Updated: Mar 28
89% of professionals are burned out (otherwise stated: just 11% are not burned out!)
According to a 2021 Korn Ferry survey, 89% of professionals say they are suffering from burnout, with 81% more burned out now than they were before the Covid19 pandemic. I ran my own poll on LinkedIn in January 2023 to establish a sense of burnout in my network. Of the 122 responses, 88% said they were feeling burned out - aligning closely with the Korn Ferry results.
Increased cynicism, criticism, impatience and irritability, emotional outbursts, lack of satisfaction from achievements, feelings of disillusionment, using food (or other substances to feel better or simply avoid feeling at all, struggling with sleep, headaches, tension and other physical complaints - these are all signs of burnout that 89% of respondents say they have.
Turn that around and what it says is just 11% of professionals are feeling engaged, optimistic, well rested, satisfied, constructive.
Given that burnout affects how we show up at work, how we bring our creativity, our innovation, our clarity of thought, our energy and engagement in our work, the realisation that just 11% of the workforce are not reporting burnout is more than concerning.
I remember all these signs well from my own personal experience of burnout in 2015/2016 - in a matter of months it felt like I went from fully engaged and energised to exhausted, emotional, cynical and disillusioned.
How do we go from engaged to burned out?
Between 2008 and 2013, I felt great! I was running on adrenaline - getting all the things done. By My Self. I loved what I was doing, I did it well and everyone talked about the value I was adding. "Wow Briony! You are superhuman girl! Always the first in the office, always the last to leave. So helpful, so involved!" they said. It felt amazing. I loved the long hours, the challenging work, the problems I was solving, the accolades I was receiving. I was doing it all and I wanted to do even more.
I'd totally bought into the societal norms that celebrate lack of sleep, working long hours, being able to say "I'm so sorry I won't be able to make it because I've got to work on Sunday. I just so busy".
It made me feel important.
I got a kick out of being recognised for burning the candle on both ends, and then being asked to get involved in yet another initiative.
It made me feel valuable. It made me feel validated.
Being told I had too much on my plate and should't take on any more work made me feel like I wasn't good enough, like I was somehow being rejected. It made more want to prove myself even more, work even harder.
Until it didn't and burnout crept in.
One day I stopped loving my work. I stopped appreciating colleagues. I had been working at such an intense pace that I'd convinced myself no one else was doing any work at all (which of course was not true).
The resentment built up.
I stopped being creative in my work. I started dreading the journey to work, often in tears en route. I withdrew from team discussions, and only joined in to make cynical comments "This won't work", "This is just a waste of time", "Why are you bothering with that? It's never going to work!".
I ate to suppress my anxiety.
I stared into space a lot, forgetting what I was doing. When I got home from work at 8pm all I wanted to do was eat a carb-heavy meal that was guaranteed to make me fall asleep on the couch. Over weekends I avoided friends and family, cancelled commitments at the last minute.
When my doctor said my hormones were all way out of range and suggested a few days off to destress, I laughed a little manically. And then one day my emotions flared up so badly that I scared myself and my colleagues. That, and the day my now ex-husband told me I was becoming a monster, were the two events that made me realise something needed to change.
I needed to change.
Stop stress bingeing
Burnout creeps up on you in my experience much like extra kgs do if you consistently overeat over a period of time. This list of links to burnout research done by Nick Petrie and his research team is a really great peek into the different “dishes” on the buffet that contribute to burnout when eaten consistently and in combination over a period of time.
As someone who has a challenging relationship with food under long term stress, and who has burned out several times in her career, this analogy really connected with me.
A burger and chips, or an ice cream or a slice of cake, or some lasagne never hurts anyone once in a while, but when your daily diet is all of these, it doesn’t matter how much exercise you do, the kgs are going to pack on.
