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It's Time to Accept that Burnout at the Workplace Is Not a Virus

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 2, 2021

Why psychological safety at work is vital to address mental health and wellbeing

It's time to accept that people are humans before they are professionals. Being a prominent and wealthy star doesn't make you immune to mental health struggles.

That's why the news about Naomi Osaka went viral.

Most people had never heard about her before, although the Japanese tennis player is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. However, when she chose not to speak to the press to protect her mental health, things changed.

Osaka's decision prompted both support and criticism. She was fined $15,000 by the French Open and threatened with harsher penalties for skipping her mandatory media obligations. She finally withdrew from the French Major tournament.

Those who primarily see her as an athlete couldn't accept that she was struggling. They criticized Osaka for not being a good sport by not following the rules and commitments. On the other hand, others empathized with her pain and congratulated her for being vulnerable in public.

Osaka stirred up more than the clay of the tennis court. She reminded everyone of how hard it is to address mental health issues professionally – a rare example of standing up in the workplace.

Most importantly, her behavior sparked a conversation about what causes burnout. Unlike what most people think, most of the mental issues and emotions at play are not 'personal,' but a byproduct of workplace culture. Burnout is about your circumstances rather than what's in your head.

Burnout Is Not Personal, But a Cultural Thing

As professionals, we are expected to be flawless. The workplace seems a high-performing, perfect space with no room for emotions. Not only were we brainwashed into dehumanizing a space in which we spend so much time, energy, and passion. But, being human has become synonymous with being weak, insecure, or unprofessional.

Millennials claim that burnout is a condition that defines their generation. Around the world, roughly three out of five workers are burned out. A recent survey from Mental Health America shows that 75% of workers have experienced burnout – and 40% of those polled said it was a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational syndrome, not just a medical condition. According to its research, working long hours is the cause of one-third of work-related diseases –  a problem that increased dramatically during the lockdown.

Burnout doesn't just harm productivity; it can hurt your mental and physical health, too.

So what exactly is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by unhealthy working conditions. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet regular demands.

Jill Lepore provides a more vivid definition. In her in-depth New Yorker piece, she writes, "To be burned out is to be used up, like a battery so depleted that it can't be recharged. In people, unlike batteries, it is said to produce the defining symptoms of burnout syndrome: exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy."

In Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Christina Maslach describes burnout as "a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do' people work' of some kind."

Maslach emphasized burnout in the "helping professions": teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other frontline workers. However, burnout has become a more prominent condition affecting almost everyone – from such accomplished athletes as Naomi Osaka to more regular folks like you and I.  

A recent Good Work Index Survey shows that one in four workers thinks their job harms their mental or physical health. Furthermore, 20% of people always or often feel exhausted at work. A similar proportion say they are under 'excessive pressure' and one in ten say they are 'miserable.' It's sad and tragic.

Burnout is not about how hard you work. It's a byproduct of our unhealthy relationship with work.

As Lepore wrote, "Burnout is a combat metaphor. […] work, for many people, has come to feel like a battlefield, and daily life, including politics and life online, like yet more slaughter. People across all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old, caretakers and the cared for, the faithful and the faithless—really are worn down, wiped out, threadbare, on edge, battered, and battle-scarred."

Burnout is not a virus that affects weak people. It's the result of organizational problems, not an individual issue.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes burnout is an occupational hazard. He thinks that, as organizations are responsible for the cause, they should take responsibility for the cure.

Start by making it safe for people to speak about mental health.

Psychological Safety Is Vital to Address Burnout at Work

One area focused on less often is the importance of psychological safety for employees to feel comfortable raising mental health concerns at work.

A study showed a strong correlation between psychological safety and burnout. Respondents with confirmed burnout – emotional exhaustion and depersonalization – experienced significantly lower levels of psychological safety. Therefore, organizations should aim not only to maintain physical safety at work, but also to ensure an optimum level of psychological safety.

There are three levels of psychological safety. As you can see in the ladder, level 1 (Belonging) includes being able to address and discuss wellbeing with your colleagues and manager. If people can't do this, it's impossible to climb to the next level.

