A Research Paper By Doris Bisaro, Well-Being Coach, ITALY
Work burnout is the new epidemic. Companies cannot let down the guard on mental health and well-being in the era of hybrid work if they want to keep up employee engagement and productivity. Recent research maintains that this condition can be resolved only by organizations at a systemic level, by tackling the toxic culture that feeds burnout. On the other hand, we witness countless solutions targeted at the individual, including coaching. My research paper investigates both approaches and highlights that one does not exclude the other. Burnout prevention would benefit from a systemic approach, and at the same time burnout early detection and recovery heavily relies on the ability of individuals to find strategies to cope with their unique manifestation of this increasingly widespread condition, by leveraging their specific value system, breaking down their limiting beliefs and activating change. Coaching can support leaders, managers, and employees to cope with burnout. Interestingly both approaches hinge upon the concepts of vulnerability, compassion, and self-care which both organizations and individuals must embrace to thrive.
When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending. And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks and hurt – they own us. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead
Worldwide 625 million people suffer from depression and anxiety, and the WHO estimates that $1 trillion is lost in productivity each year as a result.
Employee burnout leads to lower levels of confidence in teams and diminished employee engagement, which can have a negative impact on job satisfaction, employee retention, customer relationships, and overall success.
Reducing employee burnout is crucial for organizations because of the impact it has on areas like innovation, productivity, and retention.
What Is Burnout?
According to the World Health Organisation (11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases) burnout is an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy.
The WHO highlights a very important point: burnout should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life as it refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context.
Mild occupational burnout can result in lower satisfaction at work, exhaustion, and difficult work relationships. However, if it becomes severe, it can lead to chronic illnesses, physical and mental disorders, job quitting, and even death (karoshi, in Japanese).
What Can Organizations Do?
According to a 2022 McKinsey study, the solution to burnout must be found at the systemic level rather than at the individual level because the challenges that jeopardize employees’ mental health cannot be reversed through interventions targeting individuals. The most often cited challenges are:
- the feeling of always being on call
- unfair treatment
- unreasonable workload
- low autonomy
- lack of social support
One interesting outcome of the research is the strong correlation between burnout and high levels of toxic behaviors (employees’ negative interpersonal experiences such as unfair treatment, exclusion from leaders or co-workers, derogatory and undermining behaviors, and abusive management). Addressing other key organizational factors such as inclusivity, work sustainability, and a supportive growth environment does not meaningfully improve burnout or intent to leave.
A systemic approach to burnout means rethinking organizational systems, processes, and incentives to redesign work, job expectations, and team environments. However, despite the growing momentum toward better employee mental health and well-being, there is not yet sufficient evidence to define what could be effective interventions. Interestingly, McKinsey suggests some targeted questions that organizations could ask themselves to potentially address some of the burnout-related challenges. What follows is an excerpt of these questions complemented by some self-reflection or coaching questions which can be used by or with executives as a guide to come up with creative solutions that can meet their organization’s specific needs.
Do We Treat Employees’ Mental Health and Well-Being as a Strategic Priority?
CEOs who listen to employees’ needs can create meaningful change by prioritizing strategies to reduce burnout with clear goals and metrics.
Do We Effectively Address Toxic Behaviours?
Leaders take time to become aware of the impact of their behaviors and what they tolerate in their organization. They cultivate supportive, psychologically safe environments where they role model vulnerability and compassion knowing that they are emotionally contagious and contribute to building compassionate teams.
Do We Promote Sustainable Work?
Promoting sustainable work does not mean only managing workload, but also enabling employees to have a sense of control, flexibility, and sufficient time for daily recovery. It’s also about leading with compassion and empathy —tailoring interventions based on where, when, and how work can be done, and how different groups are more likely to (re)establish socio-emotional ties after a long period of isolation and loss of social cohesion.
Are We Effectively Tackling Stigma?
Burnout stigma often exacerbates underlying conditions because people are afraid to seek help for mental health needs and drives down an employee’s self-worth and engagement. Leading by example can make a difference: leaders capable of displaying vulnerability help to remove shame and promote a psychologically safe culture.
Do Our Resources Serve Employee Needs?
Listening to employees’ needs is the key starting point to adopting meaningful change. If employees cite family cares as an influential factor in their decision to remain in a given company environment, expanding childcare, nursing services, or other homes- and family-focused benefits could help keep such employees from leaving and show that the company values them. Managers will play a key role in personalizing flexibility to develop effective creative solutions for their employees.
Proposed self-reflection and coaching questions:
- What place does mental health have in your business agenda?
- What would happen if rest and renewal were rewarded rather than overwork?
- What could be the impact of promoting an “athlete” mindset rather than a “hero” mindset?
- How can the “take the extra mile” mantra be beneficial to people’s well-being?
