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You can’t change your boss, but you can change yourself: How to prevent workplace burnout

Being cynical about work, coming to office tired in the morning, and not being fully ‘present’ during discussions. Are you one of those people?

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A collaborative 2016 study led by research companies Future Workplace and Kronos Incorporated showed that 40 per cent of office workers in the United States and Canada feel burned out. In other words, four out of ten people are cynical about their work, come to office tired in the morning, and are not fully ‘present’ when you are having important discussions with them. 

Have you noticed that in a meeting? Or are you one of those four people? 

As I stare at this statistic, I am reminded of IG, whom I introduced you to earlier. We met again a few months later. He was a different person. Gone was his passion for work, and what was left was complete disinterest. He wasn’t happy with his job and was looking for a way out. Here’s what he shared: 

‘I have lost my motivation. No matter what I do, there are some challenges in my job that I simply have no control over. The measurement criteria for the success of my business are ill defined. We can all see it, but my boss and some other stakeholders don’t want to. Any change I bring in on one side of my business has a counter-effect on the other. I feel I am victimized for no fault of mine. I have tried my best, but it isn’t working any more. If my team and I are not doing well, so be it. I am not going to worry about it now. I can’t change my boss or others, but I can change myself.’ 

This is a typical response when you burn out: you become cynical, indifferent or uncaring. I recognized that IG had had enough. Not too long afterwards, he found a solution: he quit and joined another company that was more aligned to his vision and expectations. 

More and more people are feeling tired and burned out. In analysing the General Social Survey of 2016, researchers Emma Seppala and Marissa King, affiliated with the Yale School of Management, found that close to 50 per cent of the respondents were consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 per cent two decades ago. So if earlier we had two burned out people in a room of ten, that number had now increased to almost half the room. 

Also read: Dropping like flies: The rise of workplace burnout and how to tackle it

That the incidence of burnout is increasing is also reflected in other areas. Earlier, burnout was restricted to those of a certain age and experience; today, it is very much a part of the millennial world (those born during 1980–2000) as well. A Statista research study in 2017 showed that millennials are the fastest-growing segment in the burnout space. They are putting in long and incessant hours, causing them chronic stress and anxiety. A Gallup study of nearly 7500 full-time US employees showed that 28 per cent of millennials felt ‘frequent or constant’ burnout at work, compared with 21 per cent of workers in older generations. An additional 45 per cent of millennial workers said they ‘sometimes’ felt burned out at work, suggesting that overall 76 per cent or seven in ten millennials experienced some level of burnout. It has been argued that this generation wants to reach the heights in a hurry. They take on too much, hold themselves to high expectations and standards, but lack appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with extreme pressures. 

Besides the corporate arena, other sectors are equally, if not more, plagued with burnout. Over the years, burnout has taken the shape of a crisis in the health industry. A 2011 survey conducted by the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association showed that 45 per cent of physicians showed signs of burnout. When the survey was repeated three years later, the rate had increased by a whopping 9 points to 54 per cent. 

Long work hours, heavy workload, dealing with matters of life and death, lack of rest, and managing organizational demands have a serious impact on the health and well-being of physicians and nurses. In turn, this has strong implications for the kind of care they give to their patients. 

But burnout doesn’t stop at these professions. Our children are being taught by teachers who are exhausted, cynical or performing well below their capacities. For example, nearly half of the teachers in India have been shown to suffer from burnout. A 2014 Education Staff Health Survey indicated 91 per cent of school teachers in the UK had experienced stress in the previous two years. The US was no exception. More than 41 per cent of teachers left the profession within five years of joining because of burnout.

Kavita, who was a primary school teacher in a government school in New Delhi, left her job at the age of forty-three as she was burned out. She attributed her departure to lack of autonomy and bureaucratic control. ‘You had to teach from an examination point of view. That was extremely restrictive. You couldn’t really share your knowledge or pass on to children the joy of learning. It was frustrating. Also, there were too many demands—constant need for data, audits, applying for grants, etc.—for which we were neither trained nor had the infrastructure in place. Of course, we missed deadlines in our submissions. It was just too much stress that I couldn’t deal with any more. I was getting burned out.’  

Also read: We should take humour in the workplace more seriously

A question that often comes up is whether burnout is a gendered issue. Is one gender more prone to burnout than the other? If you look at the data, especially from the health sector, it shows women surgeons more prone to burnout than men. This rate of burnout varies anywhere within 43–45 per cent for women and 37–39 per cent for men. The 2018 Medscape report attributes this variance to greater work expectations and work–home conflicts among women. 

Research led by Dr Nancy Beauregard from Montreal University corroborated the above observation. Her findings were based on 2000 employees she followed over the course of four years and across multiple workplaces. The gender difference was attributed to the different working conditions men and women were subjected to. She found that because women are less likely to be given positions of power, it increases their frustration. To handle that, they use household chores as a strategy to ‘vent’. Although this can be a buffering mechanism against burnout if used temporarily, it can lead to problems in the long term. The strategy ‘can become a trap and result in missed opportunities for advancement, causing women to remain confined to positions with low decision- latitude’. Inevitably, this feeds into the cycle of burnout. 

Take the case of Neha, who is in her early thirties and working as an engineering professional in Chennai, India. The mother of a two-year-old, she was highly committed to her work. During one of our conversations, she shared her dilemma: ‘I want to do good work and move up the ladder, but I don’t see enough opportunities. I often end up doing the “softer” projects whereas the guys in my team get the high- visibility ones. It is demotivating. It suggests that I am not capable or smart enough. I have talked to my boss, but I don’t see any change happening. Sometimes I wonder if this kind of work is even worth leaving my child in daycare for. This trade- off doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps I should just quit and at least enjoy being with him.’ 

This is the kind of frustration Dr Beauregard referred to. It indicates just how demoralizing it can be for women when roadblocks surface in their careers, when they are unable to leverage their skills or be excited about what they do. Pad this with their other responsibilities and conflicts, and we have a perfect recipe not just for burnout but also attrition, which isn’t bad just for women—it’s bad for companies too. 

From the above, it is obvious that burnout is pervasive across the board, irrespective of industry, age or gender. 

But on one issue, there is still plenty of ongoing debate. What causes burnout? Is it the individual or the environment? Or is it a mix of both? 

This extract from Burnout: beat fatigue to thrive in an overworked world has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.

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