Wellness Works: Workplace burnout

We woke up to national news recently that the World Health Organization had listed “workplace burnout” as an illness. Hopefully this brings increased awareness and greater energy toward genuine, consistent efforts to prevent losing company productivity to employee burnout. The organization defines burnout as the combination of exhaustion, feeling negatively about one’s job and reduced efficacy. Take a second to let that sink in. In my observation of workplace stress over the last three decades, this is extraordinarily common. Even people who outspokenly love their work occasionally experience burnout, and how many of us can say we love our work?

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review observed that burnout tends to be misconceived as an individual problem rather than an organizational challenge. Burnout is cultural and systemic and has a price tag of an estimated $190 billion due to lost productivity and sick time. Companies mindful of the bottom line, not to mention morale, recruitment and retention, will benefit from taking this organizational issue seriously and not dismiss it by sending individuals to human resources once burnout symptoms become too loud to ignore. 

A Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent of workers feel burnout very often or always, and an additional 44 percent feel burnout sometimes. Conservatively speaking, half of American employees feel burnout.

There are many causes of burnout, overload being chief among them. One middle manager I spoke with recently about this said, “On Sunday evenings I feel sick to my stomach thinking about work. I feel like I’m drowning in emails and meetings. I can’t keep up, and everyone around me feels the same way.” 

As someone who has spent 30 years in worksite wellness, it is remarkable to me how reluctant most employers are to embrace real employee wellness as a strategy to prevent burnout, boost morale and productivity in the workplace. The majority of companies surveyed will say they have a workplace wellness program, but when one digs in to what that means, in many cases it’s an annual visit from a nurse for biometric screening.

Health promotion in the workplace is about developing and maintaining a culture of health behaviors starting with policy, continues with demonstration of health behaviors by all levels of management and is driven forward by an ongoing variety of programs embracing the six dimensions of wellness that appeal to all personality types in the organization. This is not only about the noon running club, though we cheer you on mightily!

This is an organizational issue and it’s personal, too. Individuals need time management skills and discipline to be organized and on-task at the appropriate times. Individuals need to be able to communicate with managers about workloads and establish reasonable expectations of work done. Burnout is not a badge of honor. Working yourself into a resentful, exhausted drone at the expense of your well-being and your fabulous personality is going in the wrong direction not only for you personally but for your colleagues and family.

If I could suggest one effort to help with this vast, complex issue of stress and burnout it would be yoga in every workplace. Yoga for everybody that embraces the ethics, breath and gentle movements of this mindful practice shifts the nervous system to restore calm, healthy, energized mental and physical function. It is the practiced combination of the philosophical teachings of yoga with calming breath and mindful movement that builds self-awareness of what’s occurring in the mind, body and heart. Then we can apply healthy strategies to address needs and prevent further deterioration that may be physical, mental or emotional.

Yoga can be practiced in any office wearing any clothing with people of all physical abilities. Yoga helps press the “re-set” button on stress management and mental functioning and is as productive in preventing burnout as any singular effort. The health of the organization depends on addressing this epidemic illness. Our public health depends on it, too.

See you out there.

Heather Hewitt Main, M.Ed., of Main Wellness Works, is a certified Personal Fitness Trainer and has worked as an instructor and presenter on public health education since 1989. She may be reached at heather@mainwellness.com.

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