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If Resilience achieved buzzword status in 2020, Burnout has it beat in 2021. In the world of work, the two are highly related. In this article we’ll take a look at root causes and symptoms of workplace burnout, and how Adaptiv’s resilience skills can help mitigate and even prevent them. You’ll come away with something you can do right now to help yourself feel better and do better despite what’s happening at work.
First, here’s some background. If you’re not familiar with us, Adaptiv Learning has been assessing, training and coaching resilience since 1997. Our resilience skill set is proven to help individuals, teams and leaders stay focused, engaged and productive especially when dealing with adversity of any kind. It’s actually a set of foundational life skills that we apply in a broad range of courses ranging from Leading Change Effectively, to Creating Agile Leadership, to Developing Team Collaboration & Performance, to Boosting Sales.
When the pandemic hit, much of our work shifted to helping organizations and their people manage the transition to work-from-home with the many challenges it presented. As the pandemic has dragged on, we’ve been increasingly concerned about how the endless uncertainty it’s causing has been depleting workforce resilience at all levels.
Earlier this year I met with an executive coaching client who had been struggling with their own resilience as the pandemic dragged on. We’d been working on helping them lead and mentor resilience despite continuing high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. But at this meeting they wanted to talk about burnout – not their people’s but their own. This normally energetic executive said they were having trouble staying focused, feeling worried, pessimistic, and just plain exhausted. As I listened to them describing their current mental state, I realized that I was feeling the exact same way! It dawned on me that if our leaders are experiencing burnout at this level, things have to be even worse as we drill down into the organizations they lead. So as soon as the coaching session ended, we started building our newest resilience course – Banish Burnout! - and are now offering it to our clients. (I’ll be sharing some tips from the course here so please read on.)
In 2019, the World Health Organization officially designated Burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” in their International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual. But it’s taken the business world much longer to acknowledge and give it the attention it demands.
In her recently released book “The Burnout Epidemic”, my colleague Jennifer Moss does a terrific job researching and reporting on the 6 root causes of burnout and steps that organizations can take to address them. According to Moss, the 6 root causes of burnout are:
- Lack of Control
- Insufficient Rewards
- Lack of Fairness
- Mismatched Skills
In our work with workplace burnout, we’ve observed 6 common symptoms which align well with Jennifer Moss’s research. If you’re experiencing 3 or more of these, you’re more vulnerable to burnout:
- Brain Fog
- Increased Sadness/Anxiety
- Low Engagement
Moss makes the case that “....burnout is about your organization, not your people.” If you’re looking for things your organization can do to address the root causes of burnout, “The Burnout Epidemic” is a great place to start.
While I agree that responses to some of the above root causes rest solely with organizations and their leaders, our experience is that burnout is about our organizations and our people. This is because individual differences in resilience have a profound impact on how well or how poorly we respond to adversity of any kind – including burnout. And our work shows that individual resilience levels vary greatly across every organization – both laterally and vertically. This means that there is a big opportunity to help individuals on the lower end of the resilience spectrum better navigate these tough times.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at one resilience skill and how you can use it to help you feel better and do better if you’re experiencing burnout. Our Banish Burnout course covers 3 resilience skills in more detail, but this quick introduction should give you a great place to start.
For the past 25 years, Adaptiv has studied Thinking Styles – habits of mental processing that we start learning as children and become set in stone in adulthood. Thinking styles become powerful filters through which we view the world. They have a profound impact on how we feel and what we do in response to just about every situation we face at work and in the rest of life. And they result in a broad range of individual differences in how well we handle adversity of any kind. Our resilience – which includes our ability to navigate a burnout-prone workplace – rests on our ability to accurately assess the causes of the challenges we’re facing, determine which causes we can do something about, and then steering our limited resources toward where they’ll do the most good. One of the most powerful thinking styles we develop is our Why Style.
Why Style is a habitual way of thinking about why something’s happened. It kicks in when we’re facing a problem and don’t have enough information to determine root cause. It's a cookie cutter explanation that’s based more on habitual thinking than on real time facts, and it can lead us astray. If you’ve ever found yourself solving the wrong problem, it’s likely that your Why Style led you there!
Any explanation we make to ourselves about why something happened can be tagged on 3 dimensions:
- Me / Not Me – Is the cause more on me, or more due to others or circumstances?
- Always / Not Always – Is the cause more permanent, or is it more temporary?
- Everything / Not Everything – Is the cause more pervasive, or is it more specific to a situation?
Watch this brief video to take a quick dive into how these 3 dimensions combine to form 4 common Why Styles.
Here are the 4 most common Why Styles:
With this in mind, can you say what your Why Style at work is? We can have different Why Styles at work and at home. For instance, I’m a Realistic Optimist at work, and a Hothead at home!
Now, watch this brief video to see how stress can impact your Why Style and how well we hold up when we’re stressed.
Here’s the bottom line: Always/Everything thinking makes us more vulnerable to pessimism, sadness and anxiety. These emotions can cause us to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of the challenges we’re facing – including burnout. If you’re tending toward Always/Everything thinking, try taking these steps:
- Start with self awareness.
- Get off “thinking autopilot”. Tune into your thinking and test it for accuracy. (Expect this to be hard. You’re working against years of thinking habits.)
- There are very few problems that are truly “Always and Everything”. Look for one thing you can do to address the situation.
- If there is truly nothing you can do, then try to extricate yourself from the situation.
- Always consider practicing a mindfulness or other breathing or relaxation technique to help you clear your head and get centered.
I hope you’re able to use these tips to help you navigate burnout in your organization. This is a very quick, shallow toe-dip into a much deeper pool of information. If you have found this useful, I encourage you to subscribe to my LinkedIn newsletter (The Subscribe button is at the bottom of the newsletter page). I’ll be posting something there at least monthly. If you read along with me I believe you will find great value and greater resilience!