When we talk about wellbeing there are so many topics that arise. One of which is burnout, which is a term we often see get thrown around more often than not. And with our current climate it is definitely one that has brewed even more to the surface as people become even more stretched and placed in situations that they never have been in before. But what is burnout? What are its triggers? And most importantly how should we be addressing this along with other wellbeing related topics from an organisational standpoint? 

Whilst, The World Health Organisation has coined burnout an occupational phenomenon. If you type it into Google the definition that pops up is as follows:

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. 


Further if we look at the topic through the eyes of the work that Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley has been doing. We can add to the definition by saying that burnout is typically experienced in three ways – exhaustion, cynicism  / negativity and ineffectiveness. 

There are usually six key triggers that impact burnout for individuals that Christina talks about which are defined as follows: 

  • Workload, which tends to be the first trigger that comes up for people. The workload element is usually about the balance between the work you actually have been allocated and the resources that you have to complete it all (e.g. time, tools, support, etc.).
  • Autonomy, which is the one I have come across most when speaking to people, is about the flexibility and control you have over your time, your work, and everything in between.
  • Reward / recognition / positive feedback, isn’t about the monetary aspects but more about having that constant dialogue around the value that you bring and the reinforcement around what you are doing.
  • Community, which is about the social construct surrounding the work you do. So the people you either work and / or come in contact with and what that all may look and feel like on a day to day basis.
  • Fairness, which is one that has a basis in an area I am very passionate about, which is all about policy, practices and overall treatment.
  • Values, which I think should be re-coined as purpose, is all about value / purpose driven work, feeling like you are making an overall contribution to something.  

None of these concepts are mutually exclusive, in fact it is often that a few of these are working under the surface to drive the feelings we begin to experience around burnout. The challenge that arises is that as people call out their feelings of burnout, the blame game emerges – it’s either the employee or the organisation. You see the same thing with a lot of topics surrounding workplace wellbeing. It is usually one or the other. But that isn’t the reality. The reality is that all of these topics surrounding wellbeing, burnout being one of them, is about the relationship between the employee and the workplace and therefore has to become something we look at together in the same manner we would with our personal relationships.

In my eyes the basis to getting under the skin of this pivotal and important relationship is in driving open communication, awareness and confidence, which are the basis of my top three tips on how we can begin to address challenges such as burnout from an organisational context. 

My three main tips are as follows. 

1. Spend time understanding one another

Whether you are the lead of a team or an individual in one or someone working in a silo. A big part of the challenges that arise from a wellbeing standpoint is our ability to be able to spot signs and symptoms. Often times as individuals experiencing challenges we don’t recognise it until it all blows up, so there is so much value and merit in being able to teach people about ourselves so that they can in some ways be our eyes and ears when we need it most. 

Therefore it is important that as colleagues, teams and leaders we spend time getting to know each other and asking some simple questions such as – What helps us thrive? What creates stress for us? What are some key things that you should really know? What are your ideal working patterns? What does stress look like for you? What do you value? What do you need to be successful? What does support look like?, etc. 

You can use periodic check-ins, team meetings, daily stand ups, etc., to create a space for conversations and activities like this. And just remember that often times people haven’t stopped to think about what some of these things may look like for them, so just allowing that space and the open conversation is such a great way to break down the walls that we often feel we have to keep up in an organisational context. Remember there is no work life and home life, even if we try our best to compartmentalise the two worlds do blend and therefore, we need to allow the space for being able to understand what that means for each of us. 

2. Embed conversations around wellbeing / wellness into the day to day 

A huge part to breaking the stigma around these conversations is in starting to normalise them. So having daily / periodic check-ins, taking the time to really hear how people are when you ask “how are you?”,  checking in as soon as things don’t feel right, etc., are all really key in breaking down the discomfort and fear that people have in having these conversations. Even something as simple as asking people to rate how they are feeling on a day to day basis and why can be really effective. At the outset you will get people saying 8/10 when they feel much worse, but like anything the more you do it, the more people will start to feel comfortable in answering honestly. 

Just remember that we don’t have to overcomplicate it, its a simple conversation that we just need to be intentional and consistent about. If we are going to set a stage by making space for number one above, we have to also create a space to keep the conversation ongoing.

3. Challenge the norm 

If there is anything we have learnt from Corona Virus it is that organisations and people can handle a shake up – we are more resilient than we often give ourselves credit for. Therefore, don’t be afraid to challenge the norm, to ask for personalisation, to question the practices and policies in place. So much of what we do in an organisational context has been set in stone for centuries and also is meant to serve the masses. So there is merit in challenging it and also asking for personalisation as you would from an app or anything you buy in the market. 

We have come off of a year of experiencing a global pandemic, shifts in the political climate and challenges around prevalent topics such as diversity and inclusion, these are all great examples of how norms have been challenged and therefore set the stage for us to do the same when it comes to topics surrounding workplace wellbeing, such as burnout. The key to opening up the stage to this challenge is to feel empowered and confident enough to speak up, which can come out of the psychological safety that numbers one and two above can create. 

In starting to realise that the employee and organisational relationship is one that needs to be fostered in the same manner as our personal ones do, we will be able to create platforms for open and honest communication, that by default create a level of safety that empowers each party to speak up and challenge norms. All of this combined will help us to understand that the answer to addressing topics such as burnout in the workplace isn’t always buried in one size fits all strategies and instead is actually buried in our ability to empower one another.