The Root Causes of Burnout and How to Address Them

April 5, 2023
The Root Causes of Burnout and How to Address Them

1.6 billion per year, 8 days of absenteeism per year, 15.8 days of presentism per year, and a 35% increased probability of having a heart attack or being diagnosed with a physical illness.* These are the consequences of burnout.

In order to prevent something is important to understand and identify it.

Burnout is a serious issue that affects many people in today's society, and it can have a significant impact on our emotional, physical, and mental well-being. That's why we've enlisted the help of Joana Pena Ferreira, a Psychological Coach, Facilitator, and HR Talent & Development expert, to provide us with some valuable insights on this topic.

In this blog post, we'll be exploring the causes of burnout, how to identify the symptoms, and some effective strategies and practices to prevent and overcome burnout. So, let's dive into our interview with Joana and discover how we can take control of our well-being and prevent burnout from taking over our lives.

How can we identify the root causes of burnout in our company, and what are some common triggers that contribute to burnout?

Firstly, it is essential to evaluate the level of psychological safety in the workplace. According to Amy Edmondson, this is characterized by "interpersonal trust and mutual respect, in which people feel free to be themselves". This evaluation should include variables such as engagement and performance accountability and how they positively or negatively affect behaviors in the organization. Regarding root causes, they can be categorized as follows: excessive or insufficient workload, lack of support and belonging as evidenced by poor communication and relationships between peers, insufficient autonomy and control over resources, extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that do not result in a sense of recognition for invested effort, fairness in individual and team treatment, and misalignment of human values, purpose, beliefs, and motivations (Maslach & Leiter).

The following are some contextual common triggers that can contribute to burnout:

  • Teams that are often in zones of apathy, comfort, and/or anxiety;
  • Lack of trust between members, leading to no real cooperation and teamwork;
  • Communication that is unclear, violent, and non-assertive;
  • Having an organization that is dominated by fear;
  • Little openness to failure/error;
  • Little room for vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy;
  • Lack of diversity and inclusion;
  • Poor work organization, including tasks, autonomy, ergonomic elements, and resources.

Some of the individual common triggers that contribute to burnout include:

  • Perfectionist behaviors, such as a tendency to procrastinate;
  • Obsession with external factors, such as locus of control and external motivation;
  • Unrealistic goals and expectations;
  • Deterioration of personal and professional limits;
  • Non-assertive communication;
  • Need for control and constant stimuli, such as annoyance versus entertainment, pleasure versus satisfaction, and happiness;
  • Fixed mindset, such as high resistance to change and fear of error or failure.

What are some effective strategies for preventing burnout before it occurs, and how can we prioritize self-care and well-being in our daily lives?

Here are some tips to improve your emotional intelligence and well-being:

  • Develop emotional agility by acknowledging and naming your emotions, and taking responsibility for your actions (see Susan David);
  • Invest in your relational intelligence by practicing self-awareness (through mindfulness) and seeking feedback to identify blind spots;
  • Recognize emotional triggers and learn how to react to them in a healthy way, by paying attention to bodily reactions and asking yourself "What does this tell me?";
  • Set boundaries between your personal and professional life, and prioritize time management;
  • Practice emotional hygiene through communication, meditation, and self-reflection;
  • Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating well, staying hydrated, meditating, and exercising regularly;
  • Clarify your values and purpose to ensure that you are in the right place for you;
  • Adopt a growth mindset (see Carol Dweck) and view challenges as opportunities to learn and grow;
  • Seek psychological coaching for prevention and support;
  • Remember to also address individual triggers that may impact your emotional well-being.

Can you discuss the role of work culture and job demands in contributing to burnout, and how can organizations support employee well-being and prevent burnout?

Organizations play a crucial role in creating an environment that allows their teams to thrive. This involves understanding and implementing the principles of psychologically positive environments and investing in a framework for well-being, like the PERMA-V model based on positive psychology (see @Martin Seligman). The model focuses on six pillars: P for Positive Emotion, E for Engagement, R for Positive Relationships, M for Meaning, and A for Accomplishments/Achievements, and V for Vitality.

Furthermore, organizations should regularly assess and intervene at the level of Psychosocial Risks, which include the interaction between work, its environment, job satisfaction, and the physical conditions of the organization as well as the abilities, needs, culture, and personal situation of the worker outside of work, according to the ILO.

Contexts that allow individuals to reach their full potential and contribute to their development lead to healthier workplaces. Everyone in the organization has a responsibility to create and maintain the environment and conditions.

