EXECUTIVE BURNOUT: A leadership concern
Corporate anxiety, deadlines, target pressures, multiplicity of tasks, sales quotas, incessant travel, long hours of work, RFP & project milestones and similar push oriented indulgences put inordinate demand over one’s time. There are various pressures, many of which are self-induced but at what stage of buckle is it construed as a burnout. We experience the above daily and keep rationalizing to ourselves that it is part of the career choice made by us but when does one start experiencing a burnout. Burnout doesn’t have an elastic point where one fine day one suddenly debilitates into it. Burnout is the result, a manifestation, invoked by systematic catastrophisation and disciplined abuse of thoughts that is scripted by oneself and passed on to one’s own head without adequate inference filters.
It is based upon one’s perception of the world around us and some awry interpretation. It is the accumulation of calamitous thoughts over a period of time that changes one’s coping mechanism from an initial ‘confident and enthusiastic’ to a later ‘diffident and withdrawn’ kind of behaviour.
Burnout can also happen due to relationship hitches, sporting failures, political ambition fallout, amongst creative movie artists basically in all areas of life and profession but in this blog we share aspects that contribute to corporate burnout that is the biggest contributor amongst burnouts and which is also of immense concern to the leadership team. Life transitions into a burn out phase when a few of these symptoms manifest:
- Office becomes dreadful,
- Apathy towards work
- Increased psychological & emotional exhaustion
- Sense of accomplishment is astray
- Loss of control & feeling of invalidation
- Perception of boss surveillance
- Incipient coldness & detachment towards self and others
- Insomnia and chronic fatigue
- Depression, always incensed and huffy
- Addictive behavior
- Derisive & cynical approach to others ideas
Burnout doesn’t happen merely due to accumulation of tasks and deadlines. Top leaders have been inundated with many tasks; military leaders have been overwhelmed with the enormity of their mission that they undertake yet many have negotiated it with admirable flourish. Nuclear fission is a phenomenon that involves firing a neutron into the nucleus of a uranium or plutonium atom. When the nucleus splits, it fires out more neutrons that split more nuclei, setting off a chain reaction releasing incredible energy. Genuine, periodic and evidence based appreciation and feedback works on the employee like nuclear fission.
Similarly with the following conditions prevailing:
- Genuine credit/ accolades is passed on to employee at the right time and he/she is well appreciated
- When one’s creativity is validated
- Compensatory rewards are apportioned
- When working conditions and time put in are humane
it fires up one’s intrinsic motivation as well as intensifies one’s pursuit of organizational mission. In this phase, multiplicity of tasks, deadlines, milestones all seem elementary and easy. Under such appreciation one finds resourcefulness to delegate tasks effectively, manage chunks of work efficiently and use the available ecosystem intelligently. Sounds deceptively simple but for this to happen, to get the right validation and appreciation, one’s performance has to transcend excellence hence is a kind of spiraling concept awaiting a trigger either by oneself or by the organization. Triggering it oneself is the best strategy. Leadership team, as a contingency plan, must look into creating such a culture of ‘appreciation benevolence’ which employees can then pay it forward.
It is when one feels unappreciated that actually sparks off the discomfiting rudiments which if consistently unaddressed, aggregates itself into a burnout. Inaction and indecision are the two key contributing factors to burnout. How much harm can stress and burnouts create. It would suffice it to put that unmanaged stress can be fatal. Working in obsessive secrecy can also create burnout. People inherently love to share as human beings are designed as social animals but the kind of stress employees face in the high-tech industry in terms of secrecy is immense.
Another aspect that exasperates into a burnout is ‘role longevity’. Same role beyond 3 years can strip it of its allure due to creeping monotony. Human beings are not designed for monotonous work, they seek challenge, adventure, thrill at workplace, growth, variance in assignment, basically an excitement of tackling seemingly insurmountable goals. When this isn’t forthcoming either due to own inadequacies or organizational myopia, employees get bored and just to sustain their monthly pay cheque, they keep doing tasks just to survive with minimal emotional investment in the work, which could eventuate into a burnout.
Intel is a bit too progressive on this front; they move people to new positions every 18 to 24 months, on an average, to encourage them to explore new fields. Burnout happens to both kinds of people, the hyperactive, ambitious, punctilious, achievement oriented people for whom career is predominant and who subject themselves to enormous pressure as well as to people who are bored at their work that triggers the despondency cycle. The maximum temperature a liquid can reach before turning to gas is called its boiling point and the max endurance limit of a human being before the mind & body starts to debilitate is the burnout point. It is in the location of the beginning stages of such an eventuating burnout where the challenge lies as all these happen subconsciously.
