We like to think that anyone with a bit of sensitivity and common sense can see when someone isn’t coping, but in fact there are obstacles that get in the way of us being able to help - and often these obstacles are people themselves. Individuals who suffer burnout are often highly conscientious and adept at hiding their distress and putting on a brave face. Managers may well be too busy and preoccupied to spot the signs of that distress. And beneath the surface there are unconscious cognitive biases and coping mechanisms that can make us blind to the suffering of others.

This chapter explores how people can become an obstacle, and offers guidance for how to help those at risk of burnout or suffering burnout -whether your staff or yourself.

Beyond the level of the individual, there are also many obstacles to tackling burnout built into the organisational culture. Section 3 of this book will look at the organisational and systemic obstacles.

What are the obstacles?

Obstacles are things that blocks one’s way or prevent or hinders progress.

Why it’s important to recognise the obstacles

Any process of culture change - or to be specific, any behaviour change -is not just dependent on knowledge acquisition. While it is important to really understand burnout, just having the knowledge probably won’t result in change. You also need to understand what stands in the way of change: the obstacles.

Consider this: We all know and accept that smoking kills, yet many continue to smoke. You can pile on the facts until you are blue in the face and people will continue to smoke. Most people accept that to lose weight we need to eat less and exercise more. Yet if you have ever been on a diet, you’ve realised that this is easier said than done.

This kind of paradox was addressed back in the 1940s by the German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin in his force field theory (Lewin, 1951). Force field theory describes how situations are maintained by a balance between forces that drive change and others that resist change. Lewin said that for change to happen the driving forces must be strengthened and the resisting forces weakened.

Most often people focus on the forces that encourage change and ignore the forces that oppose change. For example, lots of evidence shows that quitting smoking and losing weight are desirable behaviours: they bring health benefits, they make you more attractive and they save you money, to name but a few. However, no matter how many arguments you present to someone and how logically convincing these arguments are, the smoker or overweight person still resists changing their behaviour. This is known as the fat smoker paradox (Maister, 2008): in other words, people know what to do, but they just don’t do it.

Lewin suggested a different approach. Instead of maximising the arguments for change, he said that those wanting to encourage behaviour change should seek to minimise the reasons not to change - the reasons that oppose change. So for example, smoking cessation campaigns should address people’s fears about cravings (nicotine patches), loss of social interaction with other smokers and coping with anxiety.

Obstacle 1: bystander effect

One unconscious cognitive bias that gets in the way of managers’ desire to help struggling employees is called bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility. This is where you observe human suffering but choose not to do anything about it, because you’re sure somebody else will act soon.

For example, you might see a perfectly respectably dressed person collapsed in the street. You give them a quick glance but carry on walking. As you do this, your mind is filled with all kinds of thoughts justifying your decision not to do anything. These thoughts might include “Somebody else has probably called an ambulance or something”, or “They’re probably just drunk” or “Even if I did stop, what could I do?”. The problem is, most people walking past the collapsed person will be thinking much the same. Why do people do this? They do it for good reasons: stopping and helping a collapsed person is very anxiety provoking and it represents a threat. Our minds are set up to protect us from threat and from experiencing anxiety, so they quickly generate numerous reasons not to get involved.

Obstacle 2: confirmation bias

Another unconscious process that can get in the way of recognising burnout in others is confirmation bias (Kahneman, 2011). This is where we make


In March 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Queens, New York. When the police investigated, they discovered that 38 people had witnessed the various stages of Kitty’s murder. When the detectives asked the witnesses why they didn’t call the police, most of them replied with a variation of the phrase, “I thought somebody else must have.” This dreadful crime and the response of the witnesses was the inspiration for years of research in social psychology into how normal, well-adjusted and intelligent people are able to turn a blind eye to others in distress. Eventually, this phenomena became known as the bystander effect or the diffusion of responsibility (Sanderson, 2020).

up our minds about something and then actively seek evidence to reinforce our belief and actively reject any evidence that disconfirms that belief. This is a very powerful unconscious bias that operates at the most basic perceptual level.

On the Internet you can watch a video in which a group of basketball players are passing a ball around and you are asked to count how many times the players in the white shirts pass the ball (http://www.theinvis-iblegorilla.com/videos.html). While you are watching, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks very obviously across the baseball court, pauses to beat his chest with his arms and casually walks off. When you first see the video, you are likely not to notice the man in the gorilla suit because you are too busy counting the number of times the ball is passed. If you don’t notice this, you are in good company, because when shown the video 80 per cent of people don’t ‘see’ the man in the gorilla outfit (Chabris & Simons, 2010). When you’re asked to watch the video for the second time, this time looking out for the man in the gorilla suit, his presence becomes blindingly obvious. You fail to see the gorilla first time around simply because you aren’t looking for it.

The same thing happens when it comes to noticing that someone is suffering with burnout. Often, you don’t see it until it’s too late, because you aren’t looking for it. If you have developed a belief that Sarah is a competent and resilient person, you tend not to see the signs that she isn’t coping, simply because you are not looking for them. You notice all the evidence that suggests that Sarah is doing very well, but your mind unconsciously filters out any evidence that she is in fact struggling. Fast-forward into the future, when Sarah has gone off sick with stress, and you can reflect back on her behaviour and see many clues to her distress. This is common following any bad event. People look back, in hindsight, and say things like, “Oh yes, now you come to mention it, she was looking very tired and stressed.” However, because of our unconscious bias we simply do not see this at the time.

Obstacle 3: the overwhelmed manager

Most managers these days are constantly busy, feel overwhelmed themselves much of the time, and are often too preoccupied with the task at hand to even notice the existence of others, let alone subtle early warning signs of burnout. It’s often the case that managers aren’t uncaring or mean, but just very busy - too busy to offer the support that employees may need. “I’m running an engineering operation here, not a bloody mental hospital,” a less-than-sympathetic manager once told me. I disagreed with him for lots of reasons, but I could see his point.

If managers do spot the signs of burnout, they often don’t feel skilled at helping an employee who appears anxious or withdrawn. Managers have often said to me, “To be honest, I worry about making things worse by saying the wrong thing.” Another worry is appearing nosy or intrusive.

All of these factors conspire to induce a manager to turn a blind eye to a person struggling with burnout.

How can I overcome the obstacles?

Step i: understand the resistance to helping

The first step is to understand that the obstacles exist and are influencing the choices you make. If you are aware of the case of Kitty Genovese and you witness something bad happening, you are far more likely to take the initiative and act, rather than assume someone else will. Similarly, if you are aware that your default position is likely to be ‘Do nothing and get on with something else’, then if you feel concerned about a colleague at work, you are more likely to pause and consider how you might help.

Step 2: recognise the early warning signs

I describe how you can do this in Chapter 2. Essentially, what you are looking for is any significant change in behaviour. If you are worried about someone, think about what it is that has resulted in your concern. Chances are, the person you are worried about is behaving differently, looks different or is flagging up in some way or another that they are not coping. Often the clues are fairly subtle at first glance, and you might find it difficult to put your finger on why you are concerned. From what you’ve read in this chapter, you know that this is the tipping point: you can either dismiss your concerns and get on with your work, or pause for a second and reflect on your concerns, why you have them and what you might do that would be helpful to the person.

If ever you have a nagging doubt or concern about someone, you need to stop and reflect on the origins of that semiconscious thought or feeling. Most people tend not to do this, but now that you have read about Kitty Genovese and understand the bystander effect, you no longer have that excuse. You are able to make an informed choice about how to behave.

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