THE REAL COST OF BURNOUT
Burnout is the result of continuing, or repeated emotional burden, in relation to long-term and intensive effort towards other people.
This is going to be a long article, still, it might be worth reading. It could literally save you loads of energy and money.
Some time ago I went to a lecture, and it was surprising to see that compared to other similar events, which would normally have around 60-100 participants, this topic attracted a crowd of at least 250.
I was surprised, because the topic is not one that we talk about too often and definitely not something we admit to being affected by.
So, what is this thing, that got so many people excited?
It was the topic of burnout.
In Germany, this phenomenon had already been officially recognized as an illness which endangers the whole population. If we consider Gallup’s estimates, that at least 24% of employees are affected, it means burnout costs German workplaces 9 billion euros annually in lost productivity. https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/190049/high-cost-worker-burnout-germany.aspx
If we add another Gallup statistics, which says that 67% of employees worldwide are “not engaged” in their work, meaning that completing their daily tasks requires considerable effort, then the number of people who are likely to be at risk of burnout is far bigger, than what we see in the statistics.
Although burnout is finally getting some attention, in most workplaces it’s still not taken seriously enough. When it does come up, it’s often considered to be a shameful topic, and better to pretend it doesn’t exist at all.
It is quite difficult to offer a program to most companies, if it’s called burnout prevention. We must invent all kinds of sexy names for employers to even consider dealing with it, names that include energy, wellness, well-being, etc.
So, why does burnout cost a lot for companies?
On the employer side, it costs a lot, because when the employee is demotivated, disengaged, and exhausted, their main focus is on how to get away with the day. This means the obvious, that they will not be as productive as could otherwise be.
This employee should be fired! – would be the normal reaction.
Yes, that’s a possibility. But, if we consider the cost of high employee turnover within a company, then firing everyone may not be the best solution.
Once I made a quick calculation for one of my clients, the director of a luxury hotel, what the expense of replacing someone would be. The industry itself is at a huge risk of burnout and high employee turnover. So he was quite surprised when we looked at the costs of hiring a recruiter, the time it would take to find the right person, during which other team members would need to do his job. Then training the new colleague would mean that those who train him would not be able to do their own work at their usual potential.
It would have cost a lot less to invest in developing the team and figuring out ways to keep motivated employees healthy and engaged.
There are some countries now, where a large percent of skilled workers is missing from the workforce, so high employee turnover could bring unexpected deficit to these firms. Serious attention should be paid to employee retention, and burnout prevention is an important part of this.
And why does burnout cost you a lot, as an employee or an entrepreneur?
Let me explain.
When you work under a lot of pressure, lacking a sense of achievement, and little positive feedback, then sooner or later you will lose part of your soul. You will be exhausted, as you continue to try and put all your energy into your work. But without your soul you will need much more effort to produce the same results. So, you will be even more tired, and can get to the point when you will not be able to work anymore.
If you let yourself get to this point, material losses will follow.
You may be fired, or during company restructuring, you will be the one, who they let go first. If your income is commission-based, or you’re an entrepreneur, you will not be able to generate as much income as you need to. A permanently tired person is not able to negotiate effectively, or sell, or lead people.
In the middle of burnout, it’s possible that for months, or even years you’ll feel that you don’t have the strength or the will to start working again. You might also be getting ill more often. Even so, you must work because everyone has a mortgage, children, a family, so you have to earn money. You keep pushing it, and you won’t have time to rest until you’re completely worn out.
After this, you’ll be spending on doctors, and a long therapy, to be able to work again.
Please do the math, and see how much revenue you’ll be losing.
I know these are very dark thoughts, but I’ve seen this happen, and I’ve personally experienced this. I was lucky, because I had savings to help me take time off. But it would have cost a lot less if I had noticed my burnout earlier and turned it around in time.
I could have asked for help, perhaps a coach and even a year’s work with one would have cost a lot less than not being able to work for many months.
