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Our CEO, Madeleine Evans, on burnout

Our CEO, Madeleine Evans, had the opportunity to speak to the Dutch startup GoodHabitz about burnout, what causes it, and how to address it!


Check out the interview below.


What is the difference between stress and burnout?


Stress and burnout have the same root cause (exposure to stressors), and many of the same physiological effects but the academic definitions and mix of symptoms are often different.


Stress is a symptom that occurs when an individual is (or perceives themselves to be) under threat for some reason, and unable to immediately deal with it. You feel stress in response to what you perceive as a stressor, for example feeling like you have a deadline that you’re not going to reach, or like you might lose your job, or you have 10 different colleagues asking you for something and you want to satisfy all of them but you’re not sure which one to deal with first.


The term burnout was coined by academics, to describe a pattern that they saw happening in the workplace, and specifically within healthcare work. The academic definition of burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to exposure to chronic interpersonal stressors (Maslach, 2016). Burnout combines feelings of extreme exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and loss of sense of efficacy or accomplishment.


As you can see, the root causes of stress and burnout are ultimately similar, and stress and burnout exist on a continuum. The stress response is often a temporary one, excepting in cases of prolonged exposure, turning into a chronic stress situation. Feelings of burnout then occur in situations where the same stressors, or stresses, and specifically interpersonal ones, are occurring repeatedly over a long time.


What would you say is the underlying cause of burnout?


Burnout research has identified certain situations, in which a job is either not well-matched to the person or not well-designed, which are highly likely to result in burnout.

  • Low job control

  • High work demands (excess challenge, workload) relative to resource

  • Limited community of support

  • Lack of reward, relative to effort

  • Values conflicts

  • Lack of moral or ethical fairness

Prof. Christina Maslach and Prof. Leiter, academics in the United States, pioneered the research into these ‘mismatches’. Interestingly, it appears that job control is a foundational factor that both limits the risk of burnout, and is highly effective in helping individuals toward recovery. So it’s very important to have control over what you do and how you do it, and to also get feedback on whether it is working, in your day to day job!


Why is burnout such a growing problem, specifically in our present-day society?


Burnout has actually been present in our society for over four decades. Prof. Maslach first published research into burnout in the 1970s! It is only now that there is growing awareness of the condition and causes of burnout in the wider workplace environment, a breaking of the taboo to discuss, and the impetus to start to address it. One could also say that some of the risk factors for burnout, such as a high demand and low control environment, have become more prevalent, with a greater proportion of our GDP coming from services industries (which place greater emotional demands on individual workers). But this would be an anecdotal observation rather than coming from research.


Are millennials more sensitive to getting a burnout?


Levell conducted a survey of US and UK workers to establish whether symptoms of burnout, exhaustion, strain, de-motivation and low work-life balance were more or less prevalent among certain workforces by age, industry or gender. We found that younger, more junior, and female workers exhibited higher rates of burnout.


This does not mean that they are ‘more sensitive’. In fact, this is more likely to mean that certain groups are more exposed to risk factors (such as high demands, feeling of low control, low reward, and perhaps lack of community) than other segments. These risk factors will need to be addressed.


Why is that? What are early indicators of burnout?


Millennials lived through the financial crisis of 2008, are more likely to be living away from their families (at least in the U.S.), and are expected to be in their peak earnings growth years in an economy in which the median worker’s wage has not increased (and in some countries, is declining in real terms) while prices of key goods such as housing are rising.


In this light, it’s not surprising that burnout rates appear higher among Millennials than Boomer workers who made their careers during the decades of post-WWII economic growth.


What can people do to avoid becoming burned out?


This is very straightforward. To avoid burnout, you need to educate yourself on the causes of burnout, identify if you are in a situation in which burnout is likely to arise, and then fix it.


From an individual perspective, this typically combines changes to your job (including day job but also physical, mental or emotional environment in which you work), sometimes to your attitude (e.g. how you psychologically evaluate and process things around you day to day), often to your balance of activity and recovery (including frequency and intensity of breaks or recovery), sometimes to your personal and professional support network, to your reward structure, and/or to your habits for health (such as diet, self-care, exercise and sleep).


Of course, this is often easier said then to implement. People can feel reluctant to speak up, procrastinate with fixing factors in their job, refuse to take responsibility for implementing good habits for health (which create physical mental and emotional buffers to workplace demands), or complain about a low salary rather than go negotiate it.


The response to this is to do a psychological reality check, realising that in the long-term, if you do not take action now, you are undermining your own personal and professional success in a way that you will regret later. You deserve better! It is always better to take a proactive, goal-focused and problem-solving approach to improve.


Are there measures companies can introduce to prevent their employees from getting burned out?


This is also simple. All company leaders need to educate themselves on the causes of burnout, identify if their company’s culture and structure of work or individual jobs is likely to generate these risk factors, and then fix them. This is because burnout is not the individual’s problem; it is a shared company and individual problem.


Individuals need to take responsibility for reflecting on and identifying how they feel, fixing what they can, and communicating the issues that they cannot. Individuals also need to take responsibility for raising solutions and advocating for changes where they see there is a risk and a fix but do not feel they have the appropriate level of control or influence to implement it.


Leaders need to take responsibility for giving their workers the time, space and psychological opportunity to communicate how they feel, and for honestly seeking feedback on what about work needs to change. Leaders also need to take responsibility for implementing solutions that would fix the root cause of these problems for many people (for example, enabling more job control through flexible working), because they will achieve more efficient impacts for more people more quickly that way.


How long does it generally take to recover from burnout? How does that process work?


One can reduce the psychological symptoms of burnout, particularly during early stages, through changes to one’s job or psychological environment. These changes should be designed to redress the underlying conditions of strain, or mismatches, thus resolving the issue at the source.


Certain research shows that increasing job control, involving individuals in organisational change, and/or investing in community-building (through interventions to increase workplace civility) all are effective at mitigating burnout in the workplace. There is also some evidence that professional coaching can reduce burnout symptoms, with specific effects on the emotional exhaustion component of burnout.


When one reaches a stage of full-scale burnout, combined with all the deleterious physiological and psychological effects of chronic stress, recovery is a slow, intense process that requires hands-on personal support from people you trust, intensive efforts of healthy habits, recovery/rest, and self-care and a challenging personal, professional and psychological growth process. Anecdotally recovery from burnout can take at least 18 months.


If you feel like you might be burnt out, do whatever is needed to address the root cause symptoms of burnout immediately. You really do not want to get into a situation of complete burnout.


If you do get to a stage of complete burnout, my recommendation is to seek personal/professional coaching from a specialist who is both well-versed in the academic research, familiar with problem-solving and goal-focused cognitive-behavioural psychology techniques, and has personally already gone through a successful recovery process (for example, you can email us at hello@levell.io with a request for confidential recommendations). Then you know you will be able to identify your situation’s root cause, have empathy as well as support, and be able to gain perspective from someone who has experienced all of this before.


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