Burnout: What it is, how to spot it, and how managers can protect their teams against it | Thomas.co

I was part of a panel recently where I was asked a question that got me thinking about the nature of burnout, resilience and the role of managers in the post-pandemic workplace. The question was: 

Since the pandemic and the rise in awareness, understanding and appreciation of wellbeing in the workplace, do we expect managers to take on greater responsibility for the mental health and well-being of their teams? And if so, are we asking too much of managers?” 

It is important to differentiate wellbeing from mental health in the clinical sense – depression, anxiety, personality disorders – which are absolutely not, nor should ever be, the responsibility of a manager. However, managers do have a responsibility for their team members’ stress, happiness, and general wellbeing at work. 

I think that we are still asking the same from great managers as we always have done. It is their responsibility to help their team feel engaged, purposeful and supported in what they are doing at work. But what about burnout? How does it relate to employee engagement, what are the signs, and what can we do to support our teams and peers to prevent burnout occurring? 

One of the most academically used, cited and validated models of burnout positions it as the opposite of engagement. Engagement is proposed to comprise of three broad factors (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2003):  

  1. Vigour, how much energy and enthusiasm we bring to what we do;  
  2. Dedication, how committed, in a psychological sense, we feel to our work, our teams, and our organisation as a whole; and  
  3. Absorption, the extent to which we ‘lose ourselves’ in what we do and feel as though time passes quickly when we are working. 

Essentially, burnout is the polar opposite of these three concepts (Maslach, Jackson, & Letter, 1996): 

  1. Emotional Exhaustion, when we feel psychologically ‘worn out’;  
  2. Depersonalisation, when we feel detached from those we work with or our organisation; 
  3. Lack of Personal Achievement, we no longer feel good at what we do.  

But how does someone go from being engaged and enthused at work to experiencing burnout? 

Academic research on burnout often talks about the idea of psychological resources. Think of these ‘resources’ like a water reserve tank, that drains when we are engaging in activity. Psychological resources are the amount of energy we have available to focus on a task or situation. When we experience stress, our reserve of psychological resources are depleted by our focus on whatever is causing us stress. When we rest and relax, we start to refill the tank, replenishing our psychological resources. 

But what happens when our reservoir of resources runs dry? Some academics argue that if we can persevere and carry on as normal, even as our resources run dry, then we are resilient. Others emphasise the negative psychological effects of our resources running dry, which is what burnout is. 

Whilst these arguments are common in academia, they are less helpful for managers or our understanding of burnout and resilience. They suggest that certain people are resilient whilst others are not; amen, the end, case closed. Additionally, they don’t help us understand how long we need to ‘run on empty’ before we burn out, or how we help address stress before reaching that point. 

Instead, resilience should be viewed as dynamic process (Treglown & Furnham, 2018). It is how we interact with our environment and allocate our psychological resources to manage the stress we are experiencing. Thinking of resilience in this way implies that everyone is resilient, some more than others, but crucially, we all have the ability to understand how we confront and manage stress.

Burnout is we run out of resources and are no longer able to allocate any energy or focus to stressful situations. We are left unarmed and defenceless, allowing stress to have a bigger impact on us. So how can we spot burnout in ourselves and others, and what are the symptoms? 

When we go through Emotional Exhaustion, we tend to feel: 

  • Psychologically ‘worn out’, even at the beginning of the day; 
  • Unable to switch-off / work as a form of ‘intrusive thought’; 
  • Lethargic or lack enthusiasm for what we are doing; 
  • That we are working hard, but it is not having an impact; 
  • Frustrated more quickly, and with a greater number of things. We no longer have the energy for situations that we are normally capable of managing. 

When we experience depersonalisation, we tend to: 

  • Become detached from who we are working with and what we are working on; 
  • Hold and express more negative perceptions. We assume that others have negative and malicious intentions more often, rather than attributing it to unintentional decisions or actions; 
  • Become more callous with and care less about supporting others. 

When we experience a lack of personal achievement, we tend to feel: 

  • That we are not good at what we do; 
  • Overwhelmed by how many things we need to work on; 
  • Lost about where to start; 
  • Doubtful about things that we have previously felt confident and self-assured about. 

What can we do to support ourselves, our peers, and our teams to prevent burnout? The best thing we can do is to take action earlier. Once someone is already burnt out, the damage is done. The best thing for them to do is rest and recuperate so that they can replenish their psychological resources. Instead, we should protect against burnout by bolstering resilience and improving our techniques for dealing with stress. There are three main ways we can do this: creating a sense of forward momentum; rest and recuperation; and understanding how we evaluate stress. 

Academic research into the personality traits of resilience individuals has shown that they are able to persevere and feel competent at what they are doing, even in times of high stress (Treglown et al., 2018). The reason for this is that they show task-orientated coping; they are able to focus on clear objectives and strive towards them without letting other environmental factors distract them. Specific traits help with this: Conscientiousness references our internal drive and self-motivation, being a key indicator for an ability to persevere; Dominance, a trait within Thomas’ Behaviour assessment, has also been linked to proactive styles of coping and responses to stress. But this isn’t to say that you can only be resilient if you exhibit these traits. Instead, we can take what comes naturally to individuals with these traits an emulate the approach to work and environment that they display. To do this, creating a structure that emphasises focus - i.e. not allowing too many tasks to pile up at once, and if they do, being able to strip back to one or two core tasks – and celebrating ‘small wins’ – i.e. closing off a task fully and embracing a sense of closure and accomplishment with it - to maintain a sense of momentum and forward progress. 

Rest and recuperation as a way to help prevent burnout may seem like an obvious solution, but it is too often neglected. We need time and space to replenish our psychological reserves so we are able to tackle any new stressors with a ‘full tank’. How can we recharge our batteries? Social support networks have been shown to be beneficial, where people are able to feel socially connected to other people and discuss topics outside of work. Additionally, research has shown that those who socially isolate under stress are potentially more likely to experience burnout (Treglown et al., 2018). Another key tactic is clear boundary setting and creating a clear separation from work to separate ourselves from potential sources of stress. Without this, the stress from our work life can continue to ebb away at our psychological reserves. Finally, and most obviously, rest is the best form of rest. Allowing ourselves to have a warranted and deserved break. It does not even have to be that we do nothing; research has shown that a change can often be as good as a break (Pillar et al., 2020). 

Finally, understanding how we evaluate stressors is crucial. Stress emerges as a result of how we evaluate what is going on around us in our environment. Using Behaviour and Personality assessments can help us to understand the types of things that we will find frustrating or stressful. Some examples can include: 

  • Those with high Compliance sometimes experience stress due to a lack of time to get to the ‘right’ answer or way of doing something; 
  • Those with low Curiosity sometimes experience stress when others emphasise or push for change when there is no real reason for it; 
  • Those with high Competitiveness can experience frustration through feeling as though they are not able to influence an outcome that is important to them. 

If we are able to understand how we evaluate our environment as well as understanding how our peers and team become frustrated, we can do more to mitigate or support those during stressful periods. 

To discover how you or your colleagues respond to stress, which stressors will affect you most and how you can focus development activity to prevent burnout, why not trial an Emotional Intelligence Assessment? Find out more.