Why prevention is better than cure when it comes to project burnout

Spotting burnout can help you recognise when things may be getting too much for you or your colleagues

Burnout is on the rise. Employees who were under stress before the pandemic often found that their workloads increased during it. With perks like business travel and social gatherings stripped away, the ‘always on’ culture that has been exacerbated by the digital transformation of organisations got worse.

With people spending their days on video meetings while working from home, they were often unable to separate their work lives from their personal lives. This led to increased levels of stress and anxiety but also caused people to reassess what they were looking for in their work.

Here, co-founder of leadership advisory service Wading Herons, corporate strategy guru and future of business expert Micael Johnstone explores what burnout is and how you can spot – and stop – it…

“A recent report by worldwide employment website Indeed found that over half of workers experienced burnout in 2021 while the World Health Organisation (WHO) places the cost of depression and anxiety to the global economy at $17 trillion. Before Covid the WHO declared stress to be the single biggest health epidemic of the 21st century.

What is burnout and how can you spot it?

Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by the WHO has having three dimensions – feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism about work, and reduced professional efficacy/effectiveness.

Spotting burnout can help you recognise when things may be getting too much for you or your colleagues. The 12 phases of burnout, as identified by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, are:

  1. Excessive drive/ambition and need to prove yourself and your value
  1. Pushing yourself to work harder/being a workaholic
  2. Neglecting your own needs (self-care like sleep, exercise, socialising and eating well)
  3. Displacement of conflict (blaming others for pushing yourself too hard or you feeling stressed)
  4. Revision of values – family and friends seem less important.
  5. Denial – do you get impatient/intolerant and blame others?
  6. Withdrawal – are you avoiding social interaction, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs?
  7. Behavioural changes, including being snappy and aggressive
  8. Depersonalisation, feeling detached and questioning your value
  9. Inner emptiness and turning to external gratification through overeating, sex, alcohol or drugs
  10. Depression, feeling lost and fearing the future
  11. Burnout syndrome – a mental or physical collapse requiring medical attention.

Preventing burnout

I’ve experienced burnout myself and seen it impact colleagues, friends and loved ones. As a dad I didn’t want my son to have to put up with the same stress and outdated ways of working.

Thankfully, many modern businesses know that the nine to five and daily commute is now a thing of the past. To keep the best talent, companies are essentially having to invert the old model where employees might work from home one day a week. They’re having to get really creative about how to engage teams and build loyalty and engagement. Days in the office need to be worth it to ensure people feel valued and listened to.

But such a radical change isn’t easy and organisations are having to rapidly reassess how they relate to their people. The tyranny of the office has been overturned and we know that our people can be trusted.

Unplugging and time for self-care and fun is absolutely vital to ensure employees get the right balance at work. Time to switch off is essential if we want creative, innovative and happy individuals and teams. In a world where machines are increasingly replacing humans at work, we need to use all our unique strengths that technology can’t replicate!

Three practical steps you can take:

  1. Build in time for self-care during the working week. Take time to eat properly and step away from your computer regularly. Get some fresh air!
  2. Digital switch-off. Make sure you’re not checking your emails and your phone after working hours or at the weekends, unless something really is an emergency!
  3. Share with a friend. Find a colleague, friend or loved one who you can check in with regularly to support each other, share problems and discuss how you’re feeling.”

Micael Johnstone is a co-founder of leadership advisory service Wading Herons, which helps businesses reimagine corporate strategy from an authentic and human perspective