- What do our employees really ask for and what do they get?
- What could be useful to better serve their needs?
- What else would help employees thrive in our organization?
- How can the vulnerable-walk hand in hand with courageous leadership?
In the new hyper-connected world, forever changed by Covid, resilience is fundamental. Serious work is not in contradiction with rest and recovery. The two things go hand in hand. The more centered, the more productive and creative people are.
Main Burnout Causes and Related Coaching Support
Burnout is a multifaced phenomenon, which is unfortunately often oversimplified: it is not just about being overworked to the point of exhaustion. It is much more complex than that. When we burn out, our capacity as human beings gets mismatched with the nature of our work. There are five main causes of burnout which correspond to five mismatches. Coaching can be a useful tool to address each of these:
Individuals who have a workload that does not match their capacity feel overloaded and consequently will not find opportunities for rest, replenishment, and growth.
Coaching can support individuals with their issues related to planning, prioritization, delegation, the ability to set boundaries, and letting go of perfectionism.
Perceived Lack of Control
Individuals feel they lack autonomy, access to resources, and a say in decisions that impact their professional life. Lack of control can happen at many levels. Sometimes lack of control at the employee level may be the consequence of a lack of control perception at the managerial level. Micromanagement is one of the most common consequences of this perception which, in its turn leads to employees feeling they must be always on call. Other causes may be a constant shifting of priorities or not having enough predictability in terms of physical or people resources to effectively perform their job.
Coaching can support individuals to establish better boundaries, focusing on quality over quantity, as well as on having transparent conversations with managers on resource capability and performance management. Once they have considered these areas, they can have a better understanding of what they can do to influence their environment versus what won’t change no matter what they say or do.
Break-down in Community
In the book The Burnout Fix, Dr. Jacinta Jimenez speaks about the importance of a “psychologically safe” environment — that is, one that “empowers employees to share their selves and their ideas without fear of negative consequences.” If employees feel supported, connected, and unafraid to show up authentically at work, they are far less likely to experience burnout. Hence, the importance to promote diversity and inclusion in the work environment.
Coaching can support individuals to assess how supportive and trusting their relationships with colleagues, managers, and other stakeholders are and encourage them to experiment with innovative ways to improve them. Burnout is contagious: the ability to change one behavior will automatically trigger a positive domino effect and elevate the community’s connectedness.
Burnout can be the result of the perception of not receiving fair and equitable treatment. Individuals may feel they do not get acknowledged for their contributions; they may see that their work often goes unnoticed or that other individuals get rewarded instead of them. Lack of fairness can be also perceived if they don’t manage to get deadline extensions as often as others do, or do not succeed in accessing additional resources as easily as other colleagues. According to a recent Gallup survey, when employees strongly agree that they are often treated unfairly at work, they are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout.
Coaching can support individuals to address fairness issues. Developing the ability to speak up is one of the most important steps toward recovery. Coaching can be helpful to surface fears or to reframe assumptions on the act of speaking up. Sometimes individuals are unaware of their own biases or will not act until they are asked what exactly they want. Coaching can also support employees to bring up in effective ways what they perceive as inequitable requests (i.e. additional time or resources). Coaching can help individuals understand what exactly they need to feel properly respected, valued, or appreciated (positive feedback, facetime with the manager, more flexibility, etc.)
If employees value something that their company does not, their motivation to work hard may decrease. A shift in the leaders’ or managers’ values may also be a cause of employee burnout.
Coaching can support employees to get clarity on how the boss, the team, and the organization make decisions and invest resources and understand how they feel about the underlying motivations. Employees with strongly held values differing from those held by the ones who influence the organization may not be willing to accept the mismatch and look for ways to cope with this mismatch or for other opportunities.
Burnout: Main Symptoms and Related Individual Coping Strategies
Although burnout prevention must remain a responsibility of the employer, individuals can play an important role in detecting early signs of burnout, coping with mild burnout situations, and recovering from burnout. Coaching can support employees to work on gaining awareness of the symptoms of their burnout, and then proactively decide the actions to be taken that will be most effective for their recovery.
Let’s take a look at the most common symptoms of burnout:
- Detachment/Cynicism/lack of Engagement
- Inefficacy/feelings of incompetence and lack of achievement
In a state of exhaustion, employees are unable to focus and do routine and previously enjoyable tasks. When exhaustion is the primary symptom of burnout, one of the most effective tools for recovery is self-care, which allows them to re-energize.
What Is Self-Care?
It is a decision-making process that empowers individuals to look after their own health efficiently and conveniently, with or without expert support. Self-care is a deliberate practice that strengthens, nourishes or develops who we are at our core. Self-care may be confused with self-indulgence, but in fact, they are two very different concepts. Self-indulgence is a momentary pleasure but does not have additional benefits beyond feeling good. Self-care is an action that we deliberately do because we know it moves us in the direction of our full expression.
