Z73.0 – Burn-out state of vital exhaustion
That is the ICD (International Classification of Diseases) code designated to burnout by the World Health Organization in 2019.
Just so we are all clear:
defn. a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy.
Take a minute to let that definition sink in. Chances are, comprehending the full scope and gravity of burnout and it’s impacts on mental health will cast a new light on recent workplace interactions, frustrations and conflicts for most of us.
Burnout is real and it’s a little bit unprecedented. It may be the only syndrome in the ICD that is specifically and tangibly correlated to the workplace.
Countless blogs and industry publications have released content on combatting burnout in the workplace. “4 Steps to Preventing Burnout,” “Fight Burnout With Mindfulness”, and “How Remote Workers Can Solve Burnout” - just a few examples of headlines that are frequently appearing in our LinkedIn feeds.
To summarize these articles, burnout happens when people experience a complete loss of control over their time, conflicting and competing priorities with no clarity or end in sight, and a strong feeling that speaking up about the struggle will do no good. That’s very high-level; there are many causes of burnout. These are some of the top ones.
Burnout exhibits itself through irritability, loss of patience and a negative, pessimistic outlook. People feel de-motivated, depressed, anxious. Often, when a team mate goes through a marked shift in behaviour and starts showing up late to meetings (or missing them altogether), it’s a sign that they are experiencing the deep exhaustion and hopelessness that are documented symptoms of burnout.
Interestingly, not a lot of the published resources and perspectives on burnout offer advice on what employers can do to support their employees through a period of burnout. There are some, but most content focuses on how workers can engage in mindfulness practices, digital detoxes, setting clear boundaries, and creating email/instant messaging rules to avoid burning out.
All good advice. But, there must be more advice, guidance and consult provided to companies around their responsibility to their workers and supporting mental health. This advice needs to be connected to tangible, actionable methods of cooling burnout and providing respite for exhausted workers from all areas of your business.
How can companies cool burnout for their employees?
The employee value proposition (EVP) is a set of ideals that provide a consistent framework for workplace culture and employee experience. The EVP should be a living, breathing strategic entity, iterated on regularly to respond to a transforming labour and workforce. The EVP should provide a guidepost for the key ways to demonstrate value for employees and tenets of your company’s specific, unique culture.
Create an EVP for a Post-Pandemic World
Engage in deep research and knowledge-gathering in the form of employee surveys, focus groups, external market analysis and one-on-one interviews with leaders to iterate on your company’s EVP for the current labour economy. Focus on integrating ideals aligned to employee and talent needs.
Ask these questions: “How do we make sure our employees know we care about them?”; “Are we being responsive enough to the rise of hybrid work and the gig economy?”; “Is our organization psychologically safe for our employees and do they feel they belong here?”
The outcome should be a re-imagined (or maybe completely new) EVP framework designed for a new working world.
Calibrate Your EVP Against “Universal Wellness” at Your Company
Universal wellness is how you support the whole individual at your organization. That means, employees’ physical safety, psychological well-being, sense of fulfillment and health or them and their families. After creating your new world EVP, leverage the framework to engage members of the organization to explore, scrutinize and enhance the wellness experience at your organization.
The outcome of the calibration work (often including team collaboration sessions, facilitated brainstorms and soliciting more feedback from a diverse set of team members) should be an airtight action plan to support employee universal wellness, aligned to your signature EVP.
Example of Calibration Flow
Step 1: Level- Set Topic
Present the focus of the calibration session through the lens of your EVP. Share with participants in the calibration process that the goal is to create a plan to support employee well-being in a more meaningful, consistent way.
For instance, there may be a line, pillar or themes in your EVP that sounds like: “Through all of life’s twists and turns, you can rely on our support to find your balance.” Successfully activated and authentically felt by employees, this part of an EVP would significantly offset burnout and disengagement.
Step 2: Discuss
A calibration session with multiple participants should last at least sixty minutes and seek to understand their specific, real experiences at the organization through the lens of the EVP ideal.
Discussion Question: On a scale of 1-5, how aligned is this ideal to your experience at our company?
Follow Question: What prevented you from ranking a 5?
Potential Employee Response: “I couldn’t rank this a 5 because even though I know we have access to a wellness portal, I can never find out where relevant information is because the site always crashes!”
Follow Question: What prevented you from ranking a 0?
Potential Employee Response: “My leader is so supportive of flexibility. All I have to do is ask and he does whatever he can to make sure I get the time I need to be there for my family during a challenging time.”
Step 3: Analyze and ideate
After collecting feedback and insights from employees on key strengths and blockages in alignment to wellness at your organization, gather a cross-functional team to analyze the data and prioritize key experience drivers. Map the key strengths and threats to the wellness experience, as identified by employees, to an “Impact/“Effort” grid and prioritize the most critical areas to strengthen.
Building on the examples of calibration questions above:
Employee Experience Initiative #1: Based on feedback from employees, there is a disconnect in accessibility to well-being resources, leading to frustration and lack of clarity.
Re-Fresh, Re-Launch, Re-Communicate Wellbeing Resources - The goal of this project is to create a more robust, inclusive and easy self-service platform for employees to access company-wide wellbeing programs and resources.
Digital Support for Mental Health - The organization will add discounts and subsidies for remote-access tools that support mental health and mindfulness. Platforms to explore include BetterHelp.com, Calm, Headspace and Balance.
Employee Experience Initiative #2: Employees report that support and an open ear from their manager is a strength, however soft skills in this area are inconsistent across the organization.
Leader Empathy Training - Company-wide empathy training will take place. The goal is cultivating people leaders who have a foundational understanding of mental health leaders and the communicative tools to work through challenging personal and professional issues with employees
Office Hours - Introduction of an opt-in office hours program for people leaders to engage with their teams, on any issue. These office hours should happen once a week. Leaders can offer a designated time where team members can sign up for slots where privacy and confidentiality is guaranteed. The key message is: “Whether you decide to show up or not, I’m here for you if you need to talk.”
The impactful programs and initiatives that are conceptualized through the calibration process will serve to cool burnout.
With multi-factorial (and relatively new to the social and cultural dialogue on life at work) issues like burnout, it can be challenging for company leaders and HR executives to focus the effort to triage key issues and support employees. Seeking to understand the real-life experience of employees with the goal of surfacing specific, actionable proof-points and detractors is a mission-critical stage in this development process.
Many organizations have employee value propositions, but they haven’t yet fully activated them. The EVP is the best tool people and culture strategists have to create consistency in the employee experience and enhance structure, discipline and implementation of impactful programs, initiatives and support.
Burnout, in a big way, is a syndrome centred around a lack of consistency and clarity, a feeling of perpetual confusion about the value of your work and an inability to voice your concerns for fear of repercussions. Through the lens of the EVP, companies can identify the areas where employees feel this the most, and initiate the necessary transformation and change management to make a real difference for their mental health and universal wellness of the organization.
For a full breakdown of burnout, visit the World Health Organization’s page.