By now it’s old news, but not long ago, the World Health Organization gave credence to something many businesses and people have known about – and increasingly struggled with – for a long time. “Burnout” has been officially added to its list of official mental health diagnoses. Placing it alongside anxiety and adjustment disorders, the WHO takes care to lay out special guidelines for diagnosis and treatment. These guidelines, it would appear, are intended to isolate incidence of work-related conditions, as opposed to more generalized conditions such as those mentioned above.
My take: no shit!?! (Also: oh, shit!) When one reads the primary symptoms, it feels like a list of things we see in ourselves and others every day. Put on your brutally honest, introspective hat, and silently feel your gut sink if you have “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.” If we’re honest, we’ve all experienced at least some of this, ourselves, and likely recently. At the very least, we’ve certainly all seen it in colleagues, friends or family members.
Not buying it? OK. Here’s some fresh data from Gallup (as reported by Forbes): 23% of employees report feeling burnout at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling it sometimes. This is significant, and likely sandbagged. Given the reluctance that many folks display toward being open about their own mental health, it’s easy to imagine the actual impact is even larger than we might know or understand.
Burnout isn’t New, but it’s Definitely a Problem
The WHO’s announcement certainly makes it more ‘real,’ but burnout isn’t a new issue; it’s just newly legitimized. In fact, the first known reference within the psychology community dates back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger raised it in his seminal article (titled Staff Burnout”). Indeed, smart people and good businesses have been navigating this issue for a long time.
Burnout is scary because it’s difficult for people to acknowledge and understand. It can feel like a personal issue, to be deeply guarded, rather than a personnel concern, to be openly addressed. This is central to the impact on businesses of all sizes, according to Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal, who authored Gallup’s three-part series on burnout’s impact on businesses. Among other findings, their report states that employees who strongly identify with burnout symptoms are 63% more likely to call in sick, 50% less likely to discuss their performance goals with management, and over two and a half times more likely to leave their employer.
How I think about Burnout
I have to think about this; I don’t have a choice. On both a personal and business level, the risks of burnout are all around me. Because I’ve dealt with ADD/ADHD for nearly all of my life, I know that I’m susceptible to something called ADD/ADHD Fatigue Syndrome, which is essentially analogous to the WHO’s definition of Burnout. And, I’m an entrepreneur, which exposes me further. Finally, as a leader of a small, hard-working team, I have a responsibility to understand this issue and look out for it every day. I simply can’t just hope it doesn’t show up within our business; I have to prepare for it, both personally and professionally. If we’re to believe the science, so do you.
How Burnout Works (at least in my experience)
Burnout’s like a gas leak. It’s a creeper. By the time you discover it, it’s already begun its destruction. Because it doesn’t show up like a physical malady, it’s difficult to identify it for many people. Beyond this, even when a person has the sense that they might be at risk, there’s no guarantee that they’ll speak up. Because many people are guarded about their mental health, and also because many businesses are insensitive to mental health concerns, burnout can go unchecked for extended periods.
Also, while Burnout is officially defined as being work-related, it doesn’t stay at the office. Certainly, it starts at work, but its effects make themselves known at home, soon. Irritability, lack of presence, exhaustion, and apathy are all commonly associated with burnout, and just as likely to manifest themselves in family life as they are during business hours.
Finally, burnout isn’t the final destination; it can lead to more serious mental health diagnoses, like depression, mania, substance abuse, and others.
So, it’s real and it’s bad. It’s real bad. But you – and your business – can get in front of it. Read on.
How to Deal with Burnout
As with most mental health concerns, it seems like those who are least impacted by it are the ones who acknowledge it and actively address it. The trick is to deal with it directly, as you would another problem less related to a stigmatized topic. I like to think of mental health like I think of weather. It has ranges. It can be lovely, and it can be awful. I’d love it to be 72, sunny, and dry every day. I’d wear shorts and flip flops and I’d spend all my time outdoors. But that’s just not how it works. Snow days happen; other days, it rains. And sometimes, it’s just unbearably hot outside. I have to adjust. I have to prepare. I have to deal with it. Same goes for mental health: while I’d love to have the same energy levels, attentiveness and presence every day, that might not be a reliable plan.
So, how do we, at WorkBook6, deal with, adjust and prepare for burnout and other mental health concerns?
- First off, we talk about it. When I’m struggling, I talk about it. And when our team is going through it, they talk with us about it. I’m not so naïve to think they tell me everything, every time, but I’m confident that each of the incredible folks here knows they can have an open, judgement-free discussion about how they’re feeling.
- We acknowledge and counter-attack the root causes. Many report burnout symptoms being the result of a few core deficiencies at work: autonomy, engagement, motivation and passion. So, we try to create abundant ‘surpluses’ in these areas. We assign lots of responsibility and ownership, we actively engage one another, we keep one another motivated and we encourage passionate pursuit of both personal and company goals.
- We recognize the value of recharging, so we don’t cap it. WorkBook6 doesn’t have a vacation policy – we instead have a “take great care of yourself and do great work policy.” That means that when our folks need a break, they take it. We’re all expected to make sure we cover our responsibilities, but we’re each encouraged to do things that allow us to recharge.
- We celebrate the activities the team undertakes away from work. When Chris catches a big brown trout, he posts a photo for the team on slack. When Brett absconds to Europe for a music festival, he brings goodies back for the team. We make a point of sharing our life away from work with the people we work with. This encourages a culture that celebrates the full scope of our lives, as opposed to just our work.
- Finally, we subsidize mental health care and restorative activities. WorkBook6 offers a wellness stipend for all members of the team. This took a while to make true; it’s expensive, and we wanted to take care to provide the benefit in such a way that it could really be seen as helpful to the entire team. The program is self-directed, and completely agnostic to how the funds are actually used. We don’t actually care (or ask) how our team deploys the stipend – we just ask that they point it toward something that helps them find balance. This can be a visit with a counselor, a stress-relieving massage, or really anything else. I think this is really important for a couple reasons. First, we all find balance in our own way; I don’t believe it’s my place to tell people how to get there. Second, many people point to financial concerns as a gating factor to their wellness; our program, I hope, helps ease some of that concern. Finally, doing it this way communicates that this is an important issue, and also one that we trust our team to deal with in the way that best fits them. And, for the skeptics reading this who wonder about abuse within a program with essentially no checks and balances, I’d offer that in my experience, great teams consist of trustworthy and accountable people. We know our team won’t abuse this because the folks who work here simply wouldn’t do that.
This isn’t a “how to” manual for addressing and managing mental health in your organization. It’s just how we do it. I mention this for a few reasons. First, I’m not an expert; I’m just trying to stay in front of an issue that seems like it’s only growing in impact. Second, I think that if we’re to remain happy and productive, we’ve simply got to get in the habit of being more open about mental health in every part of our lives. In that sense, we try to walk the walk.
To that end, I hope this post can help others contemplate this topic.