In this discussion, we eliminate examples where organizational insouciance exists in terms of not providing conducive work environment to employees. Take the Taiwanese firm Foxconn who employs 400,000 people and is a major manufacturer of electronics for firms such as Apple, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony, Motorola, HP, and Dell. In 2010, eighteen employees attempted suicide and 14 of them died. Not conclusive but probable reasons were low pay, long work hours, discrimination of migrant workers, lack of effective working relationships etc. Workers have to put in 100 hours of overtime and most of the time people are just working without as much as minimal interaction with adjacent worker. In this instance it is a burnout induced by organizational irregularities, lack of recreational break and no strategic intent to provide replenishment to toiling workers.
It is not merely due to such physical conditions that burnouts occur. In spite of such high intensity and hard-working conditions, a reorientation of one’s thoughts and better interpretation can make a difference. Our main stream of discussion excludes the burnout caused due to such work environment as this is a company based work philosophy and not even a country specific one as there are other brilliantly managed work forces in Taiwan too. Developing countries do have their own challenges in terms of being sensitive to work environments in their haste to optimize revenues. This issue is serious and calls for an altogether different analysis but let us focus on the psychological aspect of burnout in this blog, how one needs to be aware of its emergence and what can be done to assuage it.
IS BURNOUT A CHARACTERISTIC OF ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
- Industry based: IT, Advertising, FMCG, Financial Services, Military, Movie making, etc.
- Job based: Lawyers, physicians, nurses, teachers, social workers, scientists
- Function based: Sales, Finance, Software development, leadership, creative teams, marketing
- Title based: CEO, Presidents, Vice Presidents, GM’s, and Managers etc.
- Country based: US, UK, Germany, Japan, Greece, Australia, New Zealand
- Gender based: Male vs. Female
- Temperament based: Emotional, assertive, aggressive, calm & composed, stressed
Earlier it was perceived that creative industries such as advertising and media have the highest rate of burnout but with recessionary characteristics of the market as experienced in 2010 to 2013, with outsourcing, restructuring, downsizing and redundancies prevailing, burnout was noticed in most of the industries.
France is listed amongst 4th from the bottom in terms of putting least amount of hours per year in the world, 1476 hours, lowest being The Nederlands 1379, Germany 1413, and Norway 1426. Look at the annual hours of a few other countries; Mexico puts in 2250 hours, Russia 1981, Poland 1937, Israel 1890, US 1787, Japan 1728, Canada 1702, Spain 1690, Finland 1684, UK 1625, Australia 1600, Denmark 1522 hours. One can jump to a conclusion that the French society is socialistic hence low work hours are enforced but they are one of the most productive people in the world. They attain a very high standard of living in spite of 15 % lesser hours than others taken on an average. Their products are excellent in quality, they have embraced high-tech, their defense products and arms have worldwide acceptance, their aviation industry is robust, their fashion and luxury brands are renowned and their culinary skills and representation is artistic. It is about smart working. So having arrived at a construct that the French work smart, have long lunches, five-week vacations, lot of holidays, work disruptions due to strike that also is akin to a holiday, would their stress levels be minimal and as a country can they be absolved from a burnout phenomenon. No, this isn’t the case. In 2008 and 2009 thirty-five France Telecom employees killed themselves implicating work stress as the reason in their notes. Unions accused their CEO of creating stringent work environment holding workers to impossibly high standards and forced managers to switch roles every 3 years. Burnout exists very much in the French fabric.
What about Germany, the strongest economy in Europe as of 2013. When there was unemployment all across Europe and the US, the jobless numbers in Germany was not alarming. The workers there work fewer hours (1413 hours in a year) giving a perception that they would sustain their employment due to the excellent bond between employers and workers. Acknowledgement and rewarding the efforts of workforce made a huge difference in Germany over time in addition to other economic, industrial and financial metrics they adopted resulting in a vibrant economy. Are they bereft of burnouts? In one of the German newspapers ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ an article was concluded regarding increasing intensity of burnout and German businesses suffering from high number of people forced to miss work due to mental nervous exhaustion.