Some tight deadlines once in a while don’t hurt, or a snarky comment or some meaningless work (when “eaten” once in a while). But when you work "work diet" involves long term daily "bingeing" on an internal need to prove yourself, perfectionism, plus lack of support and resources, bullying, lack of psychological safety, no boundaries and low autonomy, amongst others, it won’t matter how much you sleep, meditate or exercise, the burnout "kilograms" will inevitably add up.
This extract from Nick Petrie's article on what really causes burnout, sums it up well.
"In our interviews, a single factor on its own (e.g. unrealistic workload) rarely led to burnout. Burnout happened when a cluster of factors all occurred at the same time. It was these ‘burnout combos’ over a sustained period which tipped people over. These combos often came in three’s:
High workload + belief ‘I must endure’ + can’t switch off = burnout
High anxiety about work + perfectionism + unsupportive boss = burnout
Lack of boundaries + gives 100% at all times + lack of resources = burnout"
Note to self: Self, step away from the burnout buffet!
Stages of burnout
I didn't realise I was progressing into burnout until it was too late - burnout doesn't happen over night. And worse it starts while you are feeling extremely fulfilled in your job and at the same time overwhelmed by the high demands. Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North identified 12 stages in which burnout progresses.
Stage 1: The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
Demonstrating self-worth obsessively; tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily.
Stage 2: Working Harder
An inability to switch off.
Stage 3: Neglecting Their Needs
Erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction.
Stage 4: Displacement of Conflicts
Problems are dismissed, we may feel threatened, panicky and jittery.
Stage 5: Revision of Values
Values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant, work is the only focus.
Stage 6: Denial of Emerging Problems
Intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined, social contacts harder; cynicism, aggression; problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.
Stage 7: Withdrawal
Social life small or non-existent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs.
Stage 8: Odd Behavioural Changes
Changes in behaviour obvious, friends and family concerned.
Stage 9: De-personalisation
Seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.
Stage 10: Inner Emptiness
Feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
Stage 11: Depression
Feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark.
Stage 12: Burnout Syndrome
Can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.
I've experienced all of these, short of being hospitalised. I know too many colleagues and friends who have been hospitalised from burnout. Writing this blog, and reflecting on some emotional outbursts and cynicism that have crept in over the last few months, made me realise that burnout is creeping up on me again. It's been cause for concern and stopped me in my tracks. I'm in the midst of making some tough decisions in a bid to reverse what feels like the inevitable if I don't do something about it now.
Sustained stress over a long period, is not sustainable. As Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T. , and Emma Sarro, Ph.D. state in their May 2022 article entitled Performance Punishment: The Reason You May Be Losing Your Best People, being given the toughest assignments or problems to solve that seemingly no one else can, is a great way to spike a dopamine high.
For those especially driven by status rewards at work, hearing things like “I know you’re swamped, but there’s no one else I can trust to get it done fast and right” is enough for you to ignore the red flags or competing demands on your time. Not only do you feel a rush of reward signals for being chosen over others for your abilities, you also get to complete a task which provides a second rush of reward signals for the achievement of a job well done. Status at work can deliver a double-dose of feel-good emotions, so it’s no surprise status junkies end up being overachievers.
It's the conundrum of how to drive for value without burning out
We value high performers, we want high performers, we recruit high performers, High performers want to be challenged, they want to be recognised, they want to gain breadth and depth of experience, and so we reward them with lots of challenging work. It should be the perfect recipe for success.
So why isn't it? And how do we drive and incentivise for sustained high performance, high value, without burning out our high performers?
Driving for value, not burnout
I recently had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion (with Raksha Naidoo, Fiona Edmundson, Pier Terblanche and Dean Manyengawana at the General Counsels Forum at Mining Indaba 2023 on exactly this topic; Driving for Value, Not Burnout: Managing limited resources, multigenerational demands while striving for measurable and provable KPIs.
