When work bleeds into life and leisure, telltale signs of burnout can appear: exhaustion, disillusionment, and apathy.
In a world where devices and software hook everybody into busy connectedness, where emails never stop arriving, and work can be done just about anywhere, burnout is a global problem.
Of about 2,800 senior managers surveyed in the US, 96% said they are feeling some degree of burnout, according to staffing firm Accountemps, which specialises in finance and accounting professionals. A fifth of respondents to the 2019 survey identified their team's burnout level at eight or higher out of 10.
In the UK, 1,800 of every 100,000 workers were estimated to suffer from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in the 2018 Labour Force Survey, which polled about 38,000 households across Great Britain.
Sydney-based psychologist Audrey McGibbon is the co-founder of Eek & Sense and the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS). Eek & Sense has worked on wellbeing programmes with corporate clients such as Qantas and Australia's national postal service. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the more than 2,700 professionals GLWS polled in 2019 said they feel at risk of burnout.
"Burnout is the state of saying, 'You know what? I'm just done,'" McGibbon said. "'I can't do this anymore. I'm exhausted. I'm depleted. I'm running on empty. I don't feel in any sense that I am achieving or accomplishing anything anymore.' It's that feeling of overwhelm, that people interpret as a kind of a personal failing, that they're not good enough."
That's not a good place for anyone to be. But where does the responsibility for identifying and preventing burnout rest? It's complicated, as McGibbon explained.
Feeling the burn
Employees' wellbeing or lack thereof affects businesses worldwide, Gallup suggested. The consulting company found that employees at risk of burnout are 48% more likely to leave the company.
Many of us wear several hats, as parents, managers, and individual employees, said Jon Tidd, FCMA, CGMA, an Australia-based CFO of Asia Pacific fibre network company Superloop. "Where it turns into a dangerous cocktail for burnout, is when we have a combination of a sense of responsibility to others, in other words, 'unless I do all of this stuff, then I will let others down', a sense of self-doubt, 'I need to stretch myself to be able to contribute', and thirdly an unconscious sense of self-importance, 'I am needed to help us succeed.'"
McGibbon's Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey suggests this mindset is common amongst senior executives and business leaders. The 2019 survey found that about 60% of senior professionals feel stressed and anxious at work and are prone to high levels of self-doubt.
It's a challenge to look out for every employee's wellbeing, especially if you're a CFO who has to take a helicopter view of an organisation, Tidd said.
5 ways to beat burnout
Ambiguity across an organisation can create an environment where burnout can thrive, Tidd said.
To create a culture of wellbeing, managers need to:
- Communicate clear role and team expectations: Managers can help employees use their core skills with backing from supportive colleagues. Tidd said he used a three C's approach at the last three companies for which he worked. The three C's stand for clear, capable, and connected, and they ensure everyone on a team knows what they are doing, that they have the skills and capacity to perform their jobs, and that they have trusted colleagues to talk to whenever pressure rises.
- Prioritise strategic tasks and projects: Deciding what not to do is key, Tidd said. "There's a great phrase: Strategy is what you choose not to do. In organisations that haven't got clarity on what not to do, everybody tries to do everything," he said. "But if there's five things I should be doing and five things I could be doing, I'm probably going to try and do all ten because I'm not clear that that second five are the things that aren't actually required."
- Encourage switching off: The global nature of many companies makes it close to impossible to set a "normal" working day. Robert Half, Accountemps' parent company, suggests that local office leadership can play a part by avoiding practices like after-hour phone calls or emails.
- Set boundaries for responsibility and accountability: Consultants suggest setting up a RACI matrix, a chart that lists responsibilities assigned to specific employees before a key project or business process happens. RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed.
- Think prevention, rather than cure: The individual must be at the heart of every effort to curtail burnout's costly impact on employee, team, and organisational wellbeing, McGibbon explained. "Every good organisation will have processes like an employee-assistance programme, and they'll know how to move into a good crisis intervention," she said. "But the clever, progressive organisations will be running their businesses in such a way as to try and head that off at the pass. So, it's a much more preventative strategy."
— Luke O'Neill is a freelance writer based in Australia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.