I’m writing this article to show that prevention is a lot less expensive for both the employer and the employee, but first, we need to understand what we’re talking about.
At first you won't even notice it
A while ago, I asked my readers what they would like me to write about. One of my friends replied, that he’d like to know more about how I was able to maintain my work-life balance level as a leader.
Truth is, I couldn’t.
I slipped into burnout.
And the fact that by now I know, that several factors contributed to it, not only work, doesn’t make me feel better about it. At the time I had to deal with a difficult family situation, serious legal and also workplace problems. All at the same time. I was carrying too much burden alone for way too long.
At first, it’s really difficult to notice the signs.
At the time I had no idea, neither as an employee nor as a business owner, what the first signs of burnout are. In fact, I remember how I didn’t worry at all, when many years ago, while I was at a scuba diver training, I picked up calls from the office between each dive! Every time I got out of the water, with a dripping wetsuit, my cell phone rang, and I took care of stuff happening at one of the destinations I was in charge of.
Despite the fact, that I was on holiday, the calls found me, and I answered each one of them. And I thought it was ok! I felt responsible for doing my job well.
It also didn’t bother me for a long time, that I was working overtime regularly in my own company, and normally went for just a week-long holiday. But I was available even then.
To me it was normal. I thought this was the best for my company, my colleagues, my clients. My work was important, I wanted to manage my company perfectly, I wanted to be a good boss and an excellent service provider. And then when the family situation needed my attention, the pressure I was under, suddenly doubled.
I wanted to meet everyone’s expectations.
(I’m guessing that if you’re still reading this article, you can relate to what I’m talking about).
Years later, when I could hardly sleep because thoughts were constantly spinning in my head, and I was crying a lot, feeling tired almost always, I did the only thing I was capable of doing at the time.
That was the moment when I decided that anything would be better than this, even cleaning hotels. I was lucky because I was not in the final stages of burnout when I should have turned to a doctor, but I was unable to work for at least a year. I was completely drained and without a purpose.
This was my second burnout, but this time I turned to a coach, to help me find a new perspective. Still, I was unable to generate income for a long time, and just thinking about my profession, which I loved until then, made me even more frustrated.
So, what is burnout?
Burnout is not the same thing as too much stress, although the line between the two is blurred.
Stress is the result of psychological and physical pressure, and usually, the end is in sight.
Burnout is the result of putting in too much effort, investing into something emotionally, intellectually, or physically over a long period of time, while not getting back enough in return, and not doing enough to restore yourself.
Burnout comes from being overworked, and undervalued.
Putting in too much effort and passion and lacking emotional gratification.
When you put all your heart and soul into a job or a relationship, and you are not appreciated enough, you begin to feel, that what you’re doing is meaningless, and unimportant. Burnout starts from putting passion into things and then burning till there are only ashes left.
Like burning logs of wood.
Originally, the term Burnout Syndrome was used only for those who worked in helping professions: nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers. However, as a result of our super accelerated way of life, the crises, and the fact that people have to live up to an increasing number of expectations, in several roles, burnout has become a risk for almost all professions.
According to some studies, by 2030 burnout could become one of the deadliest illnesses, just as dangerous as heart disease. The economical effects are also significant. The price of burnout is not only huge for the person who is affected, but it is also significant for the employer, who has to deal with demotivated, frequently ill employees.
There are several official definitions of burnout, from which I chose two:
· Herbert J. Freudenberger /1974/ psychoanalyst:
“The syndrome is caused by chronic emotional exertion and stress, that results in physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, which comes with the feeling of hopelessness and incompetence, the loss of goals and ideals, and which is characterized by a negative attitude towards self, the work, and others.”
· Ditsa Kafry /1981/:
“Burnout is the result of continuing, or repeated emotional burden, in relation to long-term and intensive effort towards other people”.
Some examples for the cause of burnout
Anne-Rose Barth /Nürnberg/:
• A lot of stress, a huge emotional burden.
