Two years ago, back when I was working as an assistant teacher in early childhood education, I noticed a growing pattern. I was calling out of work all the time. Like, at least once a week. On the days I called out, I would stay in bed and seesaw between relief to be away from work and guilt about calling out. I ended up quitting that job. Although I wish I could say I walked away and never looked back, it’s been two tough years of deciphering what went wrong and unpacking lingering feelings of shame and resentment.
I’ve learned that there’s a word for what I experienced. I was suffering from burnout. Burnout arises when we experience chronic stress at work. According to research done by Dr. Christina Maslach, burnout’s main components are exhaustion, cynicism, and low self-esteem. The stakes of burnout are high, as it has serious consequences on mental and physical health. Further, burnout is a growing problem, especially amongst people whose jobs require intimate involvement with Covid-19 pressures (like first responders and healthcare workers) and those who find themselves juggling remote work and “normal” life.
Burnout is real. We know this by now. And yet the predominant narrative around burnout is about what individuals can do to avoid burnout, or how to get help when they’ve already reached the tipping point, not about what shifts need to happen within the workplace. Employees are urged to prioritize rest, find ways to take control of the workday, and make their workload more manageable (LOL!). In framing the problem (and its solution) in this individual-oriented way, we engage in a type of victim blaming. We put the onus of healing from burnout onto our employees and ignore how those employees’ needs are not being met by organizational policies, practices, and systems. If someone’s needs are not being met over a long period of time, this can translate into the trauma that we recognize as burnout.
A recent Gallup poll shows that the top five root causes of burnout all have to do with workplace factors such as unfair treatment and problematic manager behavior. At Reloveution, we believe that a lack of HEART (Humanity, Empathy, Authenticity, Relationships, and Trust) in workplace culture and structures is a major contributor to burnout. If we want to create burnout resistant workplaces, then we must prioritize building healthier communities and systems and treating the people who work for us like human beings.
Here are four tips for leaders seeking to prevent burnout and infuse their workplace with HEART.
Provide proper training for managers. Studies show that burnout is significantly affected by the behavior of managers. People are often promoted to a managerial role because of their extensive know-how and experience but that doesn’t always mean that they have the specific skills necessary to be an effective manager. Supporting our managers with proper training not only prevents burnout amongst the managers themselves but also equips them with what they need to be competent and compassionate team leaders. Check out Reloveution’s wide selection of trainings, including “Beyond Self-Care: Fostering Community Care at Work” and “Human-Centered Employee Engagement.”
Maintain fair and transparent expectations. Lots of jobs require a high level of flexibility, but sometimes it seems like we expect our employees to be as flexible as one of those inflatable figures dancing in the wind outside of car dealerships. Employees deserve to know exactly what is expected of them and they should be given plenty of heads up if they’re going to be expected to shift gears. This open communication is especially important now as expectations continue to shift due to changing Covid-19 protocols. Also, if we are making changes to an employee’s schedule or responsibilities, we must ensure that these changes are equitable and fair. This might look like double-checking that what we’re asking of them actually falls within their contract or job description. And it definitely means ensuring employees are fairly compensated for extra work.
Recognize and lift up your employees. Employees are less likely to burn out if they feel recognized and appreciated at work. No, this doesn’t mean you should start creating cheesy ‘Employee of the Month’ boards (although those can be fun!). We mean really and truly providing a type of recognition to employees that communicates, “I see you, and I need you and want you on this team.” Even just saying those words to the people who work for us goes a long way! Genuine check-ins (meaning opportunities for employers and employees to authentically connect and share together) are also a great time to provide recognition. During check-ins, you may learn about something your employee is struggling with that you can provide support around, and then you can follow up with an email lifting up what you heard and offering any possible next steps.
Recognize the compounding impacts of inequity and burnout. Actively dismantling structural inequities (including racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism) and bias in the workplace is critical to preventing burnout for our workers. In particular, racism in the workplace generates a unique type of burnout for people of color, who are disproportionately impacted by unjust practices like increased expectations, lack of access for advancement and recognition, and lower compensation, along with the exhaustion of experiencing micro-aggressions and other interpersonal racism. Leaders must prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in their workplaces that are backed by senior leadership and that seek to root out systemic inequities.
When I was suffering from burnout as a preschool teacher, I blamed myself for my struggle. Although there was definitely some personal ownership around how I was (or wasn’t) taking care of myself, at the end of the day the problem was bigger than just me. Leaders play a big role in preventing burnout for workers and it's our responsibility to cultivate the kinds of workplace communities and structures that yield engagement instead of burnout.
Are you ready to build a more burnout resistant workplace? Attend our upcoming workshop on Building Burnout Resistant Workplaces on May 6 from 12:00-2:00pm ET to learn more highly effective strategies and practices to begin addressing root causes of burnout in YOUR workplace or team.
Joy Meikle is a Communications Associate with Reloveution. She is passionate about social emotional wellness, racial justice, and Tarot. She loves being a new cat mama and going birdwatching (as long as her partner carries the binoculars). Find her on IG: @alegria_moon and follow @truereloveution while you're at it!