Let’s talk about Burnout, the enemy we cannot ignore

This article is a translation of the Italian version I published in 2021 and aims to give some ideas on how to handle burnout both from a personal and an company-wide perspective.

If you’re currently struggling with burnout, consider seeking help from a professional.
There are many options available (one of them is Wysa) that can help you work through it.

Onto the article…

LinkedIn is a beautiful place where we can list our successes, but no day passes where I don’t see one key element missing in the conversation: Let’s talk about the dark side of work, the burnout.

What is burnout, and why knowing its existence is not enough?

Let’s understand first that burnout kicks in after stress.
When stress, which is usually temporary, persists over a long period of time and is not followed by relaxation.

When physical stress (fatigue), mental stress (work) or social stress (requirements) do not diminish/resolve.

Burnout can be many things, fatigue, surrender, etc.
But more than any of these, it’s loneliness.

Even more so in a society of overachievers, of heroes, of exceptional people, burnout is something we fear to show, to tell.
Or, even worse, to see in others.

We quibble, “it’s just a moment”, “it’ll pass”.
That’s the voice inside us speaking when we think about our problems or when we discover the struggles someone is going through, when we see them too much exhausted.

Truth is: Burnout doesn’t heal the way we expect.
It marks us, a scar is left if we get over it, or we sink if we never heal from it.

And it’s a missed opportunity for everyone, from HR who could use this opportunity to let employee grow and learn, to colleagues to build a more empathic relation with a coworker, to ourselves, to start talking about our struggles and become familiar with the old art of “asking for help when you’re drowning” and to start acknowledge the signs.

Signs, yes. Because we’re talking about signs (I’ll add more details at the end).

Feeble clues, attributable to other topics.
That’s why burnout can be so hard to identify because we often think about something else, other problems, maybe caused by private life or personal flaws.
But it’s not like this, and we can’t pretend we can continue like this.

We can talk about KPI, OKR, quarterly results, compensations, money, but if we constantly forget of the human value, of the individual and their struggles, the same person who’s behind the work, then we lose the main point.
Without people, there’s no KPI.

And we need healthy people, that are enthusiastic about their job, energized not by competition only, but by their environment. An environment that can spot the signs of burnout so that it’s not underestimated.
An environment that will give voice and space to people that raise their hands to ask for help or to speak up.

An environment that will allow the discussion not only to brag on LinkedIn but with sincere interest in questioning what’s happening.

The crucial problem, that’s behind part of the burnout causes, is that it’s related to our inner look and its dissonance with the world.

Let me clear this up:
One of the main causes of stress is that we are asked to do something that “we don’t think we can achieve”.

This gap is often one of the first elements that start the fire.
Because we could be perfectly able to do it, but if we think that’s not possible -and must do it-, this cause stress.

One might say:
How’s it possible that we have this gap? One task is clearly feasible or not, there’s not too much left for interpretation.

Easy to say, not so easy to do.

When we talk about a simple task, like moving a light table, the answer is obvious. It’s less obvious when we talk about generic activities that can have a work domain that’s much more extended and unpredictable.

Like a bug-hunting and fixing in a fixed time, like achieving a KPI goal without knowing if we can actually do it, like having a functional requirement that can be interpreted in many ways, and it’s simple in the mind of who’s asking you to do it, but it seems incredibly big for you.

That’s why we need communication.
Clear, honest and in-depth communication, to avoid this gap to expand. 

This is a work that impacts everyone.
I started talking about this saying that you need to look inside you, but the truth is that whoever is assigning goals or task have a big role in this.

They need to be clear, and it should always be possible to discuss if goals are actually achievable, to clear up doubts, and to have a discussion around it.

Burnout works on many levels, that why it’s “mitigation” must come from different places.

The first place is external.
In short: Awareness and empathy.

We tend to belittle the problem, we might be tempted to say “Don’t worry, you’ll get through this”.
Not because we actually believe those words, but to avoid seeing that suffering.
Seeing that suffer scares people.
There are people who don’t travel to poor countries to not see that suffer.

The pain and suffer scares us because it requires us to react, to take action. Quite a different beast compared to the suffering you see on television when you can be a spectator, with no participation involved.
Here, in life, once we see the suffering, we cannot unsee it.

