Stressed business women with a burning head

Why your boss is key to beating burnout

If  you're feeling a little singed around the edges, your manager may have the cure 

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
2 minute read
Stressed business women with a burning head

With the pandemic still hanging over us, our not-really-that-normal new normal demands that workplaces prioritise employee well-being.

The traditional go-to advice for those smouldering towards burnout was to take a few days of “me time” to snuff out any emerging feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness.

But the reality is only your boss can cure burnout.

Well into this pandemic, it is a gross understatement to say we are living through unprecedented times.

At many workplaces, employees are being asked to do more with fewer resources as workers quit and suitable replacements cannot be found or businesses choose to stay lean and leave positions vacant in the face of uncertainty.

Regardless of whether you are working extra-long hours as a frontline worker or experiencing challenges separating work from the rest of your life while working remotely, there is a good chance you will approach breaking point at some stage.

“Burnout syndrome” was coined by psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger, who self-diagnosed his own condition. He described the condition as a state of perpetual exhaustion brought on primarily by a person’s job.

Freudenberger said “not only do those afflicted with the syndrome have bad attitudes, they have headaches, stomach problems, trouble sleeping and shortness of breath”.

The World Health Organisation has subsequently defined burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Regardless of your own efforts at self-care, unless your boss intervenes you will likely experience a combination of fatigue, irritability, anger and hostility at the same time as being down on yourself.

For most bosses, it is sometimes tempting to try to deal with burnout by looking at “the burnee” rather than what is happening in the workplace.

Yet burnout arises not because of an employees’ actions or inactions but because of the situation they find themselves in.

The 4 key workplace factors most responsible for burnout

Workload or having too much to do is the chief culprit. However, a lack of autonomy, little or no recognition and a toxic workplace culture can all play a part, too.

Those managing others can reduce the risk of burnout by allocating workloads across a team in an equitable way, making priorities clear to employees and matching tasks and projects to the knowledge and expertise of individuals in their teams.

They should ensure that employees receive adequate recognition for the work they perform since, regardless of level or competency, most will respond well and be more engaged when they feel appreciated.

Managers should provide sufficient coaching to allow team members to work in an autonomous fashion and endeavour to build a culture underpinned by trust, fairness and respect.

And it goes without saying that bosses should regularly check in on their team members’ well-being because they should know that burnout has a nasty habit of creeping up on employees – and by then it will be too late for any preventative actions.