Take any country in the world, burnout exists hence it is not country specific. Presidents, CEO’s, Leadership teams, managers, workers all of them suffer burnout hence it is not title based either. Certain functions have a predisposition to induce burnout such as high-pressure sales, production line pressures etc. but burnout exists in manufacturing, procurement teams, sales, FMCG marketing teams hence is not solely function based. Male & Female both have reported burnouts hence it isn’t gender specific. One in 10 women work more than 45 hours per week and it is surmised that women, to preserve conducive work environment, take on more than they can negotiate that leads to burnout hence women experience burnout too as much as men. All this distills down to the last one on the above list i.e. ‘Temperament based‘ and there is considerable evidence to substantiate this. One’s coping mechanism has a direct co-relation to one’s burnout threshold. Being assertive at work, taking on manageable responsibilities, creating coherent work environment with peers, delegation, effective communication and teamwork all contribute towards alleviating stress.
HOW DOES ONE PREVENT A PROBABLE BURNOUT ?
- Cognitive awareness is the first step in addressing a burnout. An awareness that something is amiss and ability to confront it and handle it. Addressing the ‘Incident-Thought-Emotion-Feeling’ quartet is the most fundamental amongst remedial measures. How an incident occurs, immediately triggering a thought in the mind attaching various meaning to it, which in turn raises or lowers one’s emotion and eventually leading on to how one feels. This is an expansive area for discussion in a blog but important to skim through to understand burnout.
- Organizations need to toughen employees to withstand workplace stressors.
- Addiction: Obsessive workaholics must be coerced to take breaks/ vacations.
- Coaching interventions and training have been extremely successful in modern corporate arena and Fortune 100 firms have embraced this intently.
- Meditation, yoga, breathing, stress busters, exercise, recreation, work-life balance, relationships all augment the cause in state preservation as a therapeutic prelude to prevent a burnout.
- Mindfulness, obliterate distractions, quiet the mind, focus on the present, eliminating past constraints and so forth are also key attributes to prevent a burnout.
- Stimulus Control: Retaining powers of concentration, controlling attention span and focus.
- Empowerment, delegation, autonomy, abrogate micromanagement are a few business practices organizations can indulge in to eliminate burnout at the workplace.
- Compensatory: Money is not the panacea for all problems but a well-architected reward and incentive mechanism alleviates stress.
- Psychotherapy: This is a deeper, long-term cure and a sturdy interventionist approach and corporates are embracing it.
- Behavioural training: Assertiveness, time management, social skills, taking personal responsibility etc.
A few other creative means adopted by various firms/nations to placate burnout and retain employee enthusiasm are listed below:
- Google: Have a 20 % rule. One day in a week programmers can spend on working on a project of their own design. Most of these projects are used internally and if there is immense potential a few of these projects also emerge in public domain and this is how Google weaves their creativity over the internet real estate
- Salesforce.com: Offers free yoga, 48 hours of paid time to volunteer, a $ 100 monthly wellness benefit.
- Mercedes-Benz USA: Offers 175 instructor-led training sessions every year, more than 250 e-courses, up to $8,000 per year in tuition reimbursement, and job shadowing.
- Zappos: CEO Tony Hsieh is spending $350 million to develop the entire neighborhood so employees will have access to great places to live and socialize at downtown Las Vegas.
- Qualcomm: Perk-filled campus with an extensive recreational facility
- Ernst & Young: In 2011 they launched the ‘EY Connect Day’. Employees logged over 38,000 volunteer hours and celebrated in 60 locations in the Americas.
- Accenture: Spends $ 600 million each year on training and development.
- Volkswagen: has prescribed a daily rest period from work-related emails. It’s servers no longer forward emails to employees’ work phones between 6:15 pm and 7:00 am and this is introduced to 5000 staff members.
- Mercedes-Benz: 2013 Christmas launched an “absence assistant” to delete emails arriving in employees’ in-trays while they are on holiday. The sender of the email is alerted to the employee’s absence and invited to contact a colleague instead.
U.S. businesses lose an estimated $300 billion a year to stress, according to the American Psychological Association. UK loses over £ 15 Billion a year due to workplace stress. This is huge and would be proportionately replicated by other countries worldwide. Leadership team apart from their ongoing performance matrices must have a way of calibrating indices such as employee enthusiasm, burnout propensity, perfectionist approach (what levels of perfection is really needed, Steve Jobs had a zero tolerance approach to imperfection), behavioural and psychological training of employees, review of recreational policies, scrutinize obsession at workplace and make efforts to drive the communication mission (communication with oneself). Stress cannot be totally avoided. As the business pace accelerates, newer products/services come to the market and demands on the employees to sustain competitive advantage immensely increases. Stress will be part of the system but the answer lies in its manageability, orchestration with better coping mechanism and prevention from reaching the burnout point.