Gary Martin: Bosses must play a bigger role in beating burnout


With the pandemic still hanging over us, our not-so-normal new normal demands workplaces prioritise employee wellbeing.

The traditional go-to advice for those smouldering towards burnout was to take a few days of “me time” to snuff out any emerging feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness.

But the reality is, only your boss can cure burnout.

Camera IconProfessor Gary Martin. Credit: Bruno Kongawoin

At many workplaces employees are being asked to do more with fewer resources as workers quit and suitable replacements cannot be found, or businesses choose to stay lean and leave positions vacant in the face of uncertainty.

Regardless of whether you are working extra-long hours as a frontline worker or experiencing challenges in separating work from the rest of your life while working remotely, there is a good chance you will approach breaking point at some stage.

The term “burnout syndrome” was coined by psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger, who diagnosed his own condition. He described it as a state of perpetual exhaustion brought on primarily by a person’s job.

Freudenberger said: “Not only do those afflicted with the syndrome have bad attitudes, they have headaches, stomach problems, trouble sleeping and shortness of breath.”

The World Health Organisation has subsequently defined burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Regardless of your own efforts at self-care, unless your boss intervenes you will likely experience a combination of fatigue, irritability, anger and hostility at the same time as being down on yourself.

For most bosses, it is sometimes tempting to try to deal with burnout by looking at “the burnee” rather than what is happening in the workplace.

Yet burnout arises not because of an employees’ actions or inactions, but because of the situation they find themselves in.

There are at least four key workplace factors responsible for burnout.

Workload, or having too much to do, is the chief culprit. However, a lack of autonomy, little or no recognition and a toxic workplace culture can all play a part, too.

Those managing others can reduce the risk of burnout by allocating workloads across a team in an equitable way, making priorities clear to employees and matching tasks and projects to the knowledge and expertise of individuals in their teams.

They should ensure that employees receive adequate recognition for the work they perform since, regardless of level or competency, most will respond well and be more engaged when they feel appreciated.

Managers should provide sufficient coaching to allow team members to work in an autonomous fashion and endeavour to build a culture underpinned by trust, fairness and respect.

And it goes without saying that bosses should regularly check in on their team members’ wellbeing, because they should know that burnout has a nasty habit of creeping up on employees and by then it will be too late for any preventative actions.

For further insights and expertise on current workplace topics visit AIM WA’s Workplace Conversations

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive at the Australian Institute of Management WA



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