A little over two weeks ago, Jacinda Ardern stepped down as Prime Minister of New Zealand saying she had “no more in the tank” to lead. She held back tears as she acknowledged that it had been a tough five and a half years as the leader. On her watch, the 42-year-old had to manage the aftermath of mass shootings at two mosques, a deadly volcanic eruption and the covid-19 pandemic.
“Politicians are human,” she said. “We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.” Ardern has been praised for her courage and frank admission of being burnt out, prompting leaders to think about discussing this “occupational phenomenon”, as the WHO described it four years ago. Over the past few years, burnout is being taken more seriously though workers who admit to it are stigmatised or labelled “lazy” or as “having a bad attitude”. Ardern isn’t the only high-profile personality to have spoken about burnout—Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka turned the spotlight on this condition recently—but workplaces are still slow to provide resources to counter burnout. There is still a need for deeper conversations on workload, security, fulfilment and resilience.
Burnout is not just about boredom or “not feeling” like doing something. It is as Ardern described it, a feeling of having nothing left “in the tank”, a sense of having hit one’s limits, an inability to keep going. It combines emotional and physical exhaustion with poor performance and lack of motivation at work. Post pandemic, the term has become a bigger part of our vocabulary as more people seek work that is fair, fulfilling and meaningful. Reels and memes about burnout are shared often, Angela Duckworth’s lecture on grit is one of the most viewed TED talks, and multiple sites offer tips to overcome or recover from burnout.
Four in every 10 people working in India Inc. show high levels of burnout, distress, anxiety and depression, according to a study conducted in 2022 by global consulting firm McKinsey. It found that toxic workplaces are the main reason for this. “Indian respondents expressed elevated rates of every outcome—burnout, distress, anxiety, and depression. For each outcome factor, around four in ten respondents reported symptoms,” observed the report, Employee mental health and burnout: Time to Act. The survey covered 15,000 employees and 1,000 human-resource (HR) decision-makers in 15 countries, with India, Japan, Australia, and China representing the Asian region. In India, toxic workplace behaviour is dominant, “with employees reporting a desire to leave their job at a level approximately 60% greater than the global average,” said the McKinsey note.
Research has linked job or work burnout with depression and anxiety. It manifests as negativity, emotional exhaustion and the self-consuming feeling that no matter how much effort you put in, you are just not doing justice to the task at hand. Burnout can affect physical as well as mental health, and our relationships outside of work.
Even worse, burnout can be contagious, says Amit Nandkeolyar, associate professor of organisational behaviour, at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. “Just the way being happy is contagious, so is burnout.”
The start of it could be as innocuous as a colleague-turned-friend constantly sharing funny Instagram Reels about office life that sparks the exhaustion which eventually leads to burnout. It could be a colleague who unburdens themselves daily about their struggles at work either in conversations or on WhatsApp chats. Too much exposure to such feelings could also make the receiver or the listener feel the same way.
“It’s not a binary concept,” explains Nandkeolyar. “You are moving towards burnout. It’s continuum. And it’s bound to happen, considering the work pressures people now face.” There is little downtime from work as we are with our phones all the time, get email alerts on our watches and socialise with colleagues. There’s no getting away from the ‘ping’ of a notification anymore.
Work has become an extension of who we are, giving us an identity and a sense of self. Of the 24 hours in a day, we spend 12-13 hours working and navigating relationships with colleagues. The rest of the time, we are checking work messages and emails or scrolling through Instagram. Burnout affects men and women equally, studies show, though women are more likely than men to reach out for help.
“We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by ‘learning to say no’, more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle,” observes Harvard Business Review in a 2019 article.
It's not always over-work, unfair treatment or unreasonable deadlines that lead to burnout. Work culture and social attitudes, too, can trigger burnout. For instance, if roles are poorly defined in a team or a team does not have a supportive culture of courtesy and respect, it can be a cause for burnout. Leaders now have to create a strategy to prevent burnout from happening. Managers need to be trained to recognise the signs early on and take steps to make it safe and easy for their teams to do their work.
To keep burnout at bay, Nandkeolyar follows a simple strategy: “I take a trip. Sometimes it is going to Taj Mahal on a full moon night. Sometimes a road trip to different parks of the US.” Essentially, he looks for experiences that offer him a “wow sight” to keep him inspired and happy. This, however, may not work for everyone as merely being wowed may not be enough to replenish spent energies.
No matter how many laughter sessions or varieties of tea a company offers, the onus of how we relate to our work lies with us, says Nandkeolyar. It doesn’t mean that a company should stop supporting their staff. “HR can customise wellness plans for a team, but they won’t plan a special session for just one person. We have to take that personal step from our side to shape our relationship with work. Plus, we need to focus on building skills, hobbies outside work. That’s non-negotiable. And even if then we are feeling the burnout, it's time to rethink the job.”
How to handle burnout
TALK: Discuss with your supervisor if your responsibilities can be tweaked or reduced.
SEEK: Reach out to a friend, colleague or anyone you can trust. It always helps to share your thoughts with someone.
RELAX: Find a hobby. Or do regular yoga, swim, or read a book.
MOVE: Regular exercise helps beat stress.
SLEEP: Sleep restores well-being and keeps you health.
Source: Mayo Clinic