Where there is smoke…there might be burnout.




How many of us can relate to the phrase, “I’m so busy fighting fires that I don’t feel like I am accomplishing anything significant by the end of my work day?”.


In corporate speech, “fighting fires” typically refers to the handling of urgent matters or dealing with some work-related crisis, especially someone else’s urgent matter. Without a doubt, the impact of these often recurring problems (aka fires), can be costly to any business. Yet the business cost often pales in comparison to the mental, emotional and physical cost to the people fighting these unrelenting, daily fires.


I recently had the opportunity to present to the members and registrants of the Conference Board of Canada. In that presentation I shared approaches for senior leaders to help their people (and themselves) better cope with the disruption of Covid-19 and prevent professional burnout. During the Q&A a clear theme emerged, namely attendees wanted specifics about what leaders can do to mitigate what I call burnout accelerants.


A great example of a burnout accelerant is a workplace where perpetual fire-fighting is normalized. This type of normalization can have serious long-term consequences; especially when the act of fire-fighting interferes with the work from which people derive their deepest sense of satisfaction. In short, people who are continuously fighting-fires are bound to burn out. But, why?


We have known about the impacts of workplace/burnout for a while now.

For years, psychologists and researchers have been warning us about the impact of burnout. In the early 70’s, American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, was among the first scholars to position burnout as a condition that affects “the dedicated and over committed”. In essence, burnout is not so much about people over-working, as it is people over-caring.


Those who assume the role of corporate fire-fighters are typically individuals who are members of the over-caring club. While over-caring may sound like a noble pursuit, this behaviour can come at a significant personal cost due to the disproportionate level of care given to “the business” and helping others, without ensuring a necessary level of care is available for oneself.


What can leaders do to prevent the spread of burnout accelerants?

For starters, ruthlessly prioritize; especially during Covid-19. At a time like this, completing certain tasks to check off our to-do list is literally way less important than sustaining the wellbeing of our workforce. Within that, we must all learn how to spot the often unspoken “cries for help” from our people; what I refer to as their burnout smoke signals.


Research shows us there are specific (smoke) signals that pertain to professional/workplace burnout that differentiate from other work-related concerns. Among the more common signals, this includes: (1) Emotional exhaustion – Consistent and overwhelming fatigue (2) Depersonalization – Detachment from work relationships and a lack of empathy for colleagues and (3) Loss of meaning - Sense of purposelessness.


The challenge that faces most organizations, especially in a global pandemic, is the ability to successfully manage the actual “busyness of the business”, or as one of my clients calls it, “the tyranny of the urgent”.


This normalized sense of urgency can prevent leaders from spotting their people’s burnout (smoke) signals, resulting in an incremental accumulation of burnout accelerants. Left undetected, these accelerants can spread like wildfire and rob their people, teams, and eventually the whole workplace culture of the energy needed to thrive.


If we can understand how to identify signs of burnout, assess its prevalence within our people, colleagues, and ourselves; we can take the first steps to preventing burnout accelerants from taking root.


There are other contributing factors that act as burnout accelerants worth mentioning, such as a lack of socio-emotional and instrumental aid, and emotional labour (the real biggie). I will share more on these types of burnout accelerants in upcoming posts.


So the next time you hear a colleague or one of your people say the phrase “I’m too busy fighting fires,” imagine at that moment that you have the power to extinguish the flame. By seeing beyond their explanation for the immediate problem they are trying to solve (fire), instead take a moment to be compassionately curious about the pattern that may be at play.


So many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that we need to be the hero; it’s a well-founded belief that has always been reinforced. Instead take a moment to consider how organizational culture may have contributed to the belief this person holds: that they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of the business. Of course there are times we all make sacrifices, but when it becomes a habit it requires interrupting.


It is remarkable what a difference one leader can make by interrupting this pattern by being compassionately curious, showing they care, challenging false assumptions, or even offering to shift the responsibility.


-- Dave



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