Burnout or exhaustion: Learn the difference to help ourselves and colleagues address the issues

Chief Human Resources Officer

Georgette Verdin | Chief Human Resources Officer

I recently listened to this Harvard Business Review podcast – an interview with Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the causes and impact of burnout. This is an important topic for all of us, personally and professionally.

This podcast is timely as we continue our cadence of home-lab-home or all-working from home (WFH).  The pace is fast, our work is interesting and challenging. Sometimes, yes, we feel exhausted. Yet, we also feel inspired and connected because what we do is meaningful and has purpose.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between burnout and exhaustion. All of us, whether people managers or individual contributors, can learn the difference and help ourselves and our colleagues address the issues.

Here are some insights I took away:

  • Burnout is the feeling of ineptitude and apathy, but it’s not a permanent or irreversible condition. Learning the signs of burnout can help pre-empt and address this issue.
  • Burnout is not an official medical condition. It’s an occupational phenomenon — a normal stress response to a stressful situation.
  • People throw the term around casually, but burnout is a three-pronged experience: chronic exhaustion, the feeling of cynicism and a sense of personal and professional ineffectiveness.
  • There are six biomarkers of burnout; they overlap and connect:
  • Workload: Balance between the demand of the job and the resources to accomplish it well.
  • Control or sense of autonomy: The ability to carry out your job independently. When people don’t have high levels of autonomy, act creatively or improvise when needed, that can lead to high levels of stress.
  • Positive feedback: When you’re not recognized for work well done, it can be draining.
  • The importance of relationships in the workplace: When there is destructive competitiveness, hostility, lack of support or trust, the interpersonal climate erodes.
  • Fairness: Impartial practices of ethical behavior and policies. If your workplace lacks this, it leads to cynicism.
  • Values and meaningful work: Being able to look with pride on the work you do, and what you are accomplishing.
  • To change things, you need to think outside the box.

You really can’t yoga your way out of burnout!