When we are exhausted, we are doing a lot of things and the biggest problem is finding space in our packed schedules to dedicate ourselves to such activities. What can we do? An important exercise is to assess how we spend our time on a weekly basis to make sure we prioritize what nourishes up, whether that is good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and practices that promote well-being. In order to replenish, we need to find opportunities to limit exposure to draining tasks, people, and situations that put us in a negative mood and we need to make space for energy-boosting activities that put us in a positive mood.
Burnout happens when the nature of our work is not aligned with our capacities as human beings. We are human beings first and foremost. Setting up the conditions to lean into humanness, and build in those core human capabilities, is going to benefit everyone. Coaching is a cocreation process that can allow such conditions to be created.
Proposed self-reflection and coaching questions:
- Which are the top three non-negotiable priorities you want to focus on?
- Which tasks could you delegate to free up time and energy for other important work?
- Which tasks can be left for tomorrow?
- Which tasks can be drafted today and completed tomorrow?
- Can you think of new ways to reshape your week/month in order to gain more control or to focus on the most fulfilling tasks?
- What does nourishment mean to you in your job?
Detachment/Cynicism – Low Levels of Work Engagement
When we feel alienated or disengaged, one of the most effective strategies is compassion for others because alleviating others’ challenges allows us to regain a sense of belonging. It is mutually beneficial. In the workplace, we may want to offer to hold space for a colleague who needs help or encourage a colleague who feels down. Kindness towards colleagues decreases cynicism and consequently burnout levels.
When we struggle with feelings of inefficacy, what works best are acts focused on improving our positive sense of self. Interestingly, this can mean either self-compassion or compassion for others — the key is simply to accomplish something that will validate your own sense of personal value. Comforting a coworker, for instance, leads to increased self-esteem (especially if the coworker expressed gratitude). Alternatively, internally-focused achievements, such as completing a workout session or finishing a project, can contribute to improving your positive sense of self.
Proposed self-reflection and coaching questions:
- What support or development might you seek out?
- What can you do to develop a positive sense of yourself?
- What can you do to better showcase your work?
- How are internally-focused achievements and externally-focused achievements related to each other?
What Is the Difference Between Self-Compassion and Compassion?
They have the same root: both can emerge when we accept to stay in contact with pain as a self-protection mechanism, we tend to move away from pain (both ours and others). When we are hurt, paradoxically, often we “take care of ourselves” through self-blaming, self-criticism, hostility, and self-punishment. When our hearts or souls hurt, we feel we do not have a right to be ourselves. Through self-compassion we heal the wound and accept that a scar may remain – the scar does not eliminate pain, but it is a sign of our courage. It hurts because we had the courage to live. If we bring self-compassion when we experience shame, embarrassment, and anxiety, our feeling of unworthiness or inadequacy diminish. We are able to create a space where we no longer feed shame or perfectionist depression. Self-compassion transforms our scars into something precious and valuable for us.
Does Self-Compassion Deprive Us of Motivation?
In a corporate environment,self-compassion may be seen as something that deprives us of our motivation, because we become more attuned to pain. The opposite is true. The care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation. Self-compassion supports us in unleashing our potential. When we burn out, we are tired. If we whip ourselves, we become even more nervous and stressed. On the contrary, if we rest, we can replenish our energies and internal resources. Ultimately self-compassion allows us to nurture our motivation rooted in our real interests and therefore we become less vulnerable to external events and validation. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem (which depends on external validation), self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.
Coaching Tip from Jeff Weiner, Ex-LinkedIn CEO.
Weiner coined the term managing compassionately which includes practicing and expecting transparent communications and practicing walking in someone else’s shoes. “When strongly disagreeing with one another, most of us have a tendency to see things solely through our own world view… In these circumstances, it can be constructive to take a minute to understand why the other person has reached the conclusion that they have. For instance, what in their background has led them to take that position? … Are they fearful of a particular outcome that may not be obvious at the surface level? Asking yourself these questions, and more importantly, the other person these questions can take what would otherwise be a challenging situation and transform it into a coachable moment and truly collaborative experience. (from “Thrive” by Arianna Huffington, p.60)
Proposed self-reflection or coaching questions:
- What can you do to protect yourself from the parts of the organization that frustrate you and reengage in your specific role?
- What positive, supportive relationships can you build to counteract the ones that drain you?
- Who can you support today that can support you tomorrow?
- What is the best version of yourself you want to build?
- How can you be compassionate towards yourself today so that tomorrow you are more resilient?