Research shows only 1 in 10 employees feel comfortable talking about their anxiety and mental health to their bosses. Mental issues at the workplace were a severe problem before the pandemic – now it's much worse. Anxiety levels have risen to unprecedented levels, affecting performance, job satisfaction, and creativity.

We usually become more aware of the signs of burnout when it's too late. I can testify to that, as I'm trying to recover from an episode from a few weeks ago. And I know I'm not alone.

Paula Davis suffered from a major burnout episode during what became her last year of law practice. At first, she didn't know what she was facing. It took her almost a year – including multiple panic attacks and two visits to the emergency room – to fully recover.

Davis finally quit her career and started a quest to help busy professionals recognize the warning signs and avoid going down the same path she did.

In her book Beating Burnout at Work, she shares the three early signs of burnout: chronically physically and emotionally exhausted, increased irony and skepticism, and becoming more ineffective in seeing a path forward.

She placed a lot of blame on herself, like if there was something wrong with her personality or she was wired the wrong way. But, through her research, she discovered that this is a more systematic issue – from leadership styles to different components of workplace culture. That's why David's approach focuses on teams: not only does she wants to address the system, but subcultures are also more malleable and easier to affect.

Davis created the PRIMED model to help teams build a positive culture, preventing and slowing down burnout. The "P" stands for Psychological Safety, the foundation for building resilient and supportive teams.

The decision of whether or not to address mental health issues in the open is not an easy one. However, research shows that it's not the challenge of your job that causes burnout, but the absence of someone to talk to about what you are going through.

Osaka's decision to go public is not a common one. Suffering from burnout, anxiety, or depression carries a deep stigma. As professor Amy Edmondson said, "With Burnout we're making a mistake in presenting this as some sort of virus. We're making it into something that can happen to you versus something that happens when you don't view work and the demands on you in the right way, or with the right lens."

But again, you are not alone.

The system that created an unhealthy environment also holds the solution. The camaraderie of embracing a stressful situation together is one of the factors that gets first responders through life-threatening danger. In her research, Edmondson found that the teams that share a sense of togetherness, belonging, and collaborative problem-solving are better prepared to deal with burnout.

To encourage people to speak about their mental health issues at work, organizations need to foster a culture in which employees feel safe and supported. Research by McKinsey shows that creating a positive team culture is vital to promote psychological safety.

Psychological safety isn't about being nice or polite, but about making people feel safe to be candid, open, and authentic. Positive friction separates a psychologically safe culture from a nice one. Toxic positivity can ruin your company culture and is dangerous for our mental health – too much of a good attitude can become toxic. That's what happened to non-profit Leading Edge: a lack of negative criticism made employees feel unsafe to speak up.

Find the right balance between being supportive and challenging. The highest likelihood of psychological safety occurs when a team leader first creates a positive team culture (through supportive and consultative leadership) and then challenges the team. Conversely, a challenging leadership style is ineffective without a positive climate – and the other way around.

Unfortunately, few leaders demonstrate those behaviors, as the same study shows.

Source: McKinsey

When your culture rewards people who look tough and invincible, it feels unsafe for people to talk about mental health issues or ask for help.

So how do you get started?

How to Deal with Burnout at the Workplace

The Job-Demand-Control-Support model (JDCS) offers an actionable framework to create a healthier workplace culture, proving people the autonomy and support needed. Providing support, reducing job demands, and giving people more control are crucial in addressing burnout.

Here are some actionable steps to get you started.

Reduce Job Demands

Conflicting projects, overlapping deadlines, a lack of clear priorities – these are some of the most frequent reasons why people are overworked. Reducing job demands requires tackling the system. Start by eliminating unnecessary activities, reducing bureaucracy, and eliminating tasks with a low value/ time ratio.

What tasks can be simplified? Which mandatory meetings can be made optional? Which time wasters can be eliminated?

For example, in health care, people waste countless hours clicking through electronic records. Adam Grants shares how the Cleveland Clinic simplified the process, eliminated unnecessary tasks, and automated refills and pre-authorizations, among others.

Provide support

This step is critical. Overcoming burnout is more effective when you know your team has your back. As Edmondson said, "Shared anxiety is better than lonely anxiety."

