Cause of career burnout that may surprise you

Written by Caroline Dowd-Higgins. Posted in Featured

Published on April 14, 2021 with No Comments

I recently spoke to Paula Davis, CEO of The Stress and Resilience Institute, about her book, Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience on my Your Working Life podcast.

Paula shared her candid experience about burning out during the last year of her law practice. At the time, she thought she needed to ramp up her self-care to fix it. After a decade of research and study on the topic of burnout, Davis believes to fix the problem, we need to address the underlying causes.

From a recent article in Forbes, Paula Davis wrote about how “…You Can’t Yoga Your Way Out of Burnout.” Here are a few insights from my podcast interview with Paula and her book:

  • Burnout is not an interchangeable word with general stress. Stress exists on a continuum and becomes something more like burnout when you experience chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy (lost impact). The term burnout is often used too loosely or in the wrong context to describe general tiredness or just having a bad day when it’s neither of those things.
  • Burnout is a workplace issue. Davis defines burnout as the manifestation of chronic workplace stress, and the World Health Organization updated definition of the term makes clear that “burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
  • Burnout is complex. People over-simplify burnout when they only focus on one of the big symptoms of it – exhaustion – and prescribe self-help remedies like sleeping more, time management techniques, or exercising as quick fixes. However, the bigger factors driving burnout are found in your workplace environment, how your boss leads, the quality of your team, and even macro-level issues like changing industry regulations that shift organizational priorities, which influence how leaders lead their teams, which then impacts how frontline workers work.

“In order for organizations to reduce burnout, they must address the causes of it (and apply systemic remedies). Burnout is caused by an imbalance between your job demands (aspects of your work that take consistent effort and energy) and job resources (aspects of your work that are motivational and energy-giving), and there are six core job demands organizations, leaders, and teams need to reduce in order to decrease the likelihood of burnout…” as identified by Christina Maslach from University of California, Berkeley.

  1. Lack of autonomy (having some choice as to how and when you perform the tasks related to your work)
  2. High workload and work pressure (particularly problematic in combination with too few resources)
  3. Lack of leader/colleague support (not feeling a sense of belonging at work)
  4. Unfairness (favoritism; arbitrary decision-making)
  5. Values disconnect (what you find important about work doesn’t match the environment you’re in)
  6. Lack of recognition (no feedback; you rarely, if ever, hear thank you)

This concept of burnout being a workplace issue was an epiphany for me. It shed so much light about the systemic cause of burnout. As a leader with direct reports, it also inspired me to be more conscious of what my colleagues really need to thrive in life and career.

Davis suggests deploying “TNTs” – tiny noticeable things to build a positive culture at work and to be consistent. She suggests 10 TNTs that are free, take very little time, and can prevent burnout.

  • Say thank you more (probably much more) than your current practice
  • Offer in-time feedback to peers and direct reports
  • Be clear when giving assignments and talk with other senior leaders in order to minimize conflicting requests and ambiguity (two known accelerants of burnout)
  • Make constructive feedback a learning-focused, two-way conversation
  • Keep people informed of changes
  • Keep track of and talk about small wins and successes
  • Encourage team members
  • Provide a rationale or explanation for projects, goals, and big-picture vision
  • Clarify confusing and missing information related to roles and tasks
  • Prioritize “you matter” cues like calling people by name, making eye contact, and giving colleagues your full attention

I’m still an advocate for self-care, but I now see that this is not the root cause of burnout. It’s an organizational and a cultural issue that everyone in an organization can take part in addressing. I’m eager to bring this concept to my colleagues, so we can all be mindful of the TNTs and create a workplace environment together that does not cultivate burnout.


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About Caroline Dowd-Higgins

All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" (now in the 2ndedition) and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community Collegesystem and contributes to Huffington PostThrive GlobalEllevate Network,Mediumand The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana.Her online show:Thrive!about career & life empowerment for women is on YouTube. Caroline hosts the award winning podcast, Your Working Lifeon iTunesand SoundCloud. Follow her on FacebookLinkedIn,Google+,and Twitter.

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