Compassion is a like a muscle: it can be exhausted, but it can also be trained. In fact, researchers have found that compassion meditation training can actually rewire neural systems in the brain, and breath training, appreciation exercises, yoga, and movement practices have also been shown to be effective tools to cultivate compassion. The key is to recognize that anyone can learn to be kinder to themselves and to others and that those small, compassionate acts (alongside other mental health practices) can help us begin to break free of burnout.
Burnout Coaching Steps
Although there are multiple approaches that can be used to support clients struggling with burnout, here follow four simple steps that are useful guidance:
Clients may come to the coaching session in an emotional storm (angry, tired, worried, feeling guilty, unable to sit still, etc.) in which they find themselves trapped. They may be ruminating, numbing, and unable to focus. The coach’s first step is to gently support them to notice how they are feeling or what they are thinking. If naming the emotion is too difficult, the coach may ask the client’s permission to use stress-management techniques such as breathing exercises which enable the person to come back to the present moment and have more focus for the session.
We cannot heal and thrive if we cannot inhabit our bodies. Ashley Neese
Burnout is not a monolithic challenge. It has multiple causes and multiple symptoms.
Often clients need to be supported in expressing clearly the symptoms and identifying the causes. The coach will ask questions that will allow them to become specific and therefore focus on their unique burnout challenge. At this stage, the coach works on creating or improving clients’ awareness of the situation.
The clients may have assumptions or underlying beliefs regarding self, work, or relationships that are holding them back from taking action. The coach can gently guide them to explore those perspectives, open up to new possibilities and ultimately shift their perspectives. Concepts such as vulnerability, compassion, self-compassion, self-love, and self-care may emerge in these conversations as useful coping resources.
Taking Action to Move Forward
Reframing assumptions will open up new options for the clients, who may be willing to explore other possibilities in order to achieve the desired goals. The coach will be a partner in identifying actions and accountability resources.
See my coaching model, which can support you in coaching employees coping with burnout at Coaching Model: THRIVE (coachcampus.com)
Coaching Can Help You Manage Burnout
Coaching can support leaders, managers, and employees to cope with burnout both systemically and personally with an exploratory and interactive approach.
At the individual level, the approach needs to be personalized as each person comes with their mindsets, habits, and cultural processes. As we have seen above there are three components that need to be taken care of: exhaustion, detachment, and inefficacy. If these three components are tied to the five causes, the combinations are numerous, which implies that burnout cannot be a one-size fits all approach. You cannot look at the organization and burnout without looking at the individual because the individuals are the heart and soul of the organization and you cannot look at the individual without looking at the organization they live in because the context provides the conditions for burnout to emerge.
At the executive level coaching provides a safe nonjudgmental space where executives can share what is going on in their world, allowing them to explore well-being and vulnerability. A recent Deloitte survey revealed that almost 70% of executives are considering leaving their jobs for workplaces that care more for their well-being. The ongoing effort to replace the workers leaving their jobs adds to executives’ stress, along with reduced resources and increased pressure from management. Hiring and retention were the two biggest challenges for leadership in the past year.
At an organizational level, coaching platforms can create aggregated levels so that executives can see how people shift solutions to stay at the optimal level of the employee experience.
The best cure is prevention. It is on managers and organizations to protect their employees from becoming depleted in the first place, and it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health. That said, there will always be a need for employees to understand where their burnout is coming from and to develop strategies to help pull themselves out. Through self-reflection and coaching, employees can begin to identify the symptoms and the sources of their burnout and then proactively define the actions they can take that will be most effective for their recovery.
Coaching is powerful because it can support addressing burnout at all levels. The beauty of coaching is that coaching can resort to multiple tools and techniques to cope with the variety of burnout causes and symptoms. The coach not only offers a space for the clients to express safely their feelings, fears, and challenges but also adapts flexibly to whatever emerges in the session, with curiosity and openness thus acknowledging the uniqueness of the clients. The coach will rely on the coaching process to help clients come up with their solutions by tapping on their internal resources.
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- Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too. (hbr.org)
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- Coping with Fatigue, Fear, and Panic During a Crisis (hbr.org)
- Future proof: Solving the ‘adaptability paradox’ for the long term | McKinsey
- Cultivating compassionate leadership during Covid-19 | McKinsey
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- How To Talk To Your Boss About Burnout | Defeat Burnout
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- Arianna Huffington, Thrive – The third metric to redefining success, Harmony 2014
- 10 Things We Don’t Do That Help Us Boost Productivity and Focus (thriveglobal.com)
- Amy Cuddy, Presence: bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges, Little, Brown, and Company 2015
- Ashley Neese, How to breathe, September Publishing 2019
- Nicoletta Cinotti, Mindfulness ed emozioni, Gribaudo 2022
- Jacinta M. Jiménez, The Burnout Fix: Overcome Overwhelm, Beat Busy, and Sustain Success in the New World of Work, McGraw-Hill Education 2021