Debunking Myths Surrounding Solutions to Burnout

Debunking Myths Surrounding Solutions to Burnout

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “burnout” has been a buzzword that has increased in popularity given the myriad of unprecedented changes we have faced. Despite its recent rise in prevalence, ever since the original recognition and study of burnout, those in the healthcare industry have been at the forefront of concern and are deemed especially at risk. In fact, the term “burnout” was first coined by German American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 to describe problems associated with exhaustion among employees in health services, and there has been evidence of it ever since. Some research even suggests burnout has become an epidemic.

As leaders of an organization, it’s essential to recognize that the success of a business is contingent on employee wellbeing. Mitigating burnout is therefore an important part of the role—but are you recommending the wrong solution to your employees’ burnout?

What is burnout?   

According to an article in the Journal of World Psychiatry, burnout is “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job”. In most research, the causes of burnout can be encompassed by a three-dimensional model:

  1. Over-exhaustion and emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization and detachment from work
  3. A decreased sense of accomplishment

Most employees will identify with at least one or more of these feelings throughout their careers, so the question is: how do they overcome burnout?

Forget what you have been told: self-care is not the answer    

There is a widespread assumption that self-care is an effective method of treating burnout. However, this overlooks the nuances of burnout and demonstrates a surface-level understanding of what it is. According to the WHO, burnout is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The cause of burnout, therefore, belongs specifically to the occupational context, and by extension, employees’ self-care at home cannot remedy the root problem.

An important but often overlooked distinction to make is that there is a difference between your employees’ stressors and stress itself. According to a Ted Talk given by sisters Dr. Emily and Dr. Amelia Nagoski, most of our stressors are what are called chronic stressors. Chronic stressors are built into our daily lives and are things such as the daily commute, deadlines and financial anxieties. Stress itself, however, is a physiological attack on the body that triggers a threat response—alleviated only when the body feels free from the perceived danger (in this case, the stress).

Employees suffering from burnout don’t feel long-term relief even when these causes of stress subside; dealing with stressors doesn’t necessarily mean dealing with physiological stress. For example, the burnt-out employee is not cured when they beat the rush hour traffic home and draw a bath after a day of meeting seemingly unachievable expectations. Despite the things seeming to create stress being resolved and having a relaxing bath, the physical build-up in their body has not been addressed and therefore the stress cycle has not been completed.

So, what is the answer? Stressors are an unavoidable part of life, but the good news is that despite their presence, individuals can still break the stress cycle and avoid burnout:

  • Physical activity is an evidence-based strategy for completing the body’s stress cycle. Subscriptions to apps such as FitCoach help with workout plans and provide tips for mental health and wellbeing. 
  • Dr. Amelia and Emily Nagoski’s book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, is also a brilliant resource to recommend for understanding the stress cycle, particularly for women.  
  • Help employees work through their stress. Corporate wellness programs should take stress management into consideration by providing financial, retirement, mental health, diet and exercise resources. Research from Morneau Shepell found that every dollar invested in Employee and Family Assistance Programs provides almost eight times the return on investment due to increased productivity and decreased absenteeism.

Encouraging employees to talk isn’t always a good thing: Healthy Venting vs. Emotional Dumping

Today, we are increasingly told that sharing problems is a cathartic release and are encouraged to do so. However, there is a fine line and a distinction between healthy venting and oversharing that places emotional burdens unwantedly onto others—otherwise known as emotional dumping. Recommending your employees talk to one another about the burnout they are experiencing, therefore, might actually be harmful and counterproductive.

According to an article in the American Journal of Nursing, emotional dumping, as opposed to confidence sharing, causes a chronically negative atmosphere, disruption to the workplace and may even affect the quality of work produced. Unhealthy venting is also problematic for the employee themselves. It creates an atmosphere of chronic negativity and by extension, an echo chamber of trauma and negative emotion—meaning individuals can contribute to their own surroundings of further unwanted stress and emotional weight. Here are some healthy alternatives:

  • Subscriptions to apps like Calm and Headspace are helpful in developing the practice of mindfulness. This will give employees the space for personal reflection and to source the actual root of their problems. 
  • Remember, management should be an approachable presence employees can talk to. Don’t allow any of your employees to become “toxic handlers” because you are unavailable. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Robinson and Schabram wrote “toxic handlers absorb the negativity in day-to-day professional life and allow employees to focus on constructive work”. 
  • Encourage talking to professionals—they are ready and trained to support and listen.

Hines Health Services has several offerings which may help bring stress management and healthier habits into your workplace including Health Promotion Presentations, Return to Work Programs and Occupational Health Services. Get in touch with us to learn more. Call toll-free at 1-844-893-6909.

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