In May this year, the World Health Organisation defined burnout as a ‘syndrome’ for the first time. In its International Classification of Diseases manual, which is widely used, burnout is now described as ‘chronic workplace stress’; it was previously classified as a ‘state of vital exhaustion’, independent of context.
The new definition puts burnout squarely in the realm of work. It also gives some overdue legitimacy to a more and more common problem that is often disregarded as vague, or misunderstood to mean merely ‘tired’ or unable to cope with the pressures of work. In our digitised world, the line dividing work and free time continues to blur, and it is very easy for us to be always ‘on’, wherever we may happen to be. We check emails, answer phone calls, or steal a few moments to get work done at times originally set aside for rest and recuperation or activities of equal importance to work, such as spending time with family or pursuing hobbies or interests. Work, it seems, has become the primary daily occupation—something perceived to have greater importance than anything else.
The challenge for those in upper management or leadership positions is that they are always trying to find the balance between maximum output from their staff and maintaining a healthy, happy and energised workforce. How do they get the most out of their people, without pushing them too far? And what balance of ‘work and life’ must employees have to be at their most productive and valuable? Everyone has a different tolerance for, and response to, stress and pressure.
At B+A we believe the culture of a business can be used to great effect to manage the stress and pressure placed upon your team. If, amongst your people, you foster a culture of trust and responsibility, it is far easier to avoid burnout. Each and every individual is empowered to manage their time and work in such a way that they can be at their most effective and efficient.
Creating this kind of culture requires those in management positions to model and encourage an atmosphere of openness and tolerance for the needs of each team member. Leaders themselves must disengage from work completely during their free time, and manage the expectations of their team that their clients may have. They can do this by encouraging their team to tell the relevant people they will be away before they take time off, and even asking them to do this for each other if needed.
Equally, leaders should be alert to the potential development of a ‘stay-later’ culture, in which employees silently compete by trying to stay in the office later than each other. At B+A, one of our mantras is ‘do the bare minimum to do a truly excellent job’, which means staying at your desk for hours on end does not become a sign of commitment or productivity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—do what you need to do to deliver great work and then use your time in ways that enable you to continue to be your best.
We also have ‘refresh’, ‘focus’ and ‘inspiration’ days, each of which has its own purpose but all of which permit employees to stop ‘working at their desk’ and either recuperate, focus in a different environment, or get out into the world to gather stimulus or inspiration. All businesses can introduce similar forms of behaviour and leaders should encourage employees to take responsibility for embracing these opportunities and, ultimately, to find a way of working that best suits themselves.
You could lay the blame for the rise in cases of burnout at the feet of those who eulogise ‘productivity’. These high priests of efficient work fail to consider productivity in the long term. It is better to work at 80 percent year-round than 100 percent for a matter of weeks followed by a lengthy period of inactivity. By thinking about efficiency in this way, you can also temper your own instincts to work yourself too hard.
Ultimately when we talk about culture, there is nothing more positive and productive than having a close-knit team. In such a team it is unlikely that any one member will envy another for taking time away from her desk, and equally improbable that a stay-later culture might develop. Each member of the team looks out for the next and feels able to speak up if, for instance, he is overwhelmed by stress. And the shared sense of community makes every person happier, and therefore more resilient in the first place.