When burnout becomes the norm you better run
Burnout is an issue that systemically plagues our present workplaces. How can we identify it and address it individually and at a business level?
What is burnout?
Recently, I found myself talking about burnout with one of the devs here at Awkbit. After realizing that it wasn’t a daily water cooler subject to talk about, I walked away thinking about it.
After some research, I found out that burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome occurring from prolonged chronic job stress. Too much of anything for too many hours is associated with losing the balance between leisure and work.
I found psychologists arguing that human evolution did not prepare us to put so many hours on the same thing, causing overworked routines to affect us. Burnout can even cause changes in areas of the brain related to stress like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, increasing cortisol production, a hormone associated with the stress response.
You might have experienced burnout or know someone who did. Phrases like “I just don’t care anymore” or “I don’t have the same motivation as before” are common among people suffering from burnout. As my research progressed, I asked around in our software factory if anyone had felt like that before. Not surprisingly, it led to many enlightening discussions, which I am condensing in this article.
Today, the numbers are frightening. According to some, 95% of human resources leaders admit employee burnout causing people to leave their jobs or get fired because of their “bad attitude”. In Japan, they even have a specific term for when burnout takes over your life: Karoshi, the premature death from overwork.
But how can we spot it before it's too late? Let’s review the fundamental symptoms of burnout.
Symptoms of burnout
As for the symptoms of burnout, they can vary according to the person. I got many answers from the devs at work but most listed the same symptoms, even if the phrasing was slightly different. Let’s review these generalities.
Some told me that, the times they had experienced burnout, they were incapable of doing anything after work. Their body ached, or they had difficulty concentrating, felt drained, and it went even as far as constant irritability and mood swings.
These symptoms can escalate into a negative outlook on life and cynicism, leading to a general negative attitude, discouragement, isolation, and conflict.
Lastly, burnout can provoke a feeling of lack of accomplishment, entailing a loss of productivity and poor performance, creating a vicious cycle.
After gathering this real-life data, I found that researchers separate the symptoms of burnout into three general categories:
- Cynicism & detachment
- Lack of accomplishment
These are not necessarily presented all at once and can vary depending on the person or workplace as burnout often develops in increasingly worse stages.
Recognizing burnout is not only a task meant for the individual worker. HR employees, team leaders, and sector managers should be on the lookout for signs of burnout on their teams. Devs at work told me they fled places where they naturalized heavy workloads, no breaks, and increasingly high expectations. They knew that these would make any project crumble.
On top of that, many were unable to tell laziness from burnout. In any case, here are some signs that allow individuals to identify burnout:
- Feeling disconnected from everything
- Losing motivation
- Losing passion
- Mood swings and irritability
- Neglected self-care and social withdrawal
- Gradual changes until this state
- Escape fantasies or abuse issues
- Pessimistic outlook
In more extreme cases, some had trouble distinguishing between burnout from depression.
Understanding job burnout
I revised the data from my in-house talks, and there was one thing that was common to everyone. Every dev told me that, at some point in time, they had experienced burnout. But why was it so often related to work? Many argue that the problem is often upstream, much farther away from the actual crises.
Even if people in any field can feel burnout, I will focus on the IT and development sector, where we understand its inner workings. Let’s review how burnout affects the job-related sphere of life.
I found an eye-opening talk by Dr. Christina Maslach, where she points out the changes in the social dynamics of work associated with burnout. For example, she mentions having multiple part-time jobs rather than a full-time career. That is typical in the software industry, which is overflowing with projects. We often find developers and businesses trying to take on more than they can deliver.
In many companies in the IT sector, there is a general sense of less commitment towards workers. Many businesses in the software industry don’t offer stable contracts and hire per project, leading to financial instability for employees who often lack job benefits like health care or personal time off. When the common good is lost as a core value, many workers start looking for the best bidder in the sector.
A socially toxic workplace is where people are not allowed to show vulnerability. What Dr. Maslach calls the “burnout shop” business model. That system stems from the short-term start-up self-sacrifice converting itself to a long-term model. Creating an ambiance of forced competition can erode social relationships and affect everyone at the office.
The human costs of this business model are daunting. Burnout is only the tip of the iceberg in a field where long-term stress and physical exhaustion are the norms. To make this worse, the underlying assumption in many businesses is that employees who burn out are not the best ones. “It cleans the house” as nefariously heard from a business owner.
On top of everything, researchers found that these job conditions do not enhance productivity or the bottom line, making it a useless sacrifice. Take the Challenger disaster, for example.
Burnout and Job-people relationship
Talking further with people in our dev department, I found out that some variables had affected them all. These were the ones that impacted the job-person relationship in strategic areas.
In the IT sector, I found out that fairness and suitable rewards are not often the rule; the effort put by workers on a project often does not always correlate with wages or benefits. When the workload increases, it is natural for employees to expect their salaries will accompany it, but it is often not the case.
When this happens, people tend to feel that the best day is when nothing bad happens, creating a grim look for the company. As many experts, and some very self-aware colleagues, put it: more mismatches = more burnout. It is as simple as that.
The consequences of burnout
Where people work longest and with least leisure, they buy the fewest goods. No towns were so poor as those of England where the people, from children up, worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day. They were poor because these overworked people soon wore out – they became less and less valuable as workers. Therefore, they earned less and less and could buy less and less. ― Henry Ford
We've seen the causes and symptoms of burnout, but what about its consequences? As I said, burnout is a stress phenomenon, a prolonged response to chronic situational stressors on the job.
The job-person mismatches we talked about before often create a breakdown of the work community driven by value conflicts and inadequate rewards. The further away your values are from a company, the harder it is to help them achieve its goals.
This everyday stuff starts to wear people down, and they start doing the bare minimum. In the worst cases, managers double down with control and workload to force an already exhausted workforce.
What to do with burnout
I finally got to the key question: Is there a solution to burnout then? What should we do if this is our case? It depends on the scale we can take action. I will separate business scale actions from individual actions to divide clear responsibilities.
Individual actions to prevent burnout
There is a lot of individual advice for preventing burnout. I even got some advice from our devs that know what helps them get through their day. It can range from “clench your teeth” to “see a professional” passing by “quit your job” or “change your situation”.
The thing is, burnout could be related to more than one aspect of a person’s life, and a lot of burned-out people feel embarrassed to even admit it. Some feel guilty and say they are happy when they are not, invalidating themselves and their feelings.
Some associate burnout with lack of sleep, exercise, diet, meditation, or mindfulness. But sleeping and resting alone will not fix this issue. I created a list compiling most of the tips people gave to me online and what I got from talking to people at work:
- Change work patterns: work fewer hours, take more breaks, avoid doing overtime.
- Social support: talk with your colleagues, family, and friends to communicate your stressors.
- Relaxation strategies: breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, music, and art.
- Prioritize health & fitness: exercise, maintain a healthy diet, try a new hobby, get at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Embrace slow progress: know that there is never a magical moment where you are 100% fulfilled.
While these can help, Emily and Amelia Nagoski state that the cure is not self-care. According to them, the trick is to create a bubble of love at home. Have someone on your side to hear you.
We need each other, and that is also something I found while talking to our devs. This subject isn’t usually addressed because it takes strength to be vulnerable and open up with your peers at work. At Awkbit, we are trying to abandon this taboo and establish that when we feel we need more grit, we usually need more help.
On top of that, as individuals, especially employees, we have a limited amount of choice and liberty to take action against burnout. Enter the responsibilities from the workplace to avoid burnout in their ranks.
Business actions to prevent burnout
I found that Dr. Maslach created a research measure of burnout that assesses the three dimensions of burnout we talked about before: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. She designed a frequency rating to set a scale for businesses to assess how often employees experience these problems at work.
After taking this evaluation, a work experience profile shows up, explaining what is going on in the workplace. That allows for customized interventions from the business side and shows that the company is willing to take action for the good of its employees. In a workplace with a high cynicism level, adjusting company values could be the way to go.
For a company, burnout is like the canary in the coal mine. It’s a warning sign to make things differently and a reminder to review policies and procedures. Don’t try making the bird more resilient; focus on making the environment less toxic.
On the other hand, fitting the jobs to people can be the key. The goal is to modify the work conditions that create negative outcomes for human beings. We can apply design models to the social and psychological environment of workers.
So, what creates a person-job fit? Core needs. The satisfaction of these needs promotes worker motivation and psychological well-being. One of these needs is autonomy. Even if nine to five jobs are the rule, there is increasing evidence that a shorter workday with flexible hours could help boost productivity and worker satisfaction.
Considering that, there are many paths to a healthy workplace. A company culture of recognition and reward could adjust the negative feelings that many employees have. The ability to speak your mind is a feature any business should strive for.
There are many possibilities within all six areas to improve the fit between people and their job. Changes can be small, inexpensive, and customizable and can be done by consulting workers about what they need and thinking about the company without a veiled consequence for speaking out. A healthy environment cares for workers and the workplace alike. So that the former will thrive and the latter will succeed.
After talking to our dev team, I acknowledged that the burnout shop is not viable or desirable. We must design and help create healthy workplaces for the future. As Bertrand Russel put in his essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, the sacralization of work, especially the excessive practices we created in our post-industrial societies, needs to stop.
What actions is your workplace taking to prevent burnout? Which side of the issue are you on?
Sources & further reading
- Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski: The cure for burnout (hint: it isn't self-care)
- The Other Side of Burnout
- The Science of BURNOUT! | Kati Morton
- Understanding Job Burnout - Dr. Christina Maslach
- How to Bounce Back from Burnout in 3 Simple Steps | Allan Ting
- 6 Signs You’re Burnt Out, Not Lazy
- Burnout vs Depression: Which One Are You?
- 7 Signs You're Dealing With Burnout
- I burned out. Here's how I recovered.
- A Better Job Won't Help | Karen Curry Parker