Have you ever felt so tired that you couldn’t think? Have you ever felt really exhausted, but at the same time unable to switch off, relax or even sleep? Do you ever feel cynical about your job and wonder what the point of it all is? If you have experienced any of the above, you may be on the road to burnout.
This is a book about burnout - the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century. Burnout is a visceral physical experience. It’s the exhaustion, the anxiety, the sick feeling in your stomach. Burnout is also in your head. It’s the cynicism, negativity and detachment from work and people. It’s the inability to think clearly, the absence of mental well-being. People on the road to burnout are often clinically anxious and depressed.
Personality plays a role in burnout. Conscientious people are more likely to suffer burnout than those who are low on this personality factor. But why burn out? The roots of burnout are in a toxic organisational culture. Burnout is also a social and political experience, because it happens in the context of an organisational culture, which in turn exists in an economy.
Economic uncertainty impacts on organisational culture, and this can find expression in staff burnout.
As well as the personal, public health and humanitarian effects, there’s a massive financial price. Burnout costs British companies a fortune in high levels of sickness and employee absence, along with poor retention and poor performance due to presenteeism (HSE, 2019).
This isn’t right! Work shouldn’t make people ill. In fact, I believe the opposite should be true: work should promote good mental health by giving people purpose, meaning and connection with others.
One of the obstacles to addressing burnout is that organisations tend to treat it as an individual or personal problem rather than a broader organisational challenge. To minimise burnout, it has to be seen as a systemic issue needing board-level action.
This is a book for leaders and managers, and also for those on the road to burnout or recovering from burnout. It’s a practical book that will give you the latest scientific thinking on burnout and evidence-based ideas about how to make things better for individuals and for organisations. This book will help you to become part of the solution, not the problem.
This book is a manifesto, a call to action for leaders, managers and anyone who has had that experience of ‘vital exhaustion’. It’s a book for those who want to create a positive, psychologically healthy culture at work.
What does this book cover?
Section 1: Person
This section covers the individual factors that contribute to burnout.
Chapter I explores what burnout really is. I describe the experience of burnout using the World Health Organization’s framework. I talk a bit about the history of burnout. I also look at the bigger picture, seeing burnout in the context of organisational culture.
Chapter 2 looks at burnout and mental health at work. I discuss the difference between normal human emotions such as worry and feeling fed-up, and clinical disorders like anxiety and depression. I give you some simple advice about distinguishing between normal emotions, which you shouldn’t be concerned about, and signs of clinical depression or anxiety, which should worry you. I end by talking about the importance of energy in managing burnout.
Chapter 3 is all about burnout and personality. I explain how psychologists understand personality using a model called the ‘Big Five’. Some personality types are more susceptible to burnout than others, and if you are vulnerable, you’ll find guidance in this chapter on how you can protect yourself. I also touch on the idea of personality disorder burnout and mental well-being. To finish up, I talk about men and women - how gender influences the way in which we manage stress and burnout.
In Chapter 4, I look at why it seems so hard to address burnout and poor mental well-being in ourselves and in other people. I tell you about research from the fields of social psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science that can help us to understand and break down the barriers to managing stress and burnout.
Section 2: Role
This section is all about your job and your day-to-day life at work. I share practical steps you can take to protect yourself, and those you manage, from going down the road to burnout.
Chapter S is about the psychology of office politics. It explains some ideas and practical tools for understanding and managing the dynamics of the group of people you work with.
Chapter 6 focuses on you - on how you can look after your own wellbeing whilst you are at work. The key to this is not so much managing your time or workload, but managing your energy levels.
Chapter 7 is about how you can protect the people you manage from burnout. I revisit how you can spot the early-warning signs of burnout. I highlight the importance of communication and talking to people who might be struggling. Finally, I tell you about some simple and straightforward techniques that you can introduce to change the culture of the group of people with whom you work directly.
Section 3; Organisation
Section 3 zooms out to examine the wider organisational and social system in which burnout happens.
Chapter 8 looks at the role that organisational culture plays in burnout. By far the biggest factor in burnout is a toxic workplace culture. What kind of day-to-day experiences do people in your organisation have? It is these millions of experiences that form either a positive or toxic organisational culture. I discuss practical initiatives you can introduce (like encouraging a thinking environment) that create a positive culture at work.
Chapter 9 is about leadership. Organisations are reflections of their leaders. This chapter examines the crucial role of proactive leadership in creating a psychologically healthy and high-performance culture. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Leaders should embody psychological safety in their own lives and model psychologically healthy attitudes and behaviour to those they lead.
Chapter 10 is all about how you can make this happen, both personally and organisationally. I draw together all the themes in the book and present them as a framework that you can adapt to your life, your job and your organisation.
Everything I suggest in this book is common sense. However, as we all know, common sense is one of the rarest commodities in this world. Everything I suggest is simple to know but hard to do. But as a leader you are paid to do hard stuff, and it is the hard things that bring meaning and satisfaction. What is more important than creating a psychologically safe and high-performance workplace environment?
HSE (2019). Work-related Stress, Anxiety or Depression Statistics in Great Britain, 201g. London: HSE.
Section i PERSON