• Little motivation and decreasing satisfaction at the workplace.
• Deteriorated social relationships.
(Burnout bei Lehrern – unveröffentlichte Dissertation. 1990, Nürnberg)
Georg E. Becker:
• Continuous exposure to problematic clients.
• Burdensome working conditions and relationships.
• Personality traits of the Helper Syndrome.
• Stress processing strategies.
Robert J. Wicks: frustrating deficits
• Lack of training.
• Lack of opportunity.
• Lack of free time.
• Lack of ability.
• Lack of adequate „valves”.
• Lack of diversity in daily tasks.
• Lack of meaningful tasks.
• Lack of criteria that enable the measurement of impact.
• Lack of adjustment mechanisms.
• Lack of harmony between colleagues.
• Lack of professional and personal recognition.
• Lack of understanding of personal motivation factors.
• Lack of balanced time management.
THE 12 STAGES OF BURNOUT - the first is the most surprising
The process of burnout in some studies is divided into 5 stages, but psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have created a theory, in which it is broken down into 12 phases, which are not necessarily sequential.
Burnout syndrome does not strike overnight, it develops gradually over time.
Many victims skip certain stages; others find themselves in several at the same time. The length of each phase varies from patient to patient.
To describe the 12 stages of burnout, I translated parts of an article written by my amazing former teacher, when I was studying psychodrama, Dr Sarolta Ónody (psychiatrist, psychotherapist, trainer for psychodrama therapy, supervisor), who is a burnout syndrome specialist.
The process of burnout:*
- From the compulsion of wanting to prove oneself, until it becomes an obsession – The need to be „ideal”, combined with excessive ambition. A constant desire to prove oneself, both at the workplace and in private life. The environment appreciates and rewards this kind of ambition. The determination and the commitment gradually turn into an obsession. What can help? Acknowledging when the compulsion becomes an obsession. Establishing a natural work and life rhythm.
- Increased Effort – Because there is a constant need to prove oneself to others, tasks become more urgent. The ability to delegate disappears, and there is a constant fear of losing control. From the outside, the person seems diligent, goal-centred. They also try to fit into an organization that does not suit them. The constant increase in performance results in fatigue and a decrease in efficiency. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. What can help? Delegating tasks, so that the workload is reduced, which will create higher productivity.
- Neglecting personal needs – Since they have devoted everything to work, they forget to take care of their personal life, and gradually emotions, love, humour, and fun will disappear from their lives. They take work home, and it becomes their only pastime. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping begin to be considered unnecessary or unimportant. They don’t take time off, or go on vacation, eating habits change, exercise is neglected. What can help? The first step is to recognize the signs, then think about what helped in the past to relax? A pre-planned daily or weekly agenda for meals, exercise, and time set aside for holidays.
- Suppressing personal needs and conflicts – This is when the first physical symptoms can appear. Backaches, headaches, prone to disease due to weak immune system. They feel that they need to take better care of their health, but they do all they can to stop their environment from noticing how worried they are. They react to the physical signs of fatigue with over-delivery: they sleep or exercise throughout the weekend, and afterward, they feel even more tired. What can help? To take the cautions seriously, and schedule sleep and exercise at daily, regular times.
- Transformation of personal values – They have already learnt how to give up their needs, which are constantly silenced, so gradually their natural value system crashes. Their sense of judgement and perception is deformed. Loss of old, close relationships, loss of friends, loneliness. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt. What can help? An honest review of their own values: in what order are they? What kind of order of these values would satisfy them? What steps can they take to achieve this?
- Denial of emerging problems – There is a constant urge of accomplishment and all else ceases to exist. Completion of tasks becomes an obsession. Contact with the outside world is lost. Social life with friends and family becomes a burden, and social contact becomes unbearable. The person starts to become intolerant and impatient and outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. What can help? Reducing the overload of work. Change starts with the acknowledgement of the reality that is being denied. It helps if they can talk to someone about their condition.
