• Behaviour

4 Ways to Avoid Burnout

Prof Richard Jolly suggests what to do if you or your team are at risk of burnout


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Doctors surgeries in the UK have never been better equipped with technology to aid medical diagnosis, communications and management, yet a recent report suggests more than half of GPs are planning to leave general practice early; a key reason being these dedicated people are suffering from burnout.

Despite the great promise that technology would lessen our workload, burnout is rife in professions and organizations of all types. This is a problem, not only for thousands of unhappy overstretched individuals, unable to fulfil the lives they really want to lead, but also for organizations in terms of poor employee engagement and lost productivity.

In a recent article Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, highlighted the problem: “We used to answer to meaning, but today we answer to mobile. When did we become slaves to our mobile phone push notifications – social media updates, emails, WhatsApp messages? Trying to keep up with a heightened ‘on’ mode and a constant state of busyness is exhausting. Is it any wonder we’re burnt out?”

Jolly goes on to argue that, while many perceive employee burnout as a problem with the organization not the person, in fact recognising and curbing burnout is really a power vested in each individual.

“Relying on an environment to change behaviour is a very passive-dependent approach. The most dangerous word I hear people say is ‘They’. ‘They should’, ‘They know’, ‘They won’t’. The more senior you get, the more you realise there is no ‘They’! We are all ‘They’,” he says.

For many people their identity has become too dependent on their role at work. They set unrealistically high standards for themselves, never feeling their work is done and consequently live in a state of noisy busyness, exacerbated by the constant demands of text messages, email and social media diverting them from the task at hand.

These individuals need to take control says Jolly. And in this extract from his article he offers four essential techniques for avoiding burnout:

Challenge untested assumptions

“When you’re providing emotional labour” – the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job – “you’re more prone to burnout. You feel you have less control over your own time and energy when you're providing a service. If your client wants a contract by 09.00 the next day, you work through the night to get it done. In a way, your life is serving at somebody else’s pleasure. So, in situations like these, how can you take control? Challenge untested assumptions. Ask your client, ‘Do you really need that contract by 09.00?’ Have the courage and confidence to ask, ‘When’s the latest you need it by?’ This may seem easier said than done when you face an impossible workload. So remember to continually test your assumptions. What can you change, what is absolutely fixed? Once you start to operate differently, you become a champion of trying new things.”

Make mindfulness mandatory

“There is evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in treating anxiety. It not only helps you retain your mental sharpness, it can improve your resilience to stress. I work with a Buddhist monk to teach executives how to meditate. In one insurance firm, I observed senior management take this so seriously after mindfulness paid dividends that they made it mandatory. Now, the top team makes sure its employees across the world learn breathing and thinking techniques. You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to pay more attention to the present moment, you don’t have to go to Tibet. Even simple breathing exercises can help. Apps such as Headspace offer guided sessions, allowing you time to practise. If you spend 10 minutes meditating a day, you will have significantly more than 10 extra minutes of productive time a day. If you feel you don’t have time, map how you spend your hours currently and you’ll soon see that you always have time to do the things you want to do.”

Avoid time-consuming busywork

“Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, Germany’s Chief of the Army High Command before the second world war, was a celebrated military strategist. He divided his officers into four groups based on their behavioural habits – clever, diligent, stupid and lazy. Then, he combined them so that people were grouped as clever and diligent, stupid and lazy, clever and lazy, and stupid and diligent. He found that clever, lazy people made the best leaders. He thought they made good difficult decisions because they wanted to make everything easier, while having the mental sharpness to find innovative ways to do so. Clever, lazy people avoided busywork, such as pointless meetings, they delegated to others to get things done and they focused on the essentials rather than being distracted by excessive extras. Von Hammerstein-Equord said that the most dangerous of his staff were hardworking and stupid, because they were the ones to say yes to everything and ended up burnt out. The moral of the story is not to be a lazy leader, but not to get bogged down in busywork. Choose to do high-value work. Your ability to be proactive instead of reactive is a test of who you really are.”

Charge for your time

“It pays to prioritise. You can’t respond to everything and everyone – you can’t do it all. To help you choose your daily actions carefully, think about mentally charging for your time. The top team of one Silicon Valley firm – let’s call it TimeSave – was fighting employee burnout. Part of the problem was too many meetings. In a trial, management took all the clocks off the meeting walls and replaced them with digital systems. When executives entered the room wearing their security passes, the connected wall devices scanned the electronic barcodes. The clock allowed TimeSave to calculate the cost of the meeting in real-time depending on who was in the room, for how long, and to what end. Everybody had a price. After the experiment, TimeSave employees halved the average length of their meetings. This is a potent reminder that your time comes at a cost – personally and professionally.”

You don’t have to wait for your organisation to change – avoiding burnout is up to you. By cherishing your time, doing high-value work, taking your mental health seriously and stretching and testing your own assumptions, you can avoid burnout. The only person standing in your way is you.

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