Burnout: Don’t Wait till You Smell the Smoke

How would you respond if you were briefed about a treatable illness costing your company hundreds of thousands in additional healthcare expenditures?

  • Would you leverage resources to train your teams on basic sanitary habits to mitigate its spread?

  • Would you develop a research team to find the best ways to prevent future outbreaks?

As a leader, you’d respond somehow.

Did you know this is happening in the American workforce today? And it’s costing nearly $190 billion dollars in work-related costs.

The illness: burnout

What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological state produced by chronic stress that creates legitimate emotional and physiological ramifications, such as the following:

  • cynicism, detachment, ease of irritability, or anger

  • uncharacteristic increase in mistakes or work quality

  • an influx in tardiness to work or absences

  • physical and emotional exhaustion

  • regular feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

  • lack of sleep

Burnout has also been linked to

  • Anxiety disorders/Anxiety attacks

  • Depression

Real but Tricky

At PROMARK, our coaches have seen the professional, and personal turmoil burnout causes in clients’ lives. And while it’s part of the dialogue in the healthcare industry, we know burnout can still carry a stigma in corporate contexts that keeps it from being recognized and understood as an objective threat to you, your employees, and your ROI.

Because burnout poses a real, objective risk to you and your team, leaders need to know how tricky it is to identify its warning signs. Without team processes to encourage alignment and transparency, burnout indicators easily go unnoticed.

Even in fast-paced environments with high-employee engagement, it’s easy to miss key indicators of exhaustion and overextension, giving leaders a false impression about the health of their teams. A recent survey found that “67% of employers felt their employees had healthy work-life balance while 45% of employees disagreed.”2 Failure to identify and respond to this juxtaposition on the individual level creates devastating scenarios for employee turnover and overwhelmed HR departments.

But there’s good news: You don’t have to wait till you smell the smoke to do something about burnout.

Predictable, Not Inevitable

“Burnout is predictable, but it’s not inevitable,” shared a PROMARK leader. A key way to avoid burnout is to understand its causes. The most potent and frequent causes are

  • Consistent negative feedback (especially in public) without regular positive feedback

  • Regular major changes to vision and goals (moving the goalposts too often)

  • Lack of executive transparency and clarity regarding vision, goals, roles, and metrics

  • Regular requests to perform tasks outside of the role without compensation or initial supervision

  • Transition to a new role without the requisite training

  • Regular communication from leaders after work hours

  • Downplaying or shaming of PTO or vacation usage

What if you see the signs of burnout in your team (or yourself), or you’ve encountered or perpetuated its causes?

How to Respond (and Not to Respond)

A leader who becomes aware of a team member with these symptoms should respond to her, not react to the problem. For instance, as one PROMARK coach suggests:

“Open a dialogue to learn… what the employee’s needs and issues are and then co-create a plan to address the issues, e.g., support the employee with additional resources, further training, identify obstacles the leader can remove, redesign the job description to better suit the employee’s skills and experience,… Sometimes these interventions aren’t possible but at least the employee will feel heard and valued.”

A leader who identifies potential causes in her leadership habits shouldn’t take them personally. A leader who reacts by suggesting that burnout is a sign of weakness or failure perpetuates burnout’s causes, increasing turnover, loss of credibility, and their related costs.

And while a vacation may seem like the way to recover energy, excitement, or intuitiveness as an employee or a leader, it requires more than that.

For executive leaders, in addition to creating space for transparency with their teams, a proven practice is the bringing in of a trained perspective from an objective 3rd party to provide honest assessment, encouragement, and suggestions for change.

Don’t Throw in the Towel

Burnout is not inevitable, nor is it anyone’s vocational demise. We’re here to tell you you’re not alone in the complexities and stresses of the workplace. We’ve coached and consulted numerous executives and transitioning employees experiencing a deep change in their lives.

While burnout is serious, it doesn’t have to have the last say in an individual’s career.
Don’t wait till you smell the smoke.


 1 National Health Costs Could Decrease if Managers Reduce Work Stress. Harvard Business School.https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/national-health-costs-could-decrease-if-managers-reduce-work-stress


Burnout: Don’t Wait till You Smell the Smoke
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