• Lauren McCreery

Burnout - What is it, Really?

In last week’s article I wrote briefly about how #hustleculture is harmful and contributing to a pervasive problem – Burnout.


If you read Anne Helen Petersen’s sensational Buzzfeed article back in January 2019, you would have learned How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Petersen delves even deeper into the social and cultural factors that have led so many millennials to burnout in her new book Can’t Even.


But, it’s not just millennials. I frequently hear from clients, colleagues, friends and family about feeling burnt out. They have too much stress and responsibility on their plates and have found burnout to be an accurate description of their experience.


They really want and need a break.


So, with all this talk about burnout, do we even know what it is?


Burnout Explained


Burnout is specifically a phenomenon that occurs in the occupational context. According to the current World Health Organization (WHO) definition of burnout, which was recently updated in 2019 to be more specific, “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.


 It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.” 

The WHO definition implies that burnout is an individual’s problem, but leading research shows it’s much more about your workplace, than your people. Top burnout researcher, Dr. Christina Maslach, and her colleagues have identified six main organizational risk factors for job burnout that leaders need to pay attention to:



1.    Workload


Having an unreasonable or unmanageable amount of work to complete is one of the top burnout risk factors cited. Having a sustainable workload ensures that individual workers are not only able to complete various work assignments, but they are given the opportunity to become more proficient in new areas thereby enhancing their skills and becoming more effective in their jobs.


2.    Control


Lack of control is a top burnout risk factor. When an employee has limited capacity to influence decisions impacting their work, they are more likely to experience stress on the job. Conversely, when there is an ability to influence decisions and experience a degree of autonomy, employees are more engaged. 


3.    Reward


Limited or insufficient and inconsistent recognition and reward (e.g. financial, social, intrinsic, etc.) creates a workplace that may be susceptible to high rates of burnout. When employees do not feel valued for their contributions, they may develop feelings of inadequacy, a key component of burnout. When organizations consistently and fairly recognize and reward employees they are more likely to be engaged. 


4.    Fairness


Unfairness in the workplace can take many forms from systemic inequities to micro inequities. Unfairness might be written into policy or it may show up in how decisions are made. “Cynicism, anger and hostility are likely to arise when people feel they are not being treated with the appropriate respect.” Organizations with fair policies, procedures and processes and those that regularly review their workplace for fairness and equity are less likely to create a burnout environment. 


5.    Community


A lack of community in the workplace is often characterized by conflict, low trust and limited support from colleagues. Where there are strong relationships with colleagues including good social support, employees are more likely to experience job satisfaction versus burnout.


6.    Values


Finally, having a mismatch between personal and organizational values can lead to a greater risk of burnout. This is because the employee will often feel like they have to give something up in order to meet the demands of the organization. Employees whose values match organizational values are less likely to burn out.


There you have it! The six organizational risk factors for burnout.


It’s clear that leaders play a pivotal role in creating the conditions for employees to either sink or swim – to burn out or to be engaged. It’s critical that they implement policies and programs that support an engaged workforce. Rather than fitting people to a job or workplace, leaders should find ways to adjust the job or workplace to the people and focus on improving or enhancing these six paths to a healthy workplace, including: 

  • Ensuring a sustainable workload

  • Providing employees with choice and control

  • Recognizing and rewarding employees fairly, and how they want to be recognized

  • Creating a supportive work community

  • Treating employees with fairness, respect and ensuring social justice

  • Setting (or co-creating) clear values and providing meaningful work


About Lauren McCreery


Lauren is a Certified Professional Coach based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. As the founder of Swerve Coaching & Consulting, she helps smart professional millennials facing burnout to Ride the Swerve towards a sustainable and fulfilling career and life of their choice.


Feeling burnt out and want a career change? Book a discovery call today.





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