Staff burnout is a persistent struggle across industries. In a 2018 poll taken by Gallup examining the factors that correlate with employee burnout, the results indicated that 44 percent of employees undergo occasional burnout and that an additional 23 percent feel burned out most of the time.1 This means that well over half of the workforce isn’t happy or engaged at their jobs. Not surprisingly, the Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being was launched last October.2 “A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” emphasized surgeon general Vivek Murthy, MD in his letter introducing the Framework.
Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It could be characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
- increased mental distance from one's job, or
- feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one's job.
As a manager or team leader, you need to be aware of how contagious positivity or negativity can be. The importance of managing morale is critical, because one unhappy person can make for an unhappy workplace. While it is unrealistic to focus on happiness alone, work environments can still encourage a work culture of supporting each other when challenges appear, and work gets hard.
The Surgeon General’s Framework is divided into five “Essentials” to a healthy workplace, with each Essential consisting of separate components that define how to implement it. Here are each of those Essentials along with recommendations for achieving them in your lab:
Protection from harm
To achieve this first Essential, the framework suggests prioritizing workplace physical and psychological safety. An example would be allowing employees to take sufficient breaks from their regular work. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving them extra days off. You can accomplish almost the same effect by giving them different kinds of tasks for a little while.
It’s also important to normalize and support mental health. Re-evaluate the part of your policy that affects work-life balance. Do employees have enough vacation days? Are they allowed to work remotely? What about flexible working hours? Overtime and weekend work? Team buildings? Lunch breaks? Benefits? If handled right, these things can significantly reduce overworking and stress, improving mental health and job satisfaction.
Connection and community
Having clear and consistent communication between workers and leaders is foundational in building trust. Promoting trust among leaders and workers begins with transparency—listening to worker concerns and explaining why key decisions are made within an organization. It is important to cultivate inclusion, encourage relationship building, and promote collaboration and teamwork throughout your organization.
The Framework states, “Unstable and unpredictable scheduling is linked to increased income volