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10 Ways In Which Working Environments Are Causing Burnout

burnout leadership Sep 28, 2021
10 Ways In Which Working Environments Are Causing Burnout
More and more workplaces are offering a week off to prevent Burnout and many individuals assume that one week off will fix how they are feeling.
If it truly is Burnout that is being experienced, a week off will not solve this.
In 2019 when the World Health Organisation defined Burnout as an occupational phenomenon and it stated that:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
If you Google Burnout in the workplace you’ll find 29,100,000 results, search for Burnout as a standalone word and you’ll find over 160,000,000 results. Burnout is on the increase, admittedly the events of 2020 didn’t help at all, but we cannot ignore the impact that Burnout is having on our people, dismiss it, or see our people as ‘not up for the job’ when Burnout occurs.
A Gallup study found that 23% of people in the workforce experience burnout very often or always, and an additional 44% feel burnt out sometimes. All this means that nearly two-thirds of employees are burnt out on the job.
With burnout on the rise, studies are beginning to pour in around the detrimental impact it has on a person in the long term. Burnout triggers a full physical response such as triggers high blood pressure, vulnerability to illness and insomnia as common symptoms. Nonetheless, the impact can remain even after someone recovers.
I’ve spoken and written many times about the severity of my Burnout, not just on my mental health but on my physical health and years later I am still living with some of the impact of this.
When Stanford researchers looked into how workplace stress affects health costs and mortality in the United States (pdf), they found that it led to spending of nearly $190 billion — roughly 8% of national healthcare outlays — and nearly 120,000 deaths each year.
Worldwide, 615 million suffer from depression and anxiety and, according to a recent WHO study, which costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. Passion-driven and caregiving roles such as doctors and nurses are some of the most susceptible to burnout, and the consequences can mean life or death; suicide rates among caregivers are dramatically higher than that of the general public — 40% higher for men and 130% higher for women.
When I was asked to write the book on Overcoming Stress, it was important to the publisher and I that it included practical ways in which people could overcome the stress in their lives and at the same time understand what was causing the stress in the first place.
We know that we all need a healthy amount of stress in our lives. ‘Good stress’ is what gets us out of bed in the morning, motivates us to achieve goals, reach deadlines and cross the finish line of a race. But too much stress at unmanageable levels for a prolonged period of time, and it becomes overwhelming, debilitating and can put us in the zone of Burnout.
We also know that we each react to high stress environments in different ways, and this can be impacted by our lifestyle, our quality of sleep, our personality and many other factors. Not every University student suffers with stress and nor does everyone who experiences traumatic events or has a career where trauma may be part of their everyday role.
Burnout isn’t a one-size-fits-all and the things that can lead to burnout may be different from one person to the next, and yet there are commonalities when we look at the workplace, and these can be prevented.
Here are 10 of the most common ways that the workplace could be causing burnout:
1. A Culture of Blame
You know the cultures I’m talking about. Every single person feels that they have to cover their arse by CCing or BCCing everyone into every single email. There is no trust, there has to be a paper trail of everything.
It’s ‘do as I say not as I do’ and people live in fear constantly, and as a result of this, the fight or flight response is always turned on, it’s always on red alert, meaning stress levels and anxiety are always on the lookout for the next threat to life. Of course, in the modern way world, these threats aren’t actually life threatening, but our primitive brain doesn’t know this.
Colleagues say one thing to you and another behind your back. Peers tell you they’ll agree to your Board reports or recommendations and then stitch you up at the Board table making out they have no idea what you’re talking about.
Nobody takes responsibility and nobody takes accountability.
How do you avoid a culture of blame?
This has to start at the top. It’s about honest, open and transparent communication. It’s about trust. It’s about Psychological safety. It’s about showing that this type of behaviour is not appropriate or acceptable.
And these aren’t things that you just run a training course on and forget about them, they have to form part of your everyday working, they have to become part of your organisations DNA.
2. Always wanting more for less
Even before the pandemic hit, many years before the pandemic hit, companies have been cutting costs, reducing headcounts and increasing the workloads of their people. Customers want more, leaders want more and in some cases every inch of spare cash is squeezed out of every area of the business.
Some sectors have been hit with this far more than others, but its impacting everyone. And as leaders, particularly those of you making a lot of profit, have to realise that you can only squeeze so far before everyone around you starts to break.
You can’t pay low wages and expect a gold star service. You also can’t pay low wages and expect years of experience and qualifications from the best colleges and universities.
3. Breaks are seen as inconvenient
You’ve probably seen this too right?
“I know you’re on holiday, but …”
“I know you’re eating your lunch, but …”
“I know you’re on your day off today, but …”
Stop it.
Your people need breaks and always disrespecting and interrupting their downtime is not right. Unless you really do work in a role where someone on being on a break is actually a matter of life and death ( and even then you need to think twice about pushing people too hard), there is unlikely to be anything so important that it cannot wait.
We cannot perform when we are exhausted. We need our breaks to reset and recharge our brains and our energy levels.
For any of you that have trained for a big sporting event, a mammoth swim, a cycle or a marathon, you will all know the importance of rest days to help you cross the finish line. Work is no different. Take the breaks, you need them.
4. Mistakes are punished not learnt from
This is linked to the blame culture, and it’s also more than that.
We are human.
We make mistakes.
And if you are constantly punishing people when they make mistakes, threatening to sack them, or actually doing it, or jumping immediately into a disciplinary process, you do a number of things.
You create a culture of fear which means people are less likely to want to learn and develop. You lose creativity and innovation. You lose, as a company the opportunity to improve, to do things better and to grow.
For those of you with children in your life, can you imagine scolding them every time they fell over when they first started walking or learning to ride a bike? Of course not. They were encouraged, it was pointed out what they could change or do differently, and eventually they figured it out and got moving. They were allowed to practice, they were allowed to fall, they were allowed time to improve until they got there.
Ever cocked up a dinner for your family? I have.
Nobody starved. I learned from it, and if I tried the same recipe again, I knew what to tweak for next time
5. Overwhelming Workload
This links to always wanting more for less. Unrealistic expectations and conflicting priorities can make it impossible to manage a heavy workload, which quickly results in burnout. A workload mismatch can also result from the wrong kind of work, which usually happens when people lack the skills or inclination for a certain type of work—even when it’s only required in small doses.
How Do you Avoid Workload-related Burnout?
Set clear priorities and goals. Instead of letting people work through an endless to-do list, encourage them to highlight at least one point of focus for that week—and no more than three. I’ve worked in a company where there were 333 priorities – really!!
Communicate with your people regularly, in a way that works for you both.
Don’t overload your employees with too many tasks at once. Multitasking is 40% less productive than monotasking. A chaotic schedule is far more likely to lead to employee burnout.
Be realistic. Some projects take longer than expected and it’s impossible for people to succeed at absolutely everything. If you’re talking with your people on a regular basis, you can plan around unexpected delays and re-prioritise as needed.
Employ the right amount of people to do the work, don’t continue to overload the few that ‘always get things done’
6. Lack of Control
Not having enough authority or control over the resources needed to do your job can contribute to stress in the workplace. It’s important that people have the freedom to pursue their work in what they believe is the most effective manner.
New starters and newly promoted managers may also feel overwhelmed by their level of responsibility—especially when they’re committed to producing results but feel they lack the capacity to get the job done. Onboarding remotely has only exacerbated that.
How Do you Ensure Your People Have Control?
Find the sweet-spot between support and autonomy:
Outline exactly what’s expected of someone in their role and try to understand if they need any additional training or support.
Give people clear deliverables and let them decide the best way to complete their tasks. It’s also important to keep an open line of communication and get regular feedback so you can take action as it’s needed.
If you know someone is a creative thinker, don’t overload them with spreadsheets and other analytical tasks. Leaving the comfort zone can be important for growth and development, but don’t overwhelm people with tasks and projects you know are a bad fit.