- Withdrawal – Their social life now is little or non-existent, soon turning into isolation. All exchange of emotions and ideas disappear. An extreme phenomenon could be a desire for “total exit.” This often results in the feeling of hopelessness and disorientation. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for release, since their primary obsession is still work. What can help? Recognition, that everyone needs human contact.
- Obvious behavioural changes – The acceptance of outside opinion is completely lost, everything is perceived as criticism. They become immune to the love they receive. The appearance of new passions, or the total disappearance of previous ones. These changes are characterised by extreme behaviour. What can help? Awareness and recognition of the change. Recovering the ability to differentiate between care and criticism from others.
- Depersonalization – They start to lose contact with themselves, and their inner world. They see neither self nor others as valuable. They start to doubt their own knowledge and the meaning and value of the profession. They no longer perceive their own needs. They perceive their own bodies as strangers, and they lose all sense of danger. What can help? Professional therapy.
- Inner emptiness – Life is permanently unbearable, and this can produce psychopathic symptoms: fear, panic attacks, claustrophobia etc. To overcome these and the emptiness inside, they might look for activities that could be a source of pleasure, such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. What can help? Professional therapy.
- Depression – Life seems meaningless, hopeless, joyless, and is a burden. The feeling of fatigue and despair are permanent, and it is difficult to get out of bed. What can help? Immediate medical and psychotherapeutic intervention.
- Burnout Syndrome – psychotic state – They collapse physically, emotionally and psychologically at the same time. In extreme cases, when depression symptoms persist, suicidal thoughts may appear. What can help? Immediate medical intervention.
(*Source: Dr Sarolta Ónody – New Educational Review (Hungary) in May 2001- Symptoms of Burnout Syndrome and Its Possible Cures.)
I hope this description helps identify and understand the kind of risks you might be taking.
The reason we don't talk about burnout
Burnout is often referred to as a silent threat, partially because it’s hard to notice it in the beginning and partially because we don’t talk about it.
It is without doubt a difficult topic in a society where high performance is obligatory.
Many of the people I know, who are perhaps already showing signs of burnout, will never admit, that they are constantly tired, or feeling negative about their work. If I bring it up with a client, they often immediately change the conversation.
Once a client actually quit the coaching process, when we started talking about how she was unable to get enough rest during the weekends, so that she would have at least a little energy to go to work. It was too difficult for her to admit, that all she wanted was to stop.
Admitting that they can’t cope anymore, that they cannot be good leaders at that moment, that the work they used to love stopped being interesting for them, that they’re constantly tired and unproductive would be the equivalent of declaring themselves total failures.
Even if they had a chance to relax, they won’t, because they feel guilty towards their family, friends and often colleagues as well, and this guilt doesn’t allow them to stop. Most people label themselves selfish when they wish to do something for themselves.
The thought of being a failure will trigger shame, and the thought that there’s something wrong with them will follow shortly. As Brené Brown says in her TED talk: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.”
And because shame questions self, most people will not ask for help.
Asking for help in many cultures is a sure sign of weakness, one of the biggest taboos of the 21st century and our over-achieving societies.
So, many people don’t even admit it to themselves, let alone others, that the fatigue, the lethargy, the hectic eating habits might be symptoms of burnout.
But burnout starts well before these symptoms. That’s why I insist that we talk about it openly, in order to avoid it. No matter how difficult this topic is.
I remember how ashamed I felt for a while, when people asked me what I was doing in Barcelona, where I moved after I suspended my profession and sold my company. I was terribly ashamed to admit I was doing NOTHING. At least that’s what not working felt like.
But I wasn’t really doing nothing – I was resting, recharging my batteries and learning Spanish, which were a whole lot of things.
In today’s societies, not being busy, not doing something useful should be kept a secret. Useful according to our social norms. So, if you decide to stop working for a while, you should be really embarrassed.
