The Burnout Syndrome: A Call to Action

I’ve never heard anybody ever stated burnout as a reason for leaving the company. Still, I think it’s one of the top five reasons why employees quit.

Today I’d like to talk about one very often overlooked topic in many organizations (and households, why not?). It’s burnout syndrome. The trigger for this was the recent news that one of my acquaintances was leaving the company. She is a very hard-working, knowledgeable, pleasant, and dedicated employee. Maybe even over-dedicated: she’s been working overtime, weekends, during meetings, often looking exhausted by multi-tasking. Although I know she’s leaving for another job, I can’t stop wondering these days if I or we as a team or a company could have prevented burnout of a colleague and kept with us a great coworker, an employee, a and person?

I have to admit – I’ve been there. Few times I left the company because I was burned out although, at that time, I didn’t recognize it. I just thought my hard work was not appreciated and I was not happy. But now, I have a completely different perspective. I’d appreciated it if someone had approached me and had told me: „Hey, you shouldn’t work so hard. There are more important things in life. Think about your future.”

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There is a well-known phenomenon in psychology called diffusion of responsibility whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility where others are present. One of the typical examples refers to a person falling on the street, or recently person burning and screaming from the balcony on the fifth floor of a building in Belgrade, when others are just watching or taking photos or videos to post on social networks without taking any actions to save or help the other. This reminded me of working in some organization when we notice that someone is stressed or burned out, and believe me it could take for years, and we did nothing. Although we cared for the other, we think “it’s his/her choice”, “it’s not my business”, ”it’s not my responsibility, it’s his/her manager’s duty”, “he/she will be angry at me”, etc. And the signs of burnout are quite evident and some of them are listed below (you can equally use “she” instead of “he” in the following sentences):

§ A colleague is always online, answers your emails even after working hours;

§ He doesn’t know to say No. Always accepts all the tasks given to him, even volunteers to take more tasks despite being overloaded;

§ He calls himself a workaholic and support that behavior of others as a sign of commitment to the company whereby considering people not working hard as „lazy”;

§ He rarely uses holidays and even on day-off checks his emails;

§ He looks like under stress; his posture is not relaxed, and we might be sweating and being nervous in the meetings;

§ On the contrary, a person may behave aggressively or even to emotional around business subjects that he feels are his responsibility;

§ He can lose his temper unexpectedly and blame stress and burnout for that (guys, burnout cannot be an excuse for bad behavior).

Usually, he’s always available and trusted. Managers count on them and give them more and more responsibilities. However, at some point in time, he becomes wasted and wants to exit. But people are already used to him working and behaving like that. Changing requires tearing down the image of himself (his business identity) and it could be painful. The only way to break this magic cycle of exhaustion they see in leaving the company and start over again on a sound basis. Unless…

How many times we were just watching a person in burnout thinking someone else will do or say something? How many times we were responsible and didn’t respond to our duty to be human, to be a good colleague? We are all responsible. Being his colleague, manager, friends, spouse, or even a child, gives us the responsibility to SPEAK UP. Maybe he won’t listen, maybe he will continue with the same behavioral pattern, but for sure it will raise his awareness. And if there is a critical mass of us pointing the problem out, we might initiate the change.

In modern matrix organizations situation is even more complicated. A worker has one or more managers and one or more project managers. It’s not easy. You as a worker are trying to make everyone happy. They say nowadays in COVID-19 times it’s even harder. You don’t see each other in person; people are arranging more meetings to make up for the time they would usually drop by to ask how you are doing. They say that now we work between 45 min and one hour more per day than before COVID-19 [1]. Thus, we can all be victims of burnout very soon.

Next time when you see your colleague in stress, trying to fulfill all the tasks on time while sacrificing his/her private life and well-being, bring this to his attention. Maybe he thinks that’s normal. Maybe that’s just learned behavior that can be unlearned if we show that we care and offer him our support. Just think, maybe you can be in his shoes soon without even noticing if we don’t all act to prevent it.

On the other hand, if you recognized yourself as (to become) burnouter (fr. for becoming a victim of burnout), just stop and ask yourself: “What would person you’ll become in 20 years from now, told yourself today: was it worth to burn yourself out at work?” You’ll know what to do next.


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