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The Origin of Burnout: Is it me or is it my work culture

Have you ever felt being emotionally, physically, and mentally drained? Because you might be experiencing burnout caused by high levels of stress? Signs of burnout are exhaustion, choosing isolation, having escape fantasies, easily being irritated, and having frequent illnesses. We often think that this is an individual problem on which we blame ourselves on why we experience burnout --- thinking that we lack the necessary steps, like saying “no” to requests, practicing mindfulness and meditation, or simply exercising and talking to people, to protect ourselves from extreme exhaustion.

But why do we have to take necessary steps to protect ourselves from burnout in the first place when the root cause of the problem might be the environment in the workplace and not us?

Even if we continuously do the right things from our self-help list, the phenomenon of burnout will always be floating around waiting for us to fail our efforts of staying sane unless the root of the problem is solved. Leaders should re-examine their workplace culture with their employees' well-being in mind because if the workplace continues to be a source of burnout it will contribute to more drawbacks --- a higher turnover rate, lower productivity, and an increase in healthcare costs. According to a study conducted by the WHO, depression, and anxiety costs an estimated $1 trillion lost in productivity every year worldwide. Looking at these numbers, workplace stress is a problem affecting corporate's bottom line and the organization: Burnout is a problem. The continuous pressure that employees face is real. Organizations that don’t have well-being strategies to support their employees in coping with their job responsibilities fail when compared to workplaces that do.

According to an expert on burnout, Christina Maslach states that the WHO’s attempt to define burnout as a disease makes it sound like “what’s wrong with the person” instead of “what’s wrong with the organizations they’re in''. It’s basically saying that you can’t work here because you’re the problem. Isn’t this unfair to someone who has the motivation and ambition to work hard but end up feeling so exhausted because it’s just too much? Humans aren’t robots and we also aspire to balance our work life and personal life at the same time. That’s what makes us humans. If work doesn’t allow us to live life in harmony, it becomes a foundation for stress and burnout to arise, and our productivity gets greatly affected.

According to a research by Gallup, the top five reasons of burnout are (1) unfair treatment at work, (2) demanding workloads, (3) role ambiguities, (4) poor communication and support from managers, and (5) unrealistic deadlines or time pressures.

Looking at this list of reasons, we can deduce that the root cause of burnout isn’t actually caused by an individual but by the workplace environment or systems. This doesn’t mean companies can’t prevent burnout. Leaders and companies have the ability to prevent burnout in workplaces - one of the important factors to consider when forming a strategy is providing good organizational mental hygiene factors like having a good relationship with supervisors and peers, good and healthy working conditions, ensuring job security and reasonable work benefits. Aside from providing essential hygiene factors, leaders should also learn how to ask more relevant and timely questions. In this way, they would know more about what their employees need more effectively. If companies don’t ask questions they might choose decisions that might be more unreasonable in terms of budget spending and utilization. This is why asking questions and being smart in making budgeting decisions are important for both the company and the employees’ well-being. Questions like “if you had some budget, what would you want to fix”, “would you rather do something else with that budget”, or “if we had this much budget, what would be our priority” are examples where leaders could get more insights on what part of the workplace can be changed to better accommodate their employees’ needs. Lastly, wellness offerings for employees such as resilience trainings, counseling, or meditation classes should still be a part of the overall program as they are effective tools in managing mental health and stress - more specifically when it allows employees to embed these practices in the flow of work (an effective wellbeing strategy doesn't have to be a costly exercise)

Remember, burnout isn’t an individual’s fault for being “weak”, or for failing to cope with the amount of stress they’re experiencing. Burnout is a phenomenon caused by the demands of workplace systems and their encompassing environment. And the only way to solve this problem is in the hands of leaders and managers --- the happier your employees are, the better your company becomes.

Moriah Chavez

Bessern Associate.

Check out this video on The Truth about Burnout at Work.