How to Stop Normalizing Burnout in the Workplace

When was the last time you heard someone brag about going home on time? Taking a weekend off? Or completely disconnecting from work on a three-week vacation? People used to regularly do these things. I was one of those people. It was normal.

But here’s the thing about “normal.” It changes. What was normal once (e.g. smoking at your desk at the office) would be completely unheard of now. And that’s a good thing when it comes to smoking. But it also used to be normal to have a life, to leave work on time, and to stay “on top” of your workload, and somewhere along the line in North America, that norm seems to have shifted negatively.

Going back a couple of decades, people were let go through downsizing, rightsizing, re-engineering and restructuring, and others took on the load. In many cases, these new lean companies now had people doing the work that used to be done by 2-3 individuals. And this became normal. I know numerous people who are still doing the jobs of 2-3 people. Not entirely, because while they may have double or triple the load it’s impossible to maintain it all, and things get left by the way-side. Projects get half-done (or projects get done, but not well.)

Over the last three decades it became the norm for many managers to work late hours with no expectation of extra compensation. But most damaging to our sense of balance has been the advance of smart phones and the expectation by employers that people can and will respond at all hours.

This is negative deviance—deviating from what was once normal, but in a negative or detrimental way. (Moving to the left on the bell curve below.)

Negative Deviance

Normalizing Negative Behaviours

What is interesting is that when negatively deviant behavior is practiced for a certain length of time it starts to become normal. Employers start to think it’s OK to reach out to people at all hours, or expect managers to work longer and take on more responsibility without extra compensation. Monetary compensation or not, there is a limit to the amount of extra time and workload a person can maintain before breaking down. And so, breakdown is what happens. And guess what? Now this has become the norm too.

Twenty-five years ago, I remember burnout being something quite rare. And now it has become a North-American norm. Maslach and Leiter (Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship With Work: 2005) called it the biggest occupational hazard of the twenty-first century. I know numerous people—all accomplished, high achieving, successful professionals—who have found themselves in this situation.

This serves no one—your organization, your team, your customers, and definitely not the people burning out! Here is a short excerpt from my book, A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture on this epidemic:

“The trend we’re experiencing in North America where people work 10-12 hour days and take few breaks is not working well. Not only are we underutilizing people (exhausted people don’t perform as well) and seeing an increase in burnout, but study after study show that this way of working does not help productivity.

“We had a speaker from The Energy Project at the Conference who told us that many of our beliefs about performance are incorrect. The Energy Project, started by CEO Tony Schwartz, reports that people who take frequent breaks have more focus and higher self-reported health and wellness. Working too much without renewal also drains the cognitive resources we need to control our behaviours, desires and emotions.”

Positive Deviance

So how do we positively deviate from this downward spiral, as most organizations desperately need to do? I spoke about positive deviance in my last blog which is intentional behavior performed with a positive or honourable purpose in mind.

What practices can you undertake yourself and in your workplace that will positively deviate from the current “way things are done around here” when it comes to workload, work hours and disconnection from work? Below are some ideas that will hopefully spark some inspiration for change personally, in your teams, and in your organization.

Personal Practices:

  1. If you feel you are heading towards burnout, ask yourself how you can stop, take a break from work, step back and reflect. This may not feel like a possibility, but what are the options? Can you take an extra-long weekend? A disconnected holiday? A leave? If you can’t stop completely, then look at the number of projects you have on the go. What can be set aside? Can you pick just one project to focus on (the one that brings you the most joy!) and put the others aside while you get the rest you need? Do you have a manager or supervisor you can have this conversation with? Or is that supervisor you?
  2. Based on your own habits, and thinking about new, positive practices you could develop, make a list of at least five things you will stop doing (or let go of), continue doing (build on) and start doing to create continual renewal for yourself. During my own recovery from burnout, I made a list of all the things I would no longer do, like letting other people’s crises become my own, or holding on to things past their usefulness. On my list of things to continue or start to help me flourish were things like creating time and space for my priorities, and meditating daily. What is on your list?
  3. We all get caught in vicious cycles. In a class I took with author Patti Digh, she suggested creating our own cycles of resilience. This is a great exercise to examine the places you get stuck in vicious downward cycles and to visualize new, more resilient cycles for yourself. For more on this concept, see my blog on replacing your vicious cycles with positive ones. When the going gets tough, are there unhealthy patterns that you fall into? In what ways do you become more ineffective, and how does this lead to even more ineffectiveness? Try drawing a circle outlining the vicious cycles you fall into, and then another one that is more resilient.

A Team Practice:

Lead a discussion with your team about developing a set of practices to follow. What guidelines can you set up around taking breaks, workload, work hours and disconnection from work that can help your team be more resilient and effective? How can you support each other to stick with your new guidelines?

An Organizational Practice:

Consider whether there is a mismatch between what your organization rewards and what the values are. For example, does your organization profess to value balance and yet promote the workaholics? What question do you need to ask and to whom to get this conversation started?

Whether you are leading an organization, a team or personally grappling with how to prevent and banish burnout, the action you take may well be positively deviating from what is currently the norm in your organization. What positively deviant practice can you “normalize” in your workplace today?

Follow this blog for bi-weekly ideas to create your “better place to work” from Deborah’s new book A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.

A perfect book for your next book club! Reduced prices are available for bulk orders.

If you want to delve deeper into these practices join Deborah’s online course 8 Weeks To A Better Place To Work, starting again in April/19. On sale now – save $200 by registering by Feb 22/19. Log in every week from the comfort of your office or home and join others, like you, who are engaging in new practices to improve the health and positivity in their workplaces. A complimentary copy of A Better Place To Work will be sent to you as a part of this course. It’s like book club, with online coaching – fun, informative and hugely practical!

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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