Burnout is the word of 2021. How can leaders help?

Credit - Author: Jack Moreh

Busting Burnout in 2021

Just like the word “unprecedented” rose to the top of 2020’s greatest hits, “burnout” is on track to top the charts in 2021. If there’s a word we can’t shake in our work with leaders right now, that’s it, and with good reason. Here’s what’s still real for a lot of us: 

  • Decision fatigue + the mental stress of living through a pandemic: 
    • If I’m six feet away and the windows are open, can I take my mask off for lunch?
    • Can I reuse a mask if I only wore it for a few minutes? 
    • Is it okay to see them if we are masked and sit across the table? And on and on…
  • Blurred lines between work and home. Working more hours with fewer breaks. Back to back zooms, anyone?
  • Video chats are exhausting. Eye strain + headaches + so much sitting
  • Kids are still remote learning – Enough said. 
  • Parents in dual-career households (most of us) are struggling without the supports of childcare, housework, etc. that we somehow pieced together pre-pandemic.  
  • Loss. Many have gotten sick. Many have passed away. Many have lost so much.  So many have worked endless hours doing their best to care for the sick, the lonely, and the elderly. People have lost jobs, income, and food. 

Of course, there’s more, but I’ll stop there. We all know what’s real. The question for a lot of leaders right now is “What can we do?” 

To bust burnout, you need to understand the differences between stress, burnout, and depression. 

Read on to learn the differences between the three, when each one becomes problematic, and checklists of things to think about and try.

Here’s how I think about each one (based on reviewing a bunch of research): 

Stress: Your body’s response to a situation that feels challenging, frustrating, or tense. It’s actually a healthy response to challenges. It helps you focus, gives you temporary energy to manage the challenge or get out of a dangerous situation. Here’s the important part – stress is temporary. It’s considered stress when you can see the end of it.  

You experience a stress response in a “cycle”. There’s an event or situation that triggers stress, you respond to the stress, and you resolve the stress, bringing your body back to a feeling of calm and safety. 

Problem: When stress events keep coming and you either don’t have a break from stress events and/or you don’t have the chance to complete stress response cycles, that bring your body back to a calm, safe state. This is when chronic stress can kick in and it can mess with everything from sleep to digestion to energy levels, to the ability to get things done. (Hello 2020)

Three things to think about: 

  • Are you completing stress response cycles? The best ways to do this:
    • exercise
    • doing something creative like painting, drawing, writing, or listening to music
    • deep breathing
    • laughing or talking with a friend or loved one

All of these activities bring your body back into a calm, rational state. 

  • Are there ways to create breaks for yourself when you’re dealing with more stress than usual? When things are super stressful, small, frequent breaks can help even though it sometimes feels impossible. 
  • Talk. Even though it can feel hard to do when you’re stressed, reaching out to close friends and family and sharing your stress can ease the burden, at the very least.  Often, it can provide insights, ideas, and useful perspectives. 

Burnout: The World Health Organization now has a definition of burnout and classifies it specifically as a workplace problem. This is super important. Burnout happens when there is too much (or chronic) unresolved stress at work. Three things happen when you feel burned out: 

  1. You’re exhausted and super low energy 
  2. You start to feel cynical, negative, and distant 
  3. You feel like no matter what you do, you can’t make a difference and you can’t change the conditions. You feel helpless.

Problem: Burnout is largely a workplace structure issue. If people are experiencing burnout, you have to change the way work is structured. 

Things to think about: 

  • How can people have more autonomy over their own schedule and workload? 
  • Are expectations clear, reasonable, and mutual for everyone? 
  • Is asking for help and offering help a regular practice on and across teams and levels? 
  • If the work is difficult and relentless, can you make a “rest map”? You literally map out opportunities for people to take micro-breaks, leading up to scheduled longer breaks so people can see when they can rest.

Depression: A mood disorder that’s marked by intense sadness and loss of interest in activities that you typically find enjoyable. Depression is a treatable medical condition and can be caused by a number of factors including genetics, personality, history of mental illness, and chronic stress. When you’re depressed you may experience a variety of changes in behavior and emotions including: 

  • Isolation and withdrawal from others
  • Feeling sad and hopeless
  • Lack of energy, enthusiasm, and motivation 
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Trouble concentrating and/or remembering things 
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Mood swings 
  • Increased substance use
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Problem: Dealing with depression in the workplace is complex. Workplaces aren’t often well-equipped to identify and prevent depression even as increasing numbers of working-age adults experience it. 

Things to think about: 

  • Is it clear and easy to access mental healthcare resources at work? 
  • Do people know what their mental healthcare benefits are? 
  • Are there places where anonymous depression self-assessments can be made available? 
  • Could leaders be trained in how to have empathetic, supportive conversations and what to listen for that indicates someone needs a referral to a mental healthcare professional? 

The bottom line? Year two of the pandemic will hopefully bring us closer to living safely with more freedom and reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues. At the same time, we’ll be dealing with much higher levels of stress, burnout, and depression at work, as we continue to live through the pandemic and its aftermath. Knowing the difference between stress, burnout and depression can help us develop the right supports and structures for those who need it most. When I boil down what leadership is all about, I often think it’s about taking care of one another. Modeling and teaching people how to take care of each other may be the most important thing a leader can do right now. 

Jen Margolis

About Jen Margolis

My passion is helping people find and use their strengths to move toward their biggest vision. My career began as a community organizer with refugees and grew to designing and facilitating programs for international professionals including grassroots women leaders in Egypt. These experiences led me to management consulting focusing on strategic planning, leadership development, community and education based program development and executive coaching.