How does culture contribute to burnout?

The story of the Mid Staffs hospital scandal perfectly illustrates the relationship between organisational culture, burnout and poor outcomes. One of the main contributing factors to the scandal was the focus on finances rather than the purpose and meaning of healthcare. The literature shows that a focus on simply making money (or, in the case of Mid Staffs, saving money) rather than providing quality and value and taking care of employees leads to high levels of burnout (Belias et. al, 2014; Schaufeli & Baker, 2004).

In their book, Time, Talent, Energy, Michael Mankins and Eric Garton (2017) place the responsibility for employee burnout firmly with the organisational culture, not the individual. When they investigated organisations with high rates of burnout, they identified three common factors:

  • 1 Excessive collaboration.
  • 2 Poor time management and boundaries.
  • 3 A tendency to overload the most capable people with too much work.

These three factors destroy the employee’s ability to focus on complex tasks, and they sabotage their time away from work, which is necessary for recovery. This inability to switch off at the end of the workday and focus on anything but work is the best predictor of burnout (Leiter et al., 2014). Let’s look at these three factors in more depth.

Excessive collaboration

Do you ever get sick of the endless rounds of meetings at work to ensure that everyone is consulted and included in decisions? That is what I mean by excessive collaboration. Most organisations demand collaboration far beyond what they need to get the job done. This results in overloaded diaries and time wasted in meetings, rather than time used productively to get things done.

In one company that Mankins and Garton studied, the average manager lost one day a week responding to emails and two days a week attending meetings. The most talented managers lost even more time to collaboration, because their skills generated more demands on their time, resulting in more responsibility and a larger workload (see ‘Overloading of the most capable’).

Poor time management and boundaries

In many organisations, the demand for high productivity has significantly outpaced the development of organisational processes and structures to support this demand. Most of the time, employees have to work out as best they can how to manage their time and workload in order to get things done and minimise stress and the increasing danger of burnout. Most have limited ability to fight an organisational culture where overwork is seen as normal and is actively rewarded.

Overloading of the most capable

“If you want a job done, give it to the busiest person,” so the saying goes. Employee workloads have increased, usually without a commensurate increase in staff numbers. As a result, managers often overestimate how much can be accomplished by employees who feel constantly under pressure and who usually end up working unpaid hours by staying late or taking work home. The best people, and those whose knowledge and skills are most in demand, become the biggest victims of overload.

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