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Articles - Dealing with Burnout in the Workplace

Dealing with Burnout in the Workplace

As you may or may not know, employee burnout is an issue that many workplaces are facing today. Burnout is brought on by long term workplace stressors and is characterized by exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy. It can cause increased absenteeism and turnover rates, as well as, decreased productivity within your organization.

Burnout can occur in any workplace; however, higher proportions are found among human service professionals such as physicians, nurses, teachers and social workers. Both individual traits and work context can lead to the development of burnout; however, the relationship between work environment and burnout is much stronger. Employers are now being seen as responsible for providing a work environment that does not put employees at risk of developing poor mental health.

So, what can you do to prevent burnout among your employees? Or, if they are already showing symptoms of burnout, what can you do to help? As each workplace is unique, there are no universal ways to eliminate burnout. Burnout interventions are effective when they take into consideration the unique stressors found within the context of an organization. That being said, burnout interventions are typically structured in one of three ways: person-directed, organization-directed or a combination of both.

Person-directed Interventions

Person-directed interventions target an employee’s coping skills in an effort to make them more resilient to work place stressors. They are commonly used after an individual has shown symptoms of burnout and can be conducted individually or in a group setting.Some examples include: stress management, relaxation and meditation, assertiveness, time management and social skills training, and psychotherapy. Such interventions can be helpful,primarily, in terms of alleviating exhaustion. However, these initiatives on their own may not have lasting effects, especially if the individual returns to the same stress inducing work environment. In other words, the root cause of their burnout may not have been addressed. Moreover, these interventions can be seen as blaming the employee for their condition and removing the responsibility of the employer.

Organization-directed Interventions

Organization-directed interventions take into consideration the impact that work environment has on employees. Burnout is not necessarily the consequence of an overly demanding workload. It can result from a variety of workplace situations such as employees viewing their work environment as inequitable or from employees lacking control over their work. Organization-directed interventions typically have longer lasting effects than person-directed interventions when carried out alone.  As mentioned earlier, each organization will have unique stressors and areas of improvement in which to target to improve psychological conditions. Common areas that are targeted in an effort to reduce or prevent burnout are:

- Employee Autonomy: Increasing control and decision making over work schedules, work load and work processes.

- Management style: Altering management styles to reduce micro-managing and top-down hierarchies and increase visibility, open communication, employee trust and collaboration.
- Training: Increasing employee competencies and providing opportunities for professional development.
- Social Culture/Environment: This can include but is not limited to reducing interpersonal conflict, increasing social support and team work, supporting work-life balance and aligning employee and company values.
- Acknowledgement: This includes instilling a fair effort and rewards system.

Comprehensive Approach

Combining both individual-directed and organization-directed interventions is argued to be the best way to target burnout. Taking a comprehensive approach is like tackling the problem from all angles, which is more effective than focusing on only one aspect of the problem. As well, if you alter your organizational culture to combat current employee burnout symptoms you will also reduce the risk of employees burning out in the future.

Tips for Burnout Interventions

Identify what the problems/stressors are in YOUR organization

Your best resource is your employees. Collaborate with them to find out exactly what is going on. Not only will they help to identify problems, they will also likely have great insight into the opportunities that exist for improvement and change. Moreover, through collaboration you will be able to discover individuals who are willing to form a committee and/or act as agents of change within your organization.

Plan accordingly

As in problem identification, a collaborative approach for planning interventions is your best bet. By doing so, you will remain focused on targeting the specific areas of improvement that require change within your organization. It is alright to look to other organizations that have had successful interventions for ideas or guidance but don’t assume that what worked for their organization will also work for yours.

Consider a health and wellness program

Supplementing your burnout interventions with a health and wellness program can further enhance both the psychological and physical wellbeing of employees. Such a program can promote healthy lifestyles by offering opportunities for increased physical activity, better nutrition and smoking cessation among others. It can also establish a more supportive social environment as employees work towards goals or form exercise groups.

Follow through

The disappointment that follows unmet employee expectations can actually do more harm than if you had never done an intervention at all.Existing problems will likely get worse if your employees are expecting to see some changes, and these changes are not made.

Offer review sessions

Over time, the positive effects of burnout interventions can decline. However, these positive effects can last longer when employees participate in review sessions. By offering review sessions and keeping psychological health at the forefront of people’s minds, burnout is less likely to go unnoticed and untreated.

Bringing about change within an organization takes time. Just the same, employee burnout symptoms will not disappear overnight. Putting the right interventions in place is a step in the right direction in preventing and combating employee burnout.