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How to identify the root cause of burnout

Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when you’re not in control of how you carry out your job, when you’re working toward goals that don’t resonate with you, and when you lack social support.” Psychology Today.

Burnout is real, and it’s dangerous. Not just for the employee but also for the company.  It reduces productivity, increases frustration, it halts mentorship, infects the culture and if not dealt with, doesn’t end well for anyone (AKA attrition).  

So how as employees and employers do we identify it and deal with it?

don't let burnout get to you

From my experience, there are two main sources of burnout in an office setting. First off the kind we all think about, too many hours of work to do, not enough downtime, personal time, family time or even time for other work responsibilities.  The second type of burnout is from chasing a finish line that doesn’t exist. The key to helping yourself and your employees is to figure out where the issue is coming from; poor expectations or overload?

Whether an employee says to you, “I am feeling so burnt out” or you notice it on your own, it’s key to sit down and address it.  Sorting through the issues will allow everyone to start feeling better and working better.

Here are some tips on trying to get to the heart of the issue:

when you're burnt out, even sleep doesn't help all the time
  • Take a step back from your day to day and look at what has been happening in the office over the last 4-6 weeks.  Has it been high intensity? Have deadlines been pushed multiple times? Are some people always there at 6 pm while the rest of the team is out by 4:30? Think about all the pieces leading up to this day that you are aware of.
  • Point blank: ask the employee what is happening.  How are they feeling? Coping?
  • Acknowledge that you see they are starting to hit a wall and you very much want to help them stop and re-group.
  • What is on their mind when they lay in bed at night?
  • What is causing them to “clench their jaw” during the day?
  • When was the last time they had a night out with their spouse/kids/friends?

These questions will help figure out which bucket they fall into  

sleepy or burnout?

Whichever bucket it is it’s up to the employer and manager to help rectify the situation.

  • Too many hours of work, not enough hours in a day?
  • Are they properly equipped/trained/supported to do the job they are being asked?
    • If not, how can you help get them there, who internally can help support them and guide them?  How can you make a learning plan to help organize their growth rate?
  • Have they recently taken on a significant amount of duties not originally outlined in their job description?
    • “And other duties as they arise” written on the bottom of a job description is not free reign to double someone’s workload.  If they are picking up the pieces from a new account or a colleague leaving it’s up to management to set a list of priorities, they can’t be expected to do two jobs no matter how dedicated they are.  Two full-time roles is 80 hours a week…you’re only paying them for 40. There’s pitching in and then there’s taking advantage.

More burnout questions

burnout can make everyday tasks feel super difficult
  • Are other teams/employees holding them back?
    • Is the team so reliant on each other that they can’t move on to B without getting A back from another team member? Is that team member only submitting things at 6 pm?  Everyone on a team has competing priorities but that’s why there are managers.
  • Have they been given a problem to solve and just can’t get there?
    • They say the definition of insanity “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  Perhaps they’ve hit the end of the road with an issue, there are some things that one person alone can’t solve, and perhaps even some things that are unsolvable.  Asking the same person over and over to attack the same issue isn’t helpful, there’s only so many ways the same person can look at the same problem. Switch it up, put a fresh set of eyes on the issue and let this person regroup.
  • Are you actually letting them do their job?
    • People take jobs usually because they actually want to be doing that.  If you aren’t letting them do their job, either through super micromanagement, flooding them with other peoples task etc. they will start to crack.  They don’t come every day motivated to do something they weren’t hired to do, or worse made to feel like you don’t trust them to do it. Let the people you hire do the work you hired them to do.

These are just some strategies to help overcome or ideally prevent burnout.  I do want to say however that I am not a psychiatrist and that these are strategies to deal with workplace burnout.  If you feel yours or your employees’ burnout is beyond the “basics” reach out to your EAP provider for trained support.

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This post was written by Lianne Vineberg.

Lianne Vineberg is the technical talent lead at Toronto fintech startup Wealthsimple. This post originally appeared on her blog, Talent in the 6ix.

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