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14 Jan

Imagine what it’s like to be a soldier. Always on alert, carrying heavy loads, deprived of sleep, hunger and thirst, away from family, all in addition to the ever-constant threat of losing your life – or limb. Often occurring in merciless lands of harsh terrain with scorching temperatures, many of us wouldn’t handle a day let alone the usual six-month stint.

So it’s unsurprising, then, to learn the term “burnout” was initially used to describe soldiers suffering from depression and exhaustion after being relentlessly exposed to combat. 

Today, it’s more commonly used to describe office workers that are depressed and exhausted from doing the filing or answering phone calls, but nonetheless, the concept remains the same.

What the above tells us is that the type of work and the toughness of work don’t cause burnout. If they did, then burnout would be a foreign term in the corporate world. It’d only exist in brutal environments, like blue-collar industries. But as we all know, burnout is prevalent even among the most basic and menial of jobs.

So what triggers burnout? It’s a realisation accumulated over an extended period of time that a person is no longer able to deal with a certain situation. And that realisation is slowly developed the more that three fears become clear and prevalent in an employee’s mind.

The fear of not performing: This has a lot to do with failure. Employees start to realise they’re unable to cope. They may enjoy their job but be disappointed with their results. They’ve been working too hard for too long and now sense they won’t last the distance.

The fear of not knowing: This has a lot to do with uncertainty. Employees are vague on what’s expected of them. They can’t tell how they’re travelling because they get little communication from their boss. Their inability to predict outcomes becomes stressful.
The fear of not controlling: This has a lot to do with micromanagement. Employees feel they have little influence over their work, and this is made worse if they foresee disaster. They’re consulted infrequently, and so they feel disconnected and don’t trust their manager.

When dealing with burnt out employees, consider which of the three fears above are prominent and then target those specific areas directly. Here are a few suggestions.

  • The fear of not performing: ensure there’s a correct fit between employees and their job; provide enough training so they can do the job; and be there for support.
  • The fear of not knowing: provide useful feedback; be generous with your recognition; and be clear with your expectations.
  • The fear of not controlling: give employees the space to work independently; seek their input when making decisions; and encourage interaction among co-workers.

Burnout is just a symptom. One of the above fears represents the cause. Deal with the cause rather than the symptom to prevent a workplace resembling a warzone.