Spotting Staff Burnout & how to tackle it

What are the signs that someone is suffering from burnout and how can companies help their staff tackle it?

By Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton

Changes in today’s workplace are estimated by McKinsey Global Institute to be occurring at ten times the pace of the Industrial Revolution and 300 times the scale – in every area. Yet, most businesses are expected to consistently operate at a differentiated level in this increasingly complex, exponentially changing environment. Employers recognize the changes, but human beings are not evolving as quickly as the pace of change and most of us have not been trained to cope with the amount and pace of change around us.

No surprise then that according to a recent Korn Ferry study, overall employee stress levels have risen nearly 20% in three decades.Stress was the number one symptom Googled in 2018. Many people working at today’s demanding pace spend at least some time in overdrive –unable to take their foot off the accelerator. This type of sustained overdrive can put us at serious risk of burnout.

To guard against and recover from burnout, we need high functioning adrenal glands – and resilience.  Our adrenal glands decide how much energy should be released in order to meet our changing circumstances. If you drive a car hard, foot flat down on the accelerator, the engine will race and flood. If you slam on the brakes then accelerate again quickly, the car will break down sooner than if you accelerate smoothly and service the car regularly. The same theory applies to our adrenal glands.

If cortisol levels remain high over extended periods, we run the risk of adrenal fatigue or burnout. At its most serious, this is a life-threatening condition and needs immediate medical attention. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, burnout is now a legitimate medical diagnosis listed under problems related to employment or unemployment.

Physical Intelligence Jacket
Physical Intelligence Jacket

To spot signs of burnout across your team or within yourself, look for:  extreme energy depletion/exhaustion, increased mental distance, negativity or cynicism about the job, reduced effectiveness at work, frequent panic attacks, regularly feeling overwhelmed, feeling isolated, anxious, joyless, barely coping, heart rate regularly racing out of control, and increased emotional reactions.Most people only ever experience mild burnout. However, given the current pace of life, mild burnout is on the rise.

To avoid burnout, first, recognise signs of ‘overdrive.’ If someone feels the need to achieve and be busy all the time or feels an almost constant low level of anxiety, their physiology will soon tell them, ‘no’. Many people have an early warning sign that they have been pushing themselves too hard –a series of minor mistakes, a scratchy throat, elevated heart rate, sallow complexion, digestive issues, frequent colds, etc.  These indicators to slow down come before the tank is empty.  It’s important to heed those early warning signs and build resilience, working smarter, not harder.

The best time to build resilience is before we need it. We build resilience by applying a positive mindset to challenging events. Having hope and confidence in the future is important.  Organisations can help staff build resilience by creating cultures that set clear, realistic goals, assign manageable workloads, provide resources necessary for success, and where failure (particularly when in pursuit of innovation or growth) is acceptable, perhaps even encouraged or rewarded.

Resilience also relies on us being socially connected and on giving and receiving support. Feelings of isolation or loneliness take a particular toll on resilience. People with strong networks and organisations that establish coaching cultures,communicate openly and share information widely fare much better than those that don’t.

Even if an organisation doesn’t programmatically promote resilience, you can take steps on your own to build resilience for yourself or your team. Practising resilience techniques in times of less pressure is important.  However, even if someone is already in overdrive or experiencing burnout, these techniques will help:

  • Use paced breathing to stabilise your nervous system.
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror every morning (boosts serotonin).
  • Literally jump (for joy).
  • Get your heart rate up and down at least 3 times a day, otherwise the parasympathetic nervous system will be too sluggish to rebalance when you encounter stress.
  • Schedule time each week for REST: Retreat, Eat [healthy], Sleep and Treat yourself (maintains optimal cortisol levels).
  • If nerves are building up, disperse adrenalin by shaking out your arms and legs.
  • If feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed and your heart rate is elevated/erratic, or if you are sleeping poorly, replace sweet or caffeinated drinks with water or herbal tea.
  • If you’re dwelling on something, talk to someone you trust about it, then commit to letting it go.
  • Process negative events and apply a learning mindset to develop a robust, realistic optimism.
  • Focus on things for which you are grateful.
  • Take a bath with Epsom salts, especially before bed. The magnesium will help you sleep.
  • Increase your sleep. Sleep has a bigger impact on mental, emotional and physical performance than any waking activity.

A combination of emotional, mental, and physical fitness, helps build resilience in ourselves and our staff so that we will have the reserves we need to sustain high performance, bounce back from adversity, adapt to change and grow and learn while doing so.

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are the authors of new wellbeing book Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster) and Directors of Companies in Motion.