Can you talk about the importance of setting boundaries and practicing assertiveness, and how this can help us prevent burnout and maintain healthy relationships?

It is essential to establish limits to position ourselves in the best way toward each other. Nurturing healthy and balanced relationships is one of the main factors we can develop individually through verbal and nonverbal behaviors, such as incorporating the principles of nonviolent communication (as outlined by Marshall Rosenberg) and basic emotional management principles. Having assertive communication is key.

According to the APA, assertiveness is "an adaptive style of communication in which individuals express their feelings and needs directly while maintaining respect for others. Lack of assertiveness can contribute to depression and anxiety, while maladaptive approaches to assertiveness can manifest as aggression."

How can we address burnout once it has occurred, and what are some strategies for recovering and rebuilding our energy and motivation?

The first step is to understand what Burnout Syndrome is: "A prolonged response to chronic physical and emotional stressors that culminate in emotion and feelings of ineffectiveness" (Maslach et al., 2001). According to the WHO, it is "a syndrome resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that has not been successfully managed".

The second step is to learn how to recognize symptoms associated with the three dimensions of burnout:

- Exhaustion: Low energy and high fatigue, which is a stress response.

- Cynicism: A lot of irritation and anger, with a sense of detachment from your work, doing the minimum. You are more likely to make more mistakes.

- Inefficacy: People often question their competence related to a specific role that they previously perceived as being effective but no longer do. This leads to reduced productivity.

Complementary strategies:

  • Identify potential triggers and root causes, and learn from them to prevent future stress (You can try this burnout assessment test that you can identify earlier signals here);
  • Take time away from the main stressor to clear your head;
  • Set boundaries to protect your time and energy;
  • Focus on your circle of control, and take responsibility for things you can actually "control";
  • Develop internal tools to cope with stress, such as mindfulness or deep breathing;
  • Seek professional help, such as psychotherapy or psychiatry, for treatment;
  • Learn how to manage your time effectively, especially when feeling overwhelmed;
  • Manage your information and digital exposure to reduce stress.

How can we continue to prioritize our mental health and well-being even in high-stress situations, and what are some key habits and practices that can help us maintain balance and prevent burnout?

  • Learn how to build resilience by recognizing that suffering is part of a happy life, and using hard moments as opportunities to learn and grow, so that you can also enjoy the good ones.
  • Keep track of your self-care every day, including getting enough sleep, eating well, meditating or doing breathing exercises, drinking water, and getting regular exercise.
  • Work on your emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy, and social skills.

What message do you have for companies that may have employees experiencing burnout or high levels of stress, and how can we support ourselves and others in prioritizing our well-being and preventing burnout?

Burnout is not simply the result of working too much or an individual's weakness. It is a responsibility that is shared by individuals and society.

Failing to address burnout and not investing in more sustainable and healthy organizations can come at a high cost, such as 1.6 billion per year, 8 days of absenteeism per year, 15.8 days of presenteeism per year, and an increased probability of having a heart attack and being diagnosed with a physical illness (source: "PROSPERIDADE E SUSTENTABILIDADE DAS ORGANIZAÇÕES: Relatório do Custo do Stresse e dos problemas de Saúde Psicológica no Trabalho, em Portugal, 2023").

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Burnout is a serious problem in the workplace, and it's essential to address it effectively.

Understanding the level of psychological safety in the workplace, including engagement and accountability, is critical in preventing burnout. But what exactly are the triggers that contribute to it?

Contextual factors such as lack of trust and cooperation, violent communication, poor work organization, and individual factors like perfectionism and unrealistic expectations can all take their toll on employees.

The good news is that there are strategies to prevent burnout, like emotional agility, self-care, and developing a growth mindset. But it's not just up to individuals to take care of themselves - organizations need to invest in frameworks that prioritize employee well-being and conduct regular assessments to prevent burnout. Setting boundaries and practicing assertiveness are also key to maintaining healthy relationships and preventing burnout.

If burnout has already set in, there are recovery strategies like identifying potential triggers, taking time away from stressors, and developing internal coping tools. Ultimately, prioritizing mental health and building resilience are critical in creating sustainable and healthy organizations.

At EMOTAI, we offer innovative solutions to support employee well-being and create a mentally healthy workplace. By providing insights into employee feelings and identifying burnout risks, our approach empowers individuals with the right tools to combat burnout. Through unlocking valuable data, HR managers and leaders can gain a better understanding of employee needs and make meaningful changes toward a healthier work environment. So why wait? Start your journey towards a healthier workplace today with EMOTAI.

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