We started the conversation by unpacking what we mean by "driving for value" and value for whom. It became clear very quickly that when we talk about value, we may be talking about different definitions depending on the stakeholders in mind, and that definitions of value may be at odds with each other when we take into account that:
shareholders are seeking maximum share value,
clients are seeking maximum return on investment and minimum risk exposure,
business unit managers, especially those in non-core to business areas, may be needing to prove their in-house viability to the business,
leaders and managers may be seeking to drive effective delivery on time, within budget and with minimum rework,
team members, and specifically young professionals, may be wanting to extract maximum value and opportunities to develop their careers.
What this ends up looking like in many organisations are unspoken stories like:
"Around here, no mistakes will be tolerated because they cost shareholder profit"
"Around here. it's better that the manager does the work and only delegates meaningless tasks, because otherwise there is a risk of having to rework things later"
"Around here we have to use juniors to do high value work for maximum profit, but the more experienced staff will need to work after hours to add nuanced value to the deliverable"
"Around here, young professionals expect to get to do all the exciting work but there's no chance that's going to happen because I'll pay the price later because they don't have the experience"
"Around here the clients expect the partners to do all the work, they aren't interested in seeing juniors on their projects, so I better just suck it up and wrk longer hours".
Different definitions of value drive different unspoken norms in organisations and in society in general. They also stimulate an internal narrative that often simultaneously drives value and leads to burnout.
The conversation turned how to drive for value without burning out.
The panel proceeded to emphasise the following as some of the ways in which to drive for value without burning out.
Change the narrative
Burnout often starts with the stories we tell ourselves. Stories that are cultivated through feedback we get from society, the industries we work in, our colleagues, our primary caregivers, and the ways in which we have developed coping mechanisms over the course of our lives. When these stories romanticise burning the candle at both ends, having to be perfect, not being able to fail, and forgoing other aspects of your life to focus on delivering like a superhuman at work, we have a problem.
It's incumbent on us as a society, as an industry, as organisations, leaders and individuals to rewrite the narrative.
Stop romanticising the 60 and 80 hr work week.
Stop glorifying the employees who never take time off, who are always available, who answer the phone at all hours of the night.
Stop rewarding the behaviours that lead to burnout.
Start rewarding the behaviours to encourage a sustainable, integrated way of working that supports all the facets of human beings and not just them as a worker(bee).
Start examining the stories you are telling yourself about needing to be perfect, to be always available, to be saving everyone and take courageous action to rewrite what's true for you.
Start examining and reshaping the behaviours that you model, the example you set.
Establish systems that enable the right work being done by the right people
From my own personal struggles with delegating, I can categorically say that no one is driving value when work gets done by the wrong people. Burnout and disengagement is guaranteed when it's perceived as easier for a manager to do the work themselves than to give it to a young professional:
the manager gets exhausted from doing work she shouldn't be doing, and has less time to deliver on what she should be doing (or does that in extended work hours),
the young professional loses the opportunity to learn and develop their bank of experience, and
the business loses when work is being done at an inefficient hourly rate.
Stephen Covey says:
Your systems are perfectly designed for the results you are getting.
If you are not getting the results that you want, you need to look at your systems. In other words, design the systems for the results that you want. And reward, or at the very least enable your teams to establish systems that support the right people doing the right work, by allocating time for non-billable, system development work.
When billing targets are too high, the focus is always going to be on getting billable work done, and systems that enable delegation will always be on the back burner. When you hear the words "I'm too busy to delegate this to anyone. It will take too much time to explain how to do it, its easier to do it myself", you know that your systems are not designed to support the right people doing the right work.
This is a reality check that keeps coming back to haunt me as I am aware that part of my current journey into the middle stages of the 12-stages of burnout, is a function of incomplete systems. I can't successfully delegate work because everything is sitting in my head. As soon as I've codified my processes I'll be able to communicate them to someone else and outsource some of my work. But codifying takes time. It feels like a catch 22 and instead of blocking out time to do this important task, I've been doing the busy work, getting more and more irritated that I am having to do this work and no closer to codifying what I'm doing. Any of this sounding familiar? If it does it's time to:
make time as a priority and codify your systems,
communicate these systems to others,
train others on these systems,
hand work over to the right people,
free yourself up to be doing the right work, the work where you are able to drive value.
