February 08, 2021

Understanding burnout: Recapping a conversation with Emplify and LifeLabs Learning

While workplace stress is common, it’s usually attached to a short-term obstacle. When long-term stressors pile up with no readily-available solution, though, the result is burnout.

In 2021, we are continuing to adjust to the discomfort of sustained uncertainty. Nearly a year into this unforeseen new era of work, your people are likely experiencing burnout — and have been for some time. 

Last month Bravely joined leaders from Emplify and LifeLabs Learning to discuss the rise of workplace burnout: what it means, where it came from, and how to come to grips with it. This blog post summarizes that discussion. 

Watch: Coaching strategies to prevent burnout 

What is burnout? 

Three distinct factors of burnout differentiate it from everyday workplace stress.

  1. Biological: Cortisol is the stress hormone associated with long-term stress, while adrenaline is associated with the short-term fight/flight response. Proper diet, sleep, and exercise reduce cortisol levels; so can employer interventions supporting healthy work-life boundaries, stable workloads, and limiting uncertainty. 
  2. Cognitive: Burnout can happen when perceived demand outpaces perceived resources. Whether or not the perception is accurate, the sense that one’s workload has become unmanageable is a fast track to burnout.
  3. Systemic: Organizations need systems that allow for effective energy management as safeguards against burnout on the individual level.

What does burnout look like? 

Signs of burnout you to watch for in yourself and others include:

  • Productivity
    • Feeling insecure about the quality and quantity of your output
    • Distracted in meetings when you used to be “on it”
    • Stressed but can’t articulate what’s keeping you busy
    • Working more slowly than usual, with diminished quality of work 
  • Attitude
    • Loss of confidence in your role and your work product
    • Irritability in response to feedback, when you used to be great at processing it
    • Unwillingness to ask for help when needed
    • “Going through the motions,” even in areas you once enjoyed
    • Cynicism: “This doesn’t really matter.” or “What’s the point of it anyway?”
    • Inefficacy: “Nothing I do will have an effect.” or “I can’t actually create anything useful.” 
  • Physical
    • Exhaustion 
    • Trouble sleeping 
    • Lack of motivation to get up and going 
    • Symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath, and chest pain

Read more: Burning out? Stuck? Be your own coach.

The webinar leaders unanimously agreed on one major way to positively improve your sense of satisfaction amidst burnout: treat yourself with graciousness and empathy. Before an entire work community can heal from burnout, we have to allow ourselves to not feel guilty for every obstacle we encounter during our workday. 

LeeAnn Renninger, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Lifelabs Learning, asserts that we should focus on replenishing ourselves to create the more empathetic and vulnerable workplace we need. She adds that oscillating between energy expenditure and energy replenishment is a skill in itself.

Energy replenishment happens on three different levels: 

  • Micro: taking a one-minute break or frequent deep breaths during small rest periods 
  • Meso: taking a true lunch break away from work (this means no work emails, texts, or notifications for the duration of your lunch)
  • Macro: vacation and downtime, doing restorative exercises (mental, physical, or otherwise) that are not work-related and promote wellbeing

After reflecting on how we experience burnout on an individual level, we can begin to diminish its effects in the workplace.

It’s clear that to address burnout, we need to allow ourselves to be honest with our coworkers — not just for our benefit, but so they feel safe enough to do the same. Our own Sarah Sheehan, Co-Founder and President of Bravely, advises that we can create a more vulnerable and empathetic work community by being vulnerable ourselves. In an article reflecting her emphasis on intentional vulnerability, she expresses the adjustments she’s made due to the pandemic. 

How do we get there together

  • Show up 
  • Be present 
  • Be deliberate 
  • Be honest 
  • Create safe spaces 

As social beings, we rely on interaction. The more genuine we are in treating ourselves, the more room we make for our peers to do the same.

Adam Weber, Chief People Officer and Co-Founder at Emplify, offers this final piece of advice: to treat burnout, we must enter the conversation not intending to “fix” it, but instead intending to be present and part of the conversation. 

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