefits, thus raising the annual cost of the group benefits program.

 

In the realm of corporate achievement, where success is meticulously measured through tangible metrics and business outcomes, the ramifications of burnout is not a myth, but a stark reality that needs to be addressed head on. 

Signs & Symptoms of Burnout in Your Organization

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s talk about what this could look like in your organisation. Signs of burnout are not always glaring; sometimes, they’re the subtle tremors beneath the surface. As leaders, it’s crucial to decipher both the overt and covert signals so that you can right the ship and address the problems before they are allowed to grow..

Overt Signs: The Clear Burnout Red Flags

As mentioned previously, there are some more clear signals that burnout is becoming a problem in the form of increased absenteeism, spikes in turnover rates, and a palpable decline in the quality of work. You’ll see it also in overwhelmed sighs echoing through the office, the more frantic sounding voices,  the frequent glances at the clock, and the unmistakable atmosphere of stress permeating the air.

Covert Signs: The Signs of Burnout You Really Don’t Want to Miss

Often described as “quiet quitting”, these more subtle signs of burnout can easily go unnoticed, but they are often the earlier warning signs that leaders, such as yourself, could take action on and stop burnout before it takes hold. It’s the employee who used to be the first to arrive and the last to leave, now quietly packing up without a word. Or the employee who usually goes out of their way to check on their colleagues and brings a smile to everyone’s face, now withdrawn and keeping more to themselves. Or the subtle shift of enthusiasm in meetings. Or the slow increase in rumours and gossip you hear in the hallways. Or the struggle to get your employees out to team building or corporate parties where they used to be fully booked.

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to attune ourselves to these signals not just because we’re compassionate humans, but also because of the greater impacts that burnout can have on employee retention and overall job satisfaction.

CASE STUDY – Hugh O’Connell, Occupational Therapist in a Return-To-Work Rehabilitation Program

When I met Hugh, he was feeling completely drained by his work as an Occupational Therapist in a busy return-to-work rehabilitation program. He had gone from feeling engaged and excited to help his clients, to struggling to relax all weekend because he was dreading Monday morning. Every day Hugh felt buried in a mountain of legal paperwork and didn’t feel that he was able to do his job effectively because he was always in his office. Hugh rarely left work on time, often staying hours after the clinic closed in order to get everything done. 

He addressed this with his supervisor who “solved” the problem by increasing his regular work hours – which left Hugh feeling defeated because this “solution” didn’t address what Hugh saw as the main issue.  This left him feeling stuck and he started to look for other jobs to apply for. 

In my first session with Hugh, I helped him realise his burnout subtype which allowed him to see what the true solution was. We then created a burnout recovery and prevention action plan together, which Hugh brought to his manager and they started implementing it right away. Hugh stayed in his role for another three years before transitioning into a management position within the organisation.

The Consequences of Burnout on Team Dynamics and Why This Matters for Leaders

Picture your team as a tightrope walker, delicately balancing tasks, deadlines, and interpersonal relationships. Now, imagine the impact when burnout introduces a gust of wind, threatening to topple the delicate equilibrium.

Erosion of Trust and Collaboration

Burnout seeps into the very fabric of team dynamics, eroding trust and collaboration. When team members are feeling stuck in the quicksand of burnout, the ability to communicate effectively falters, and the collaborative spirit wanes. The team, once a cohesive unit, becomes a collection of individuals struggling to stay afloat.

Innovation and Creative Problem Solving Disappears

Innovation thrives in environments fueled by passion and energy. Burnout, however, extinguishes the creative spark, leaving your team navigating the monotony of routine. The brainstorming sessions that once resembled vibrant canvases become dull and lifeless.

Increased Conflict and Tension: Why Can’t Everyone Just Get Along Anymore?

Burnout drains your team’s emotional energy, which then fuels conflict and tension. Simple disagreements escalate, and the once-positive camaraderie gives way to an atmosphere of strain and apprehension.

CASE STUDY – Ohouo Abadaki, Crucial Care Nurse Manager of a busy Paediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit

Ohouo is a highly skilled Registered Nurse who had worked as the Unit Manager of a very busy Intensive Care Unit that looked after the most critically ill children in their area. When Ohouo reached out to me she felt stuck. The staff were burnt out, they knew it, leadership knew it, but aside from a few guest speakers on the benefits of nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and meditation, and a few pizza parties, the leadership team didn’t know what else they could do.

“I mean, I know the staff appreciate the sentiment, but a pizza party isn’t going to address the fact that no one is helping one another anymore, that they’re all just getting through their shift and no one has the capacity to go above and beyond for these families anymore.” 

Ohouo and I organised a time for the leadership team and I to co-create a Burnout Recovery and Action plan to address the team dynamics and culture issues they had noticed within their team. 

“What stood out for me was that you immediately addressed that we weren’t going to be able to address all of the systemic factors that were increasing the stress and pressure on our staff. I can’t help the fact that we’re short staffed all the time even though we’re constantly recruiting and no one is applying. I can’t help the fact that there are industry and college standards that have to be upheld which add to the workload of my staff. You didn’t have us ignore those things, but showed us how to work with them, and that made all the difference.”

Differentiating between the systemic issues that could be addressed and those that simply cannot be changed is the biggest first step your leadership team can take to create a plan for your organisation to recover from and prevent the pattern of burnout from perpetually destroying morale and damaging company culture.

3 Steps to Improving Company Culture by Addressing Burnout

If your company is experiencing burnout, what do you do? What steps can you take to help support your team and get back to a place where everyone is collaborative, supportive, and effective again?

Step 1 – Acknowledge if burnout is present in your organisation

You can’t fix a problem you’re not aware of, so looking for the signs and symptoms of burnout in your team is the first step.

Step 2 – Differentiate between the contributory factors you can do something about, and those that you can’t change but need a strategy to manage their impact

The factors we can do something about are easier to manage because there’s often a clear way forward once we know what the problem is. It’s the sources of stress and burnout that we can’t directly influence that require a bit more nuanced brainstorming to figure out a management plan.

Step 3 – Develop and Implement a Burnout Recovery & Action Plan for Your Organisation

Now that you know there’s a problem and have an idea of what might be creating the problem, it’s time to do something about it! This often involves a holistic approach of direct action, vulnerable conversations, and empowering ownership of the plan throughout all levels of your company from management to the employees that interact directly with your clients and stakeholders.

It’s time to address burnout as the root cause of corporate culture struggles

The path to a burnout-resilient future demands a recalibration of focus—from merely addressing symptoms to confronting the root cause. By embracing proactive measures, organisations can foster an environment where burnout is recognized, understood, and effectively managed, laying the foundation for sustained success in the dynamic landscapes of the modern workplace.