The World Health Organization generated headlines last week by announcing that it was officially designating burnout a “workplace hazard.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already knew that burnout has become a toxic occupational risk.
Burnout is the ultimate consequence of relentlessly rising demand, complexity, change, and uncertainty. Even so, it’s easy to overlook the warning signs or to find ways to rationalize and minimize them.
Do you notice that people in your organization frequently feel:
- Drained, depleted, exhausted, or empty?
- Frustrated, reactive, anxious, or overwhelmed?
- Distracted, scattered, spacey, or bored?
- Apathetic, uninspired, disengaged, or aimless?
By the time these symptoms are visible, employees and employers alike have already incurred costs that are far too high. What’s been lost in the downward spiral towards burnout is the most fundamental fuel for performance: energy. You can’t put a Band-Aid on something that isn’t there, and the road back from burnout to high performance is a long one.
The time for employers to actively intervene isn’t when their people have run out of energy, but rather when their energy begins to turn visibly negative and volatile. This is known physiologically as “fight or flight,” and at The Energy Project, we refer to it as “Survival Mode.” It’s the state all of us fall into reactively when we begin to feel overloaded, overwhelmed, threatened, or devalued.
In Survival Mode, our prefrontal cortex increasingly shuts down and the more primitive amygdala takes over. Our dominant emotions include frustration, impatience, irritability, anger, anxiety, defensiveness, and the impulse to assign blame. Internal signals include increased self-absorption, self-criticism, and impulsivity, trouble sleeping and relaxing, difficulty thinking clearly and creatively, and feeling like a victim.
As survival emotions become more pervasive on teams, or across companies, performance progressively suffers. So does the capacity for innovation and agility, both of which are critical in a time of disruption and continuous transformation.
Burnout is the ultimate consequence of too much time spent in Survival Mode. It’s when the system literally shuts down – physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. At precisely the moment that organizations need more energy from their people, they get less.
The greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal
The solution is both surprisingly simple and remarkably elusive. Organizations and individuals alike must pay more deliberate and systematic attention to rest and renewal. The problem is that these behaviors get precious little respect in most companies.
“More, bigger, faster” has been the mantra of free market capitalism ever since the Industrial Revolution. Rest and renewal are the provinces of slackers. The need for time off and even for sufficient sleep are often viewed as signs of weakness. Instead, in the face of relentlessly increasing demand, our shared impulse is to double down on what’s worked for us in the past – to push harder, for longer, with less time off.
When we introduce our clients to the power of intermittent renewal, it typically makes instant sense to them. It’s obvious, for example, that if you keep withdrawing money from a bank account, eventually you’ll go bankrupt. It’s the same reason that Formula 1 drivers pull into pit stops at regular intervals to have their vehicles refueled and their tires changed. The greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal – even though we’re inclined to do just the opposite.
This knowing-doing gap can lead to a range of bewildering contradictions.
At one offsite with a client, we were given the day to present our work. In order for participants to accomplish all of the goals for their time together, they met for a couple of hours in the very early morning before our workshop began, and then put in several more hours together in the evening. Their exhaustion was apparent, but no one felt comfortable calling out the contradiction.
At a second company, our mandate was to address a longstanding internal conflict on a senior leadership team by widening the lens through which they were seeing the disagreement. Very quickly, it became clear that team members were so deep in Survival Mode that in order to focus on the issue at hand, they needed to first address the survival emotions that were standing in the way.
When it comes to making changes, the most vexing invisible barrier is the power of mindset. Most of us are deeply disinclined to challenge what we believe has made us successful, even when these behaviors begin to feel dysfunctional. This is even truer when the collective mindset – the organizational culture – supports and reinforces our current assumptions.
Burnout will only get worse so long as organizations fail to challenge the “more, bigger, faster is better” mindset. This must begin with senior leaders who have the courage to become “Chief Energy Officers,” and to serve as role models of and advocates for a more balanced relationship between spending and renewing energy. The reward, we’ve seen consistently, is not just better health and well-being, but also more sustainable high performance.