What I experienced with many clients was that even if they had the cash to go on a sabbatical, to stop working for a while, it was still very hard for them to make this decision. The fear of being labelled a failure is extremely deeply rooted, and I’ve seen many people fiercely hanging on to jobs that they’d been wanting to quit for years.
For many people, it’s not about not having the money to stop. But for many, it is, and when they finally cannot face another day at the office, they will spend their life’s savings to be able to take time off.
Others sell their car, their jewellery, stop going out at all, and would squeeze the last drop of toothpaste from the tube, to minimalize spending while they don’t have an income. They do so to avoid going back to the job that drained them, even if they were successful in it.
In many cultures, the ONLY excuse for taking a longer period of time off and to stop working is becoming seriously ill. If you are ill enough, then you will earn society’s forgiveness for not working.
Thankfully, there are now some countries, where going on a sabbatical is a natural thing. Taking yourself out of work for 3 months, maybe even a year or more is an accepted and acknowledged possibility for recharging your batteries. In some professions, it’s even obligatory.
In these countries, they’ve learnt, that the time you use for redesigning your life and recharging your energies could be useful for everyone. It’s considered to be a value to try new things, to fulfil long forgotten dreams, or to become a volunteer where you build waterpipes, because you will definitely learn a lot of good things from these experiences. They understand how this will help you become a better leader, which will eventually benefit your company. In a lot of these places they actually pay you to leave for a while.
So, stopping is not such a bad thing after all.
The reason we MUST talk about burnout
Where work is stressful and there’s not enough positive feedback, with loads of overtime, putting out fires frequently, there’s a big risk of burnout for many people. Especially if they enjoy working with each other, or like their work, because then it’s even harder to set healthy boundaries.
Telling yourself that burnout is one of those things, that happens only to other people, is sheer self-deception.
While originally the term burnout was used only for helper professions (nurses, doctors, teachers, psychologists), there is now proof that anyone can be affected by burnout in our constantly changing, high-speed business environment.
Brokers, advertising agency staff, bloggers, hoteliers, start-up colleagues, teachers, doctors, IT people, leaders, non-leaders can equally burn out.
It can happen to anyone. Anytime.
I’ll say it again: it can happen to anyone. Anytime.
The reason I talk about it a lot, because on one hand I know how much it can cost financially, professionally, emotionally, and on the other hand, I’ve yet to meet a client, who has not experienced some stage of burnout at some point of his/her life.
I talk about it, because it’s important to notice the first signs, which may already be happening to you when you talk about your job with starry eyes: how great it feels to work 14-hour days for several months in your downtown office, because the company is listed on Fortune 500, or the view is great, or because the projects are amazing.
This kind of overwhelming enthusiasm can easily cause problems later. Please don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about your work, but it is important to identify what feeds your enthusiasm.
Is it because it’s important for you to be accepted in that environment, and you’re hoping that if you do more than enough, your efforts will be noticed?
I talk about it a lot because I’m worried about the people who have been working nonstop for many years in highly stressful environments. They dream about being promoted, and how great that will look in their resumés. Yet, they are ill more and more often and hardly have time for their friends and family. But they usually don’t realize what they are doing to themselves, right up to the point, when someone else gets promoted.
I talk about it, because it can be prevented
There are cheaper solutions than burnout, you just have to decide which one you will choose. I suggest one of the following:
- Dr. Sarolta Ónody listed some useful tips for prevention in the 12 stages of burnout. If you see the slightest chance of burnout in your present life, then think of what you can do for yourself, check the list and do it. Don’t postpone it.
- A professional coach can help you reverse it, or avoid it, but please hire a coach, who understands what burnout is about and knows how to work with burnout clients. The process is reversible up to stage 8, but after that only a doctor, or psychiatrist can help.
- If you were to choose me, we can work together in different ways. Please check my website: https://www.kalangu.net/en/work-with-me, or contact me HERE.
I’ll be happy to answer your questions, or chat with you to see how I can help you best.