People are burned out in record numbers and 89% of people say their work-life is getting worse according to a recent article by the Harvard Business Review. The impact of stress and employee mental wellness is no longer a luxury; it’s critical to our economy. So where should we start to look for a solution? You might think that the fix is in the amount of work… or the amount of hours a person works… however, burnout is not a logistics issue. Burnout is an emotionally based problem. 

Characteristics of Burnout

When looking into the characteristics of burnout we see clear as day that it’s an emotional issue based deeply on our physiological responses. It affects how we “feel” and the feeler, we often forget, is our body. Symptoms of burnout cited in the Harvard Business Review classic from 1981, When Executives Burn Out, include:

·     Chronic fatigue

·     Anger

·     Self-criticism

·     Cynicism

·     Irritability

·     Feeling besieged

·     Hair-trigger emotional reactions

All of the above experiences exist in our bodies. Yet so often we look outside of the body for solutions. All of the above experiences have an emotional base, but so often we avoid talking about emotions, especially at work.

Yet typical solutions to burnout simply prove ineffective as evidenced by the fact that burnout was an escalating problem before the pandemic. Why would we think that those solutions would work now when they weren’t making a sustainable dent before?

Past Solutions Are Superficial

According to the Mayo Clinic in an article titled Job Burnout: How to Spot it and Take Action, recommended actions for handling burnout include suggestions like “getting some sleep” and “trying a relaxing activity.” For someone who feels like they are drowning or suffocating so badly that they feel they need to leave their job or take a permanent leave of absence these kinds of suggestions must feel like a slap in the face.

Is this the best we can do?

Our employee’s mental health and emotional wellness are on the line let alone people’s livelihood and self-esteem. These issues are real and feel real and require a much deeper level of vulnerability as well as common sense into human physiology to figure out how to sustainably approach a solution.

The Cost of Conversations We’re Not Having

Employees waste an average of an 8-hour workday for every crucial conversation they avoid reports VitalSmarts in The Cost of Conflict, Why silence is killing your bottom line. Burnout at work is a crucial conversation we need to be talking about. In fact, we need to talk about it before people get burned out. We need to have open conversations about stress. We need to have conversations about how people feel.

Most people feel totally unqualified to have conversations about other people’s feelings. The “Pandora’s box” that we imagine opening is scary and potentially messy. However, we need to equip out leaders and managers to have these conversations and have them before they turn into a turnover problem. Before they turn into a presenteeism issue. Even before they turn into a productivity problem. When leaders and managers are measuring employee stress and having potentially challenging conversations about emotions and employees’ emotional well-being before it’s a problem, we will be doing something to make a dent in the burnout issue.

Burnout Is Emotional

Burnout at work isn’t going anywhere without a culture shift around how we deal with emotional wellness. Burnout is an emotional issue that requires knowledge and conversations about emotions and physiology. Just because someone is feeling an emotion doesn’t mean they are bad, wrong, unproductive, or unmotivated… it means they are human. Humans live in bodies. Humans feel feelings. Humans have both primal and evolved parts to their brains. And humans go to work. Accepting the fact that employees are humans and bringing the skills to navigate human physiology in the workplace will correct more than just the issues with stress and burnout. It will create sustainable, thriving work cultures.