Work has become an around-the-clock activity, courtesy of the pandemic and technology that makes us reachable anytime, anywhere. Throw in expectations to deliver fast and create faster, and it becomes hard to take a step back.
Not surprisingly, many of us are feeling burned out. Burnout — which often affects women more than men — happens everywhere. Particularly challenged during the pandemic, however, are teachers and healthcare workers.
So we know burnout happens and that a lot of us are experiencing it, but how can we get out of it?
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Burnout is a serious problem that deserves all of our attention. My research, which studies employees across various organisations and the work practices they engage in, helps me understand how to address common, widespread problems like burnout.
1. Set boundaries
People need and are entitled to boundaries. We don’t have to avail ourselves 24/7 for work, despite societal pressures that make us feel like we do.
We must rest for the sake of our health, including our sleep, eating habits, physical well-being and quality of life.
It’s important to also remember that people around us can be affected when we don’t set boundaries. For example, burnout among nurses is associated with lower quality patient care and lower commitment to the workplace. Loved ones can be affected too. We can take stress from work home and be angrier, less supportive and more withdrawn from our spouses.
2. Stick to contractual engagements
Check your employment contract or collective agreement. Figure out how much you’re expected to work, what you have to deliver and stick to it: work won’t love you back no matter how much you give.
If you’re entitled to vacation, take it. The same principle holds for sick leave: if you’re entitled to it, take it when you are unwell so you can get better.
3. Prioritise yourself
You need to know and be mindful of who you are, what you want and how you spend your days.
Ask yourself why you do your work and what you wish to get out of it. What are you willing to sacrifice to get there, and what not? What else in your life is crucial? What do you not want to regret later?
Take time to think through these questions and how your life aligns with your priorities. Do your days mirror your preferences? If not, why and how not?
Think about what you can change, try to spend your days differently and observe the result. If something works better, integrate it into your daily rituals; if not, try something new.
4. Talk about burnout at work
There is only so much we can do individually to address burnout, which is far from a unique problem.
As employees, we need to question, rethink and repair organisations that generate overwork — it is important to not only have these conversations with yourself, friends and family but in the workplace too.
Organisations should want to address burnout since it isn’t good for them and leads to higher employee turnover and lost revenue related to lower productivity. But organisations are difficult to fix.
They often can’t or don’t want to see how they’re the problem. And they respond by proposing individual solutions to what is a collective, systemic problem — wellness programs and yoga classes won’t help with overwork.
If you have the energy to try and address organisational overwork, start small. You can talk to trusted colleagues about their experiences and share stories, which helps raise awareness about how burnout is a collective larger issue.
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5. Acknowledge this isn’t a ‘you’ problem
A more significant role falls on leaders who have the power and resources to change work. If their employees burn out, it’s because they are OK with it.
Responsible leaders should reach out to employees to inquire about burnout. They should understand how their organisation contributes to it. This might involve asking how work is set up, how information technology affects work and how employees are — or aren’t — supported.
Leaders set the tone and model what is acceptable — like overworking or taking time for yourself. Ultimately, if overwork is ingrained in company culture, we need to realize that the problem is the organisation.
Burnout is a serious problem that deserves all of our attention.