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Burnout: A burning issue for business

We have been interacting with thousands of people in recent months through webinars and 1-2-1 coaching, and we have noticed a definitive trend, with an increasing number of people commenting that they are feeling tired, exhausted and struggling with their levels of motivation – all of which are signs of burnout. Indeed various studies published in the last few months indicate that rates of burnout are on increasing amongst workers. For those of you not familiar with the concept of burnout, it is an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress, which has not been successfully managed. The most common signs to look out for are:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

What’s interesting to understand about burnout is that its cause is not simply overwork, although overwork is a significant factor and research suggests that since lockdown the workday has increased by an average of 48-minutes. We experience burnout when the demands placed on us, whether they be tight deadlines, working hours, toxic relationships, psychologically unsafe work environments and other stressors outstrip the rewards, recognition, social support, sense of meaning and relaxation we need to sustain ourselves.

In the current climate, it is no real surprise that instances of burnout appear to be increasing. Many of us are having to juggle an increased number of competing demands. People are struggling with the blurring of boundaries between work and home. Instances of insomnia have increased. Personal relationships are being placed under greater strain. For parents and those with caring responsibilities, they are being expected to take on several additional roles, such as that of a teacher and daytime carer, in addition to their existing (or increasing) workload at work. Others are having to fend off feelings of loneliness, which we know from the research increases stress and the risk of burnout.

Meanwhile, others may be struggling with imposter syndrome or a lack of reassurance about their competence; reassurance which they might otherwise get from being in the office better supported by colleagues and managers. People are also worried about job security and financial security. Add to that feelings of increased anxiety about what the future holds, having no real idea of when it may be safe to make concrete plans (plans that won’t risk being derailed by further covid-19 developments), and it becomes abundantly clear that we are in a perfect storm for people to experience burnout.

Based on how many industry sectors in the UK pride themselves on long hours cultures, it seems fairly clear that the issue of burnout isn’t properly understood or, if it is, then the issue does not appear to be taken seriously. The fall-out from burnout isn’t negligible. We’ve learned of numerous high-profile figures in the City of London and further afield who have had to take a significant period of leave due to ‘exhaustion’. Last year we learnt of the tragic suicide of the Global Head of one of the world’s biggest law firms, Paul Rawlinson, following a period of burnout.

Even where the consequences aren’t life ending, they are often life changing. I can speak from personal experience, when I speak of the damage caused by instances of severe burnout. People can become a shell of their former selves, people whose self-confidence plummets, whose self-efficacy dwindles and whose cognitive abilities and personal resources are negatively impacted from experiencing burnout.

We know from research that burnout can lead to permanent (albeit reversible) changes to brain structures. Research published in 2014 by Armita Golkar and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that, compared to a control group, those who had experienced burnout had relatively enlarged amygdalae (responsible for detecting threats), and also appeared to have significantly weaker connections between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Thus, those who were burnt-out were more likely to experience negative stress in the future.

In the various experiments which Golkar and her colleagues conducted, the more stressed an individual reported feeling, the weaker the connectivity between these brain regions appeared on the R-fMRI scan. Those who had experienced burnout also showed weaker correlations between activity in the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, a structure of the brain involved in executive function (such as problem solving and emotional regulation). This likely explains why those who experience burnout find it harder to control unpleasant emotions and experience higher levels of perceived negative stress once burnt-out.

The potential damage caused by burnout becomes obvious when we look at burnout from a neurological perspective. We know from research that elevated levels of cortisol negatively impact both the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus, which affect cognitive efficacy and memory, respectively. Studies, including Golkar’s research above, show that over time chronic stress can cause atrophy in some of these crucial brain regions, leading to a decline in mood and cognitive capability and a propensity for negative rumination, overwhelm and irritability.

Burnout is something that leaders of organisations should be taking very seriously, especially given the unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in. Severe burnout can require a long and often uncertain road to recovery, that can take anything from a few months to several years. Sometimes, people never fully recover. It is therefore paramount for leaders to mitigate not only their people’s risk of burnout but also their own risk of burnout, by creating more sustainable and effective ways of working. By doing so, not only will they buffer against the risk of burnout, but they will also ensure their people (and themselves) are able to perform at their best, sustainably.

This article is one of a series of blogs focused on burnout. They are excerpts from a detailed guide on burnout that was published in September 2020. If you are interested in learning more you can request of a copy of our detailed guide, by contacting us.

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