7. Insufficient Rewards
Paying your people a reasonable salary is an important part of preventing burnout. But there is a caveat. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory demonstrated that insufficient extrinsic rewards can have a negative effect on employee motivation, but extrinsic rewards on their own won’t raise people’s motivation beyond a certain point.
Lack of financial rewards is one reason for burnout, but what most companies overlook is a lack of social rewards (e.g. recognition for a job well done). This lack of recognition devalues both the work and the workers, which can also impact and reduce intrinsic motivation (like pride in handling something important well).
Intrinsic motivators are much more important than compensation, but it’s important to pay your people properly first. After that, recognition is the most effective way to have a positive impact on performance. According to Deloitte, productivity and performance are 14% higher in organisations with a recognition programme than those without.
Preventing Burnout with the Right Rewards
  • Recognise people for specific actions, results or behaviours. For example, when someone goes above and beyond for a customer, or overdelivers on their quarterly target – celebrate success
  • Share stories, not just feedback. It’s important to recognise people for a job well done, but providing it as part of a structured story (especially if it comes from a peer) helps promote positive behaviours.
  • Make it easy to provide feedback.
8. Poor Sense of Community
Jobs and working environments that isolate people from each other are one source of stress in the workplace—a particularly tricky prospect when so many of us are now working separately. However, it’s chronic, unresolved conflict with others that eventually leads to burnout.
Promoting Community, Preventing Burnout
Lead by example—get to know your people.
Acknowledge things that are happening in people’s personal lives. Birthdays, engagements, bereavements, and other personal events are the perfect time to show you care, especially at a time when people are feeling more disconnected.
Acknowledge things that are happening in the wider world. Recognising the burden of the pandemic for example lets your people know feeling burned out is natural, not a personal failure.
Make time for events and team building. Away days and after-work socials may feel like a distant memory, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Scheduling time in your calendar for digital social events is even more important now.
9. Unfair Policies and Decision-makers
When it’s all about the policies and less about the people, issues occur and stress levels increase. You know my mission to Burn The Handbook, but there’s more to it than this.
Fairness communicates respect and helps confirm people’s self-worth—which is vital to building a shared sense of community. Unfairness can occur when there is inequity of workload or pay, cheating, or poor handling of evaluations, promotions, and grievances.
How Transparency Deters Burnout
Establish clear rules and be transparent in implementing them. The perceived fairness of procedures and outcomes is often more important than the outcomes themselves—so it’s important to be consistent.
Focus on a better process or a better outcome. Ideally you can improve both, but maybe you can only influence the process and not the outcome.
Make the effort to understand the expectations of your people. Ambitions, objectives and job responsibilities can vary significantly between different people, which is why it’s important to set up time on a one-to-one basis.
Continuously monitor employee satisfaction. Share employee satisfaction results with the people involved, and collaborate on better solutions. That should help prevent a disconnect between experience and expectation in future.
10. Conflict of Values
The idea of cultural fit isn’t about working with people who like the same music or sports teams as you. It’s about asking: how well does this person align with the organisation’s values and how can they help to shape them for the future? A disconnect between personal values and company values can create conflict, and conflict typically leads to employee burnout.
People can also get caught between conflicting company values. For example: a lofty mission statement that is in no way connected with the way a company actually does business.
Company Values and Burnout
You might not be able to redefine your company’s values, but you can live them:
Lead by example.
Make your values part of everything that you do .
I’ll finish as I started. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. I could have included so much more here, but these are the most common ways in which workplaces are creating burnout for their people.
Next week I’ll be sharing how non-inclusive leadership is creating Burnout in women.
If you want to find out more about my work, or would like to arrange a call to see how I can help you prevent Burnout, visit my website,
About Kelly
In 2013, Kelly had a successful leadership career, yet she was burned out, exhausted, and missing out on life with her family.
Determined to enjoy the success that she had earned, she's learned to create a life of balance and boundaries that is also highly successful.
Today, Kelly is founder of The Chrysalis Crew and Executive Coach at Kelly Swingler Ltd. She's helped women leaders all over the world to prevent and recover from burnout by becoming their own VIPs without giving up their careers or jeopardising their wellbeing.

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