How can employers and employees help prevent burnout at work?

burnout

The burnout stories that make the biggest impact often involve someone so deep in the hustle that one day they quit or collapse. While extreme, these stories serve as a barometer of how low we need to go before we can justify taking care of our own wellbeing.

They tell us that to be considered truly deserving of tender, loving self-care, we require a grand, depletion-defining moment. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Burnout is a scale, it’s not a binary experience. It has a spectrum of symptoms that can eat away at us for months or years if left unaddressed.

This has led to the term ‘burnout’ almost becoming a buzzword. As a nation we’ve debated at length its social, economical, and professional impact. So why, after years of discussion, are burnout levels still at an all-time high?

Blame shifting.

We’re often quick to blame either ourselves or workplaces and the pressure they put on us when it comes to our health. While this is justified to some extent, one or the other is rarely the only catalyst. Burnout is a dual responsibility, it belongs to both the employer and employee.

Employee wellbeing must be deeply valued within the cultural heart of an organisation for it to really matter. Likewise, we each need to take responsibility for doing the things that support our wellbeing outside of work. This requires self-awareness and action.

Of course, our employers can also make it easier or harder to act in service of one’s self. Creating a supportive context and processes is the purview and responsibility of the business.

Take for example the chaos of startup land. Despite unprecedented growth, Australia’s startup industry is riddled with challenges. Critical skills shortages, insane growth expectations and two years of pandemic mayhem have taken an extensive toll. It’s no surprise companies are demanding more of their employees and many in the sector feel depleted.

It’s easy to say that high-growth, ambitious environments naturally push the boundaries of possibility, this is after all often part of the attraction. The unwritten agreement often becomes ‘if you want to build something game-changing, you’d better hustle and grind and use up every bit of energy you’ve got’.

But is the need to perform highly actually predicated on the pressure to always be on? No. In fact, high performance is obstructed by real or perceived pressure to be on 24/7.

To be successful in a fast-paced, focused company you don’t have to work 15 hours a day. Hit your targets, communicate well, and you can work as few hours as you want.

I have never met a founder CEO who bragged about the number of hours their team clocked. They light up about breaking into markets and recruiting superstars to their teams. Instead the focus should be on being effective while working. This is simple, but difficult to do consistently.

Most employees are paid for their hours on the job. This structure blatantly ignores the value of what we each individually deliver. Time is worthless if it’s not well used. Someone who is effective can achieve more in a few short hours than someone less strategic can in a week. Business structures must be based around this if they are to truly honour and protect their people.

So what’s key to effectiveness? Energy.

Energy is what gives us drive. It propels us with mental clarity to prioritise, decide, act, adapt, and hit mission-critical milestones. With it, we can focus on outcomes not outputs. We work with purpose and focus on our impact, which often replenishes our stores of energy — enabling us to hustle but also live.

It’s also something we can individually own. By managing ourselves and our mental/physical needs as required, we can create energy. Simple steps like following a routine, carving out time for exercise and family, and sticking to “clock off time” all pay dividends.

It’s time to champion systems that encourage the prioritisation of energy over time. We need to ditch the archaic ‘time spent’ mentality if we are to address root causes of burnout.

It can start as simply as acknowledging our personal energy boosters — both human (exercise, food, connection) and work (networking, customers, solo work time). We also need to know our energy drainers and our sacred times (the times of day where we are 100% offline).

By doing this we can create net positive energy balances, enabling us to drop the blame game and work together to lift energy levels, which is critical if we are to truly extinguish the burn.

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