This article was kindly contributed by Grant Gurewitz, a 10-year veteran of the tech industry and author of Sustain, a free weekly newsletter on how to work without burnout (subscribe here).
What’s become clear since the pandemic started is that burnout from work doesn’t just come from work. Life, social issues, and global conflict carry into our working hours no matter how much we’re told to leave it at the door.
However, some recent headlines about burnout don’t tell the complete story, like this one in The Atlantic:
Only your boss can prevent burnout
People refer to various forms of malaise as “burnout,” but it’s technically a work problem. And only your employer can solve it.
It’s true organisations and managers play a massive role in creating a workplace without burnout, however it’s not right to say individuals are helpless.
In reality, there are four distinct groups responsible for creating work that’s burnout free:
- The government // Through legislation that caps working hours
- The organisation // Through focus on policy and culture that supports employee well-being
- The manager // Through proper localised support and work prioritisation
- The individual // Through enacting strong boundaries around work and creating restorative time outside work
What’s at stake?
In the short term, a recent study found that one in four people who are planning to leave their job will do so because they were burned out. This problem -- economists are calling The Great resignation -- needs to be solved to retain top talent and make organisations successful not just for tomorrow but for many tomorrows. The good news for individuals is that now is a great time to advocate for personal well-being and strong boundaries around work since organisations want to retain employees.
In the long term, work is literally killing us. I don’t say that to be alarmist but a May 2021 report from the World Health Organisation found that working 55+ hours a week is associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week. In 2016, 750,000 deaths occured due to long hours, a 29% increase since 2000.
I truly believe the issue of burnout can be solved. But it’s going to take a lot of work.
What the government can do about burnout
Work for many has fundamentally shifted so it can be accomplished anywhere there is WiFi. While there are positives to come from this development, there are certain downsides. Employees feel an implicit need to be constantly connected and end up working far more than is healthy.
Governmental action to address this change in work started back in 2001 with French legislation that made it illegal to require employees to bring work home and that not being reachable outside established working hours was not to be deemed misconduct. These ‘Right to disconnect laws’ have since cropped up in Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Philippines, and Ireland.
Right to disconnect laws should become standard if governments want to ensure the long-term health of the economy, save in healthcare, and see increased happiness and well-being of their people.
What organisations can do about burnout
Yoga at work, a subscription to Headspace, a keg at the office, and even access to a therapist don’t do a thing if the culture runs people into the ground.
So, how can organisations intentionally create a culture where burnout is the exception, not the rule. A few starting ideas:
- Judge employee success on meeting pre-established outcomes, not on the number of hours spent online or logged at the office.
- Listen and really understand how pervasive burnout is to get a baseline and then be willing to take a hard look at changes that need to be made.
- Use IT data to spot risky behavior. Things like how many hours employees are working and amount of working time outside of hours including on time off. Then have a scalable way managers can work with those individuals.
- Create training for employees based around those norms consisting of healthy habits in and out of work so employees are armed with resources to succeed in avoiding burnout.
What managers can do about burnout
Managers are the most important face of the organisation to individuals. The direct manager is the most important factor job seekers consider before accepting a role and the most important person to help people feel a sense of belonging.
When it comes to burnout, it’s paramount that managers model good behavior.
- They respect boundaries. They aren’t emailing (or worse, texting) with debatably urgent asks at all hours.
- They take time 100% off.
- They ruthlessly prioritise work that needs to be done by employees. And they actually follow through on that.
- They provide flexibility and treat employees as adults.
- They listen and are a safe person to confide in.
What individuals can do
The good news is that burnout is not a forgone conclusion of working. We have more control than we might realise.
But it takes a mindset shift. And it takes intentional actions.
So, what are some steps we can all take to write an individual story that involves less burnout:
- Recalibrate success. We’re taught to judge success based on money, job title, and power. But the endless pursuit of this definition is making us miserable. Find another marker of success. Mine is: Doing work I find meaningful on most days and having agency over my time.
- Call out when you’re overcommitted. You can’t take on everything so understand and communicate tradeoffs.
- Set a time to log in and out each day, and stick to it. Consider an end-of-day ritual like going for a walk, cooking dinner, or spending time with kids as a way to mentally note that work is over. This includes not checking your phone for work outside of hours, on the weekend, or on holiday like 62% of us do.
- Carve out time to do daily activities that refill your tank and help clear your mind. It’s one thing to rest while scrolling social media and watching Netflix. It’s another to restore doing hobbies (ideally without a screen) you love.
You can’t hustle your way out of burnout. And you have to accept that some days will be better than others which is just fine.