What is the blueprint for managing burnout in your organisation?

Written by Samantha de Coning 

Burnout is sneaky - it’s hard to spot and doesn’t always look like what we expect it to. It is the enemy of joy, taking away our physical and emotional energy and health, our feelings of connection, and confidence in our abilities. Burnout is a result of a convergence of organisational factors. To prevent burnout, employers are tasked with creating safe spaces for employees which prioritise wellbeing and which mitigate risk factors. For leaders, this means developing their understanding of burnout as well as their ability to connect with their people in a meaningful way.  

Burnout is rising exponentially and a recent survey reported by RNZ1 showed that of the 900 people canvassed, 69% reported feeling more burnt out now than at this time last year. This is backed up by AUT’s Wellbeing@Work2 study which has been tracking burn out risk. Professor Jarrod Haar’s research shows that employees with a high risk of being burnt out has risen from 1 in 9 to 1 in 3 over the last 2 years, with 11% of participants being classified as being burnt out.  

So, what causes burn out and what can we do to minimise the risk? Firstly, while stress is often associated with burn out, stress on its own is not the culprit. According to Dr Craig Dike3, the: “Line between stress and burnout can be a blurred one, and it is often difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.” While stress is finite – like working to a deadline - burnout stems from chronic and pervasive stress. The difference here is rather than a having a challenging week, being stressed and overworked is ongoing, leading to a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.  

Stress vs Burnout - The similarities and differences

Stress 

Burnout 

Hyper-engaged  overly focused on workunclear boundaries between work and home 

Tiredness – low energy, needing a break from work to recharge  

Over eager  trying too hardeverything being urgent 

Anxiety – feeling anxious about tasks, timeframes or situations 

Situational – particular situations at work or home bring stress on suddenly 

Under engaged  little passion or enthusiasm for the role or company 

Fatigue  ongoing feelings of chronic energy depletion or exhaustion 

Checking out - mental distance from the job, feeling negatively or cynically about work 

Depression – emotional toll impacts wellbeing, feeling depressed 

Organisational  ongoing factors or cultural issues at work build gradually  


Our current understanding of burnout - what causes it and how we address it - is based on the pioneering work of Dr Christina Maslach. This research shows that while it is important to recognise that chronic stress can be a major cause, other factors in the workplace can also significantly impact wellbeing and lead to burn out for employees.4 She identified six key organisational factors contributing to burnout: 

  • High workload leaving little opportunity to rest and recover and therefore reducing people’s ongoing ability to meet job demands 
  • Lack of control and autonomy making employees more likely to disengage from their work due to an inability to influence decisions that affect how they work 
  • Insufficient reward and recognition, whether monetary, institutional, or interpersonal, leading to feelings of inadequacy 
  • Poor sense of community leading to burnout when relationships at work are characterised by low levels of trust, lack of support, and unresolved conflict 
  • Perceptions of equity and fairness being compromised and burnout risk growing when employees do not have faith in the fairness of the decision-making process and their place in it 
  • Mismatch in values acting as a catalyst for burnout when individual and organisational values clash, leading employees to make a trade-off between the “work they want to do and the work they have to do”. 

Failing to take burnout seriously can have significant repercussions for employers. Loss of productivity, absenteeism and employee disengagement are well known costly consequences of burnout. A further consideration for employers is that unhappy employees leave and AUT’s Wellbeing@Work5 survey warns employers that burnt out workers are five times more likely to be considering resigning, creating additional challenges for employers in our current labour market.  

For employers, knowing what causes burnout provides a blueprint for what not to do and what is needed to promote a workplace culture which actively seeks to minimise the risk of burnout for their people. Not only is this a legal obligation6 for employers, but as Jennifer Moss suggests in her aptly titled article, “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People,”7 the responsibility for managing it has shifted away from employees and toward employers.  

For managers, having a deeper understanding of burnout can also provide them with the information they need to support at risk employees. Professor Haar’s research shows that most people who were found to have burnout either did not realise it or were not able to assess the seriousness of it.8 In fact, 35% of those surveyed had a high risk of burnout but only 4% were aware of it. Managers who are aware of the signs can be having conversations with employees earlier and in this way can ensure that they are able to access appropriate support and can look at addressing what is causing the distress.  

Moss agrees that wellness strategies are important and can give us the “rocket fuel” we need to be successful. But we must be mindful not to create the impression that these strategies alone will prevent or cure burnout. The causes of burnout stem from our workplaces and therefore the solutions will be found there.  

Identifying and addressing these systemic issues starts with asking what in the organisation is causing your people to be frustrated and is contributing to an environment where they are unable to flourish. Simply put, what’s keeping your people up at night? Collecting this data can be done anonymously through surveys and often what is most effective is for management to connect with their people directly and simply ask them what they need. External support can also be invaluable in creating neutral and safe spaces for employees to explore what is happening for them and how they would like this information to be passed on to the organisation. This could include an external Speak Up channel or facilitated workshops.  

Importantly, once issues are identified, they must be acknowledged and addressed. Failing to do so will only reinforce the causes of burnout and further cause employees to disengage. It also is a missed opportunity for organisations, as addressing issues in a way which meets the needs of employees builds organisational trust and promotes wellbeing. It is also this willingness to learn and do better which will further promote the effectiveness of those important wellbeing strategies, building these on a solid foundation of leadership-based empathy, attention and respect. 

About Fair Way 

Fair Way are experts in resolving conflict at work. Employers across Aotearoa partner with Fair Way to proactively improve wellbeing, build internal capability and positively address conflict. Fair Way provides a range of workplace services including training and workshop packages, Kāpehu, Speak Up and dispute resolution services.   

If you would like to find out more about Fair Way’s workplace services, please get in touch via workplace@fairwayresolution.com or call 0800 77 44 08.  

About the author

Samantha de Coning FAMINZ (Mediation), BJuris, LLB is Head of Practice at Fair Way Resolution Limited. 

The focus of her role is on developing dispute resolution practice across Fair Way, as well as her own work as a mediator, adjudicator and arbitrator. 

If you would like to get in touch with Samantha, please contact her by email at samantha.deconing@fairwayresolution.com  

Footnotes

[1] Workforce burnout at all-time high, new report says. (2022, March 15). RNZ. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/business/463323/workforce-burnout-at-all-time-high-new-report-says

[2] Can summer tame the flames of burnout? (2021, December 02). AUT News. https://news.aut.ac.nz/news/can-summer-tame-the-flames-of-burnout 

[3] Dike, C. Dr. (2017, June 29). Doctor On Demand. https://blog.doctorondemand.com/stress-vs-burnout-whats-the-difference-429547f5d82a

[4] Saunders, E. G., (2019, July 05). 6 Causes of burnout, and how to avoid them. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/07/6-causes-of-burnout-and-how-to-avoid-them 

[5] Businesses told to watch out for staff burnout or face productivity drop. (2022, April 12). RNZ. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/business/465138/businesses-told-to-watch-for-staff-burnout-or-face-productivity-drop 

[6] Health and Safety at Work Act 2015

[7] Moss, J. (2019, December 11). Burnout is about your workplace, not your people. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people 

[8] At [5]