Employee burnout – who, why, and how to stop it?
We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of so-called burnout – where anxiety and exhaustion render and employee incapable of carrying on in their roles. Its negative effects, both on a personal and an organizational level, are also indisputable – for the individual, the consequences can be substance abuse, family breakdown and social isolation, and for the organization, higher absence rates and seriously damaged productivity, especially as it is often executives in key roles who fall victim.
Especially given how prevalent burnout is, it is even more remarkable that no single effective strategy has been identified, nor even a clear picture of the circumstances that lead to burnout. Many large organisations now provide their employees with mental health services such as counselling, either in person or remotely via telephone or internet. This is an individual-focussed strategy, taking a person’s reaction to his or her work circumstances and attempting to increase their resilience and give them tools to deal with work-based stress and anxiety.
However, as Derailed - Organizational Interventions for Stress and Well-Being a new book, makes clear, this might be the equivalent of using a sticking plaster on an individual for a company’s broken leg. It is in fact the organization, rather than the individual, that is the key to whether the signs of burnout appear. Burnout is not, itself, the disease, but, in more cases than has previously been thought, a symptom of a dysfunctional organization.
Is there a solution? As you would expect there isn't a universal solution as such. However 'action research' or a solution focussed approached to look at the structural and organisational causes of burn out will help, rather than just pushing the problem down to the employees and asking them to toughen up all the time.
My take on this is that when I am working in organisations developing emotional resilience I also get the organisation to look at the structural factors involved. For example cultural working and management practices, work load planning, management development. Working from both ends of the problem, (developing emotional resilience and dealing with the organisational factors) often works best.
This usually means resilience development work with the employees and equiping and empowering central services like HR to correctly diagnose and deal with the organisational factors at the same time.
Maria Karanika-Murray, Caroline Biron (eds) Derailed - Organizational Interventions for Stress and Well-Being. Springer, 2015