Lead with compassion, courage and curiosity
I'm struck by how many people I've talked with recently who have experienced burnout, been hospitalised because of it, have fundamentally had to change the way they live their lives because of it. I am equally truck by how many people think they are the only person that's experienced burnout to the extent that they have. Not because they are "special". Mostly because people don't tend to talk about their burnout experiences and the journey that led them to burnout all that openly.
But the moment we start to talk about it, it's as if this sense of relief, this awareness of "I'm not alone" washes over them. And in many cases, especially those in leadership positions, I've seen this spark of realisation that there's a responsibility to start talking more openly, to summon their courage to be more vulnerable with their teams, to open up conversations about the behaviours that collectively contribute to a journey to burnout, to help others feel less alone too.
We need more leaders who practice compassion. Compassion towards themselves to acknowledge their own fallibility. Compassion towards others who they observe acting out the same behaviours that collectively lead to burnout.
We need leaders who practice courage. Courage to be vulnerable, to talk openly about their struggles, their beliefs, their journeys into, and out of, burnout. Courage to have difficult, awkward, challenging conversations. Courage to challenge the system. Courage to tackle the organisational and societal stories that keep burnout in a fixed pattern.
We need leaders who practice curiosity. Curiosity about what they might be modelling to others. Curiosity about the stories they might be giving life to. Curiosity about the stories that might be under the surface of the behaviours they see in their teams, organisations, industries. Curiosity about, and care for, their team members as human beings. Curiosity about their own unconscious biases that may lead them to be more caring about some and less caring about others. Curiosity about how to support high performers without punishing them in the process. Curiosity about how to drive for value without burning out themselves and others.
Take personal responsibility for your self-leadership
As someone who has struggled with people pleasing, a need for external validation and a lack of boundaries, this is really a note to self. I suspect that even in a perfect world, where all the narrative as a societal, industry and organisational level are all aligned along the philosophy of integrating work and life for the well being of everyone, I will struggle with my own self-leadership. That is until I have rewritten the narrative in my head that says I have to be involved in everything in order to be a valid and valued member of society. It's a rewrite that I'm working on right now.
It took some incredibly low self-leadership on my part towards the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 for me to realise I was heading well and truly into Stages 8 (odd behaviours), 9 (depersonalisation) and 10 (inner emptiness) of burnout. It took an incredibly courageous, compassionate and curious colleague and friend of mine to challenge me on my behaviours, to have compassion for me despite me acting out on all my emotions, and to be curious enough to ask me what was really going on. It's been an awakening, one I'm grateful for, and one that has helped me recommit to being more intentional in my thoughts, words and behaviours.
Some things to think about
If you are prone towards anxiety, internal stories that keep you locked in a pattern of working harder to prove yourself, people pleasing and lack of boundaries, you probably have some for the precursors that make you ripe for burnout at some point in your life. Combined with external factors like lack of support, low autonomy, impossible deadlines, and an organisation that rewards prioritising excessive work over being a well rounded human being, it's quite possible that your journey into the 12 stages of burnout has already been kick started.
Burnout is not fun - it's easy to slide into - it's way harder to recover from.
Please check in with yourself by reflecting on these questions from the Mayo Clinic: if you say yes to any of them you may be heading into job burnout.
Have you become cynical or critical at work?
Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
Do you find it hard to concentrate?
Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
Have your sleep habits changed?
Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
I work with my clients to show up with courage, compassion and curiosity by helping them get conscious of their inner narrative so that they create a narrative that's not just about surviving, but about connecting to their whole self so that they can thrive - in their careers, as leaders, in their communities, within themselves.
If you would like to explore how coaching could support you in your journey as a courageous, compassionate and curious leader, I invite you to schedule a discovery call with me.