Take courage, suffering is something that already belongs to our life, we don’t need to always say “everything will be fine”but we need to take responsibility in front of other people’s struggle and face their suffering.

Because if we’ll ignore them, they’ll be one step closer to the abyss.

The second place, where burnout thrives, is introspective.
Sometimes burnout is born out of being simply tired, and we tend to underestimate it, or maybe we’re starting to be aware of it, but we are afraid to ask for help.

We need to understand that being in a burnout state is not a sin.
It happens, and the only way to face it is to accept that it’s taking a space in our life and try to understand how much it’s affecting us.

The third place is, again, external.
Lead by example and create the right environment.

Nobody will have the courage to ask for help if they know they won’t be helped.
Nobody will have the guts to speak if there is not an environment where sharing is considered a treasure.
Nobody will ever speak if admitting a struggle is a way to laugh at them, to detract or humiliate.

Only the braves, those who dare, might, but we’re talking about a condition that makes us more fragile and that’s why it’s -required- to create a welcoming environment that will allow everyone, not only those in a position of power, to share their struggles without losing their face (and btw: even those in a position of power might not share a thing, sadly).

The fourth place is placing more attention while listening.
We can create an environment, help people share their thoughts, but if we don’t actually listen to them, we’re doing nothing.
We need to give them some space, to not be scared by the long pauses in the discussions, to wait and give even more time, but more importantly to truly want to listen and to do our best at reading the messages we get from the people around us.

Ironically, sometimes this would be enough.
Being heard makes us feel less lonely and stronger.
But listening doesn’t mean you only need to let others speak. We have a phrase for that, it’s called “Let others speak”.
Listening is an -active- action, it’s not passive. You need to be emphatic, to understand the nuances, the details, the words hidden behind the words.

Our duty, across the whole chain, is to work to create an environment where people can raise their hand without feeling guilty.

Where we, first, set the example that asking for help is accepted and that we’ll be welcomed in doing so, where healthy examples of vulnerability and sharing are shown, where imperfection is accepted along the ups and downs of life.
Where we value those who promote this idea of common well-being.

Only in this way can we give at least the chance for people struggling, to ask for help and to avoid being dragged down by their problems

These are, in my opinion, the responsibilities of every individual in a company.
There is one caveat, though.
Not everything can be changed easily, we need to accept the fact that we might need some external help to get out of a situation.

Every burnout story is different, and if I was able to write this long post is because, in my own small way, I’ve experienced it and noticed it in others.

I experienced that loneliness, I saw the people slowing turn their beautiful lights off and in those situations I tried to do my best to give them some space to breathe.

Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I did not.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize we need to talk about it because we can’t ignore what has an impact on us, and we need to move away from the idea that burnout is only an individual problem.
I do not agree that it’s individual only.
The environment and the people can make a difference.

They can, -and must-, help.

Post scriptum…

I felt I had to add this extra part to help who reads have some ideas on which are the clues or symptoms of burnout.

I was able to gather this list thanks to the help of a person who knows much more than me on the topic. Likewise, I remember reading them the first time and being concerned, noting, in retrospective, that I went through some of them during my life.

It’s also important to ALWAYS remember that for things that are too complex/difficult, there are plenty of professionals who can and should be consulted for advice.

This whole post is not medical advice and the internet is not the place for improvised doctors.

This article was created to raise awareness and provide some inspiration and ideas.

Burnout symptoms

Physical Symptoms:

  • Lack of desire to go to work
  • Apathy
  • Demoralization
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Discomfort, despair
  • Nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Excessive or irrational worries or fears
  • Feeling of inadequacy
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Sense of frustration or failure
  • Emotional detachment (loss of capacity)
  • Rigidity in imposing or applying norms and rules
  • Cynicism, disinterest or hostility towards customers or, more rarely, towards colleagues
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Inefficiency

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Absenteeism
  • “Avoidance of relationships”: spending more time than necessary on the phone, making excuses to leave or engage in activities that do not require interactions with colleagues or users
  • Progressive withdrawal from work life: attending meetings without emotional participation or intervention
  • Difficulty joking at work, sometimes even just smiling
  • Loss of self-control: violent, impulsive emotional reactions towards users and/or colleagues
  • Smoking or use of psychoactive substances.

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