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A slow process

Burnout is the dramatic endpoint of a long, slow, miserable process. People aren’t okay one minute and the next minute burnt out; it takes a long time to get there. This might seem obvious, but in my experience organisations and their support structures respond to burnout as if it is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Responses to burnout are, more often than not, reactive rather than proactive. Organisations respond to the crisis, not the numerous early-warning signs. Most of us are aware when we aren’t coping particularly well, and usually we notice when a colleague isn’t coping. However, it’s common for us to turn a blind eye to these early-warning signs of burnout and do nothing. There are many reasons for this. Later on in this book, I describe cognitive biases that can often get in the way of a proactive approach. To prevent burnout, we as individuals, managers and leaders (in other words, the people in an organisation) need to take a proactive, compassionate and systemic approach.

The burnout matrix

A matrix is the set of conditions that provides a system in which something grows or develops. That ‘something’ could be a high-performance workplace or it could be a workplace characterised by burnout.

To properly understand a complex phenomenon such as burnout, it’s important to see it in the context of the organisation as a whole, as part of an organic system. The WHO’s definition of burnout emphasises the employment context rather than the individual ‘illness’ context. Most organisations do the opposite, though, and see burnout as a manifestation of some kind of weakness in the employee. So most interventions to address burnout are individual, not systemic. But if we accept the WHO’s hypothesis (which I do, because it is based on evidence and research), it follows that any attempt to properly understand and ameliorate burnout has to take into account systemic factors. Burnout is multifactorial. It isn’t caused by just one thing, like individual weakness or a tyrannical boss, but many things that interact.

The Tavistock Institute for Human Relations was formed in 1946, to apply ideas from psychology and psychoanalysis to the problems of post war industry in the UK. The innovative work they carried out had an enormous impact on industries such as coal mining and the development of the newly formed National Health Service. Organisational consultants at the Tavistock have been wrestling with the problem of understanding complex phenomena in organisations since (Trist & Murray, 1990). They have developed a very useful model that helps us to understand organisational complexity. This model is simple but enormously helpful in that it places burnout firmly in its organisational context. This is the person/role/organ-isation model.

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