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How to Prevent Burnout? Or is it Something Else?

clipboard-with-pencil_16x16 The last few years are marked by change. Many industries have experienced and continue to experience tremendous transformations. Without any doubt these high doses of change have an impact on business leaders at all levels in an organization. In some cases the effects are negative and they lead to what is commonly called a burnout. However when working with leadership teams I learned to be cautious with concluding too quickly that someone has “a burnout”. In quite some cases I could observe that low energy levels and other symptoms are not (fully) related to the change and are mistakenly related to burnout.

One reason why burnout is confused with other conditions is that there is not yet a standardized and globally accepted definition of burnout.
In general however we could state that burnout is a sense of fatigue and an inability to function normally in a job as a result of real (or perceived) excessive demands on an individual.

Confusion between boredom and burnout

Sometimes burnout is confused with pure boredom. In both cases people have difficulties to stay energized. However a burnout is caused by an overload of stimulation, while boredom is caused by its absence.

Both conditions involve a discrepancy between what a person is giving to his organization and what a person is receiving from it (at least in his/her perception). For example a person may feel for a long time that he has a lot of time pressure, but when he has difficulties to obtain his goals, he does not receive the necessary support. Therefore he frequently does unpaid overtime.

Boredom is more likely when work becomes routine and predictable. When stimulation is minimal and when people dislike the work they are doing. It is less a condition, but more a way of viewing things. Burnout on the other hand is a physical exhaustion.

Having e.g. too many fixed schedules, fixed routines and a time registration system, are not really helping to prevent or decrease boredom. In short, boredom is a collapse of meaning. While burnout is taking place when one realizes that he neither know what is going on and not really care about it. It’s a sort of emotional erosion.

Confusion between depression and burnout

Depression is a disorder that affects almost every aspect of a person’s life. In contrast, burnout is a condition that is much more related to a person’s professional environment. Sometimes these two are linked. For example a depression can find it’s expression in a job context and as a result, be falsely interpreted as a (work related) burnout.

Confusion between a real burnout and a simulated burnout

A third confusion has an important ethical and even a potentially legal dimension. In several cases I could observe, a person was not suffering from a burnout, but merely simulating it’s symptoms for personal profit.

Some rules of thumb when developing a Burnout Prevention Program

  • Be sure your diagnoses is right. Because bored people need “more excitement and meaning” and people with a burnout need much “less excitement and should maybe take things less serious and personal than they do”. Depression is a serious condition with a general impact on a person. Therefore involve experts and, depending on the intensity and duration of a condition, it is important to consider help from a trained therapist.
  • Install a kind of early warning system that is based on possible indications like e.g. an unwillingness to discuss work in social and family circle, a reluctance to check emails, voicemails, call back to clients. A high degree of negativism and cynicism, falling behind with work, acting out, etc. Managers could be trained to look for early signs.
  • When symptoms are obvious and affect the daily professional effectiveness, supervision, mentoring, coaching and/or therapy could be offered.
  • Burnout is often associated with a too high degree of “stress” or stimuli in general. So “curing” or preventing this is partly related to a diminishing of the causes of stress.
  • Boredom is mostly associated with too much of the same for too long. Changing jobs inside or outside the own organization is one possibility to alter this. However considering new and creative ways to do the daily job and in this way stimulating personal growth, can sometimes be a very satisfactory solution too.
  • Depending on the person there is a big difference in intensity and period (days, weeks, months, ...) of a burnout. Therefore a one fits all approach is not recommended.
  • If you would have data of people who were diagnosed with burnout, try to get an indication of what they have in common (type of career, personality, same boss, work attitude, etc.) This could give maybe a first indication of circumstances in your organization that trigger or reinforce a burnout.
  • If you are suspecting a simulated burnout use all legal possibilities to be certain about your suspicion and to stop this behavior. Simulated burnouts can be seen as a form of asocial behavior. In the cases that I observed, other people had to take up extra work for months or even several years, because of the unjustified absence of their colleague. If leadership “tolerates” the existence of simulated burnouts, it could eventually lead to real burnouts for the team members who are compensating for the absence for their colleague.
  • Invest in building and maintaining a high mental resilience in your leaders and your workforce in general. Make sure that change and transformation are seen as something positive and normal and as a means to create a sustainable future for your organizations and for its employees.

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