The United States Army decided to give mental health the same importance as physical health. They trained senior officers on skills to become more resilient. The officers then trained their teams, too. Most importantly, the course was also provided to spouses, thus increasing the support network.

Make it okay to ask for help

Most people are afraid of looking vulnerable or becoming a burden to others. That's why they don't ask for help.

Denver's fire chief decided to tackle this issue head-on. He held a townhall meeting and invited firefighters to address mental health issues. He made it clear that if someone raised their hand to ask for help, they would be taken care of – and, most importantly, that fact wouldn't affect their jobs or reputations.

Set clear boundaries

The lines between work and personal life have blurred, creating a bigger workload. Since the COVID pandemic, the average time logged on a computer has increased by two hours a day and many people are logging off at 8 pm.

Assana has no-meeting Wednesdays. Citi has banned videoconferencing services on Friday. In addition, Slack doesn't allow employees to use their messaging app after 6 pm or during weekends.

With one of our clients we implemented a policy of no emails during weekends – no matter if someone send you an email on Sunday, the server won't deliver until Monday. If someone is really urgent, people can call you.

Set clear time limits to protect your employees.

Reframe vulnerability into courage

Creating a safe space for people to talk about mental health issues requires admitting that we are human, not flawless. Leaders must reframe vulnerability as a sign of courage, not weakness. That's why most people struggled with Osaka's openness.

In oil rigs, errors decreased after switching from a tough, macho culture to a more humane and empathetic one. Similarly, in fire departments and hospitals, units with strong cultures of care had fewer accidents and decreased burnout.

Take care of the person, not just the professional

If there's one lesson we can take from the pandemic, it's that our personal and professional lives are intertwined. The tennis associations could have done much better to understand and support Osaka, rather than coming after her with threats and intimidation.

Patagonia offers childcare services at their office. This makes it easier for parents to go to work and allows them to be close to their kids. Even better, children are allowed in meetings, creating a more positive and empathetic culture.

Volvo revamped parental leave to boost the number of female managers. The idea is to eradicate the stigma of taking prolonged leave. The Swedish automaker now offers 24 paid weeks to parents regardless of gender.

A little appreciation goes a long way

Lack of recognition is directly related with burnout. When people are busy churning out work, they lose touch with their accomplishments and fail to find meaning at work.

Paula Davis' research shows that the simple act of saying "thank you" not only shows gratitude to our colleagues but also encourages recognition and appreciation. The same applies to appreciating those who are stepping beyond their comfort zone – even if they screw up.

As Stanford's Laura Delizonna told Fast Company, "Psychological safety is generally built in the gray zones. It's built in the moments where you mess up and you have to clean up your mess, in how you own that behavior, and in how you speak to your missteps."

Give people freedom to choose

Giving team members the autonomy they need is vital to deal with burnout. When people feel in charge and that they can make more decisions, this alleviates a lot of the burden. Let people prioritize their work and put their energy where it's worth it.

The law of two feet invites people to move from a meeting that's adding no value to another place where they can add more value to the company. The same applies to rules and norms. At Spotify, employees can keep the rules that work or otherwise dump them!

When people can opt out from what doesn't add value, they opt in to what does. We should respect Osaka's refusal to speak to the press in order to protect her mental health issues. Rather than punishing her, the tennis association should find a more flexible solution.

Burnout at the Workplace is About Being Human

Burnout is an occupational hazard that affects most organizations. It has become even worse due to the pandemic.

Overcoming burnout is not an individual thing, but something that must be tackled at a systemic level. Naomi Osaka stirred the tennis world and beyond. Now it's up to the tennis association to stop looking at her as the problem and start thinking about what structural changes need to happen.

The same principles apply to your organization. How does your company culture – purposely or not – promote burnout? Which rules, mindsets, or practices make it unsafe for your people to address mental health issues in the workplace?

Start by reframing the idea of vulnerability: it's a sign of courage, not weakness. Make it okay for people to ask for help.

It's time to accept that we're humans before we're professionals. Thank you, Naomi Osaka, for the reminder.

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