The raging truth about burnout

burnoutWe’re probably all familiar with an image of burnout. People sitting head in hands, or lying in bed staring at the ceiling, unable to get up and get going in the morning. Burnout is once again a topic of the moment as workplaces are left reeling by the “Great Resignation”, and those that are left behind are struggling to cover the resulting gap in knowledge and resource.

Being burnt out is not a new phenomenon. For those working in sectors heavily impacted by Covid, there has been a strong pressure in 2022 to ‘build back better’ and face the year with fresh energy and renewed focus. Yet as the year progresses, people tell me they are tired. More so, they feel weary to their bones. I’ve coached individuals across multiple sectors with seemingly no commonality, except they are all telling me the same story. They are burnt out. They share something else as well. Rage.

Blinding, searing, white-hot rage. The kind of rage that caused a CEO I worked with to launch a chair across a meeting room and a CFO to leap out of their car at a traffic light and scream at the driver behind them, because they misinterpreted a beep on the horn. This rage also caused an engineer to tell their manager to eff off and disconnect on a WebEx that, unfortunately, was being streamed live to external clients.

Far from being out of energy, these burnt-out individuals are on a simmering boil, with so much pent-up frustration that one more tiny incident and they’re going to blow. This side of burnout is causing so many people to say ‘I’m outta here!’ and join the swathes of those swapping a pay cheque for a sanity check, during the Great Resignation.

So how can employees be both burnt out but also maintain a raging fire within? The key is understanding what causes this side of burnout. As companies have become tighter and less resourced, we are asking employees to do tasks which are not their tasks to complete.

I recently worked with a Head of HR whose first assigned task was to sack their team, meaning they were left to pick up the HR Business Partner work. This was highly necessary work, which that Head of HR had completed for many years throughout their career before rising through the ranks to become a Head of HR. It’s not that the work wasn’t significant, it’s that it’s not what that individual was employed to do. There was no novelty in the work, no stretch, no development. After many months of working this way, the rage kicked in. Hell hath no fury like an employee thwarted.

When we are unable to achieve our aims, our goals, our wants in a role, the psychological damage is extensive and we get mad. Really mad. Research shows it is less psychologically damaging to go to a job where you risk experiencing actual physical harm, than it is to work in an environment where you are thwarted and cannot reach your potential.

We need to change the conversation about burnout. As we focus on recovery or filling resource gaps, we need to remember that employees need novelty and stretch in order to be fulfilled. Without this, employees want out. Dr Harry Levinson’s simple definition of burnout summarises this beautifully as he says ‘The major defining characteristic of burnout is that people can’t or won’t do again what they have been doing.’

We cannot expect employees to develop and stretch when we are drowning them in tasks and roles which are not theirs to complete. Employee outbursts are a sign that employees want to stay focused on what they came here to do and they are frustrated when not able to do it.

You may feel employee purpose is not top of your agenda right not, but you’re making a mistake if you ignore this element of burnout. A colleague filled with rage can cause a great deal of damage, both literal and reputational, and they need to be supported. We cannot dismiss anger as a character flaw or a lack of control. We need to see the part we play, and support employees to thrive. Now, more than ever, employees are looking at what employees can offer and opportunities and development are critical to retention. Give your employees a chance to thrive and they will stay with you, roll their sleeves up and support your company all the way. Thwart and ignore their development and the only thing they want from you is their P45.