It’s something most of us will have experienced at some stage in our professional career. Something that seems innocuous on the surface, such as a quick task or an approaching deadline, can lead to us hitting the wall. The accumulation of stress and pressure builds over a number of months before we realise, we have pushed too far.
I am of course talking about burnout. The definition of the term has been up for debate since it was first coined in the 1970s, and is now increasingly associated with work-related stress, culminating with the World Health Organisation officially designating it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.
The nature of burnout is sadly something many will be familiar with to some degree. Feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance, negativity towards one’s job, and falling performance standards are all signs of some form of burnout, especially if such symptoms are felt over an extended length of time. These feelings can accumulate and result in a breaking point if they are not addressed quickly.
The pandemic has only served to amplify the problem. The transition to remote working, and the blurring of the line between work and home life, has led to many people feeling increasingly stressed, especially when coupled with the more general anxieties surrounding COVID-19.
This represents a challenge for those in positions of leadership. We need to set a precedent and encourage honesty when it comes to burnout, and ensure appropriate measures are in place to address the problem at source. Addressing burnout is a business decision as well as a moral one, as it can affect people’s productivity and lead to higher turnover rates.
We’ve seen this become a particular problem in the tech industry, where traits such as empathy and vulnerability are often not given the merit they deserve. Studies show the industry has been particularly affected by the pandemic regarding mental health, and it’s up to leaders to meet this rising challenge. By starting from the top, we can bring about real change that can help people through these difficult circumstances.
The role of leadership
Seniority does not protect someone from burnout. The pressures of leadership and responsibility can weigh heavily on one’s shoulders, yet it is rare for C-level employees to talk openly about how such pressures can sometimes go too far.
My own experiences with the UK Armed Forces showed me that stress can manifest itself in many different ways, and from a variety of circumstances. As leaders, we need to change our attitudes about such pressures and learn to be more open with ourselves in discussing them. We all have moments where we struggle, and instilling transparency at the top will help encourage all people, no matter their seniority or role, to speak openly about when they may need help or a break. Leadership by example can create a more honest and supportive working culture.
What can we do to address burnout?
No single measure will be right for every business, but there are steps we can all take to help alleviate the problem. Some of these may seem simple, even obvious, but by taking measures to instil them as part of an organisation’s culture, they can make the world of difference.
To encourage a more open and honest working culture, leaders need to be able to listen. On a day-to-day basis, this means ensuring you have time set aside to discuss any issue, and that people know this time is available to them. Looking at the long-term, surveys can provide people with the chance to provide honest feedback on their experiences within the organisation, especially over issues they would rather not discuss in a one-on-one meeting. Such measures give authority and influence back to employees and can help tackle the feeling of helplessness that is so often characteristic of burnout.
Even with such measures, sometimes the only solution is to take a step back and remove oneself from the stresses of work. At CybSafe we give team members the option of a career break should they want it. We have optional mental health days. And we take global rest days. High turnover remains a huge problem in the tech industry, so giving employees the option of an extended break can help provide the balance they require before they feel the need to leave an organisation altogether.
You don’t even need to take up such an offer for it to have a positive effect. The knowledge that such an option exists can help break the cycle of helplessness and negativity, and lets people know there is a means of taking a step back should they need to.
A continuous strategy
There is no one-size-fits-all, immediate solution to burnout. The very nature of work and life in general means we can never fully remove the possibility of pressure becoming too much. But this does not reduce the importance of doing our best to mitigate the worst of its effects.
For leaders, it can be just as much about the little day-to-day actions as the wide-ranging initiatives. We need to be honest with our own experiences, and actively encourage the same in others. Only in leading by example can we begin to address this issue and create a working environment where everyone feels they have a voice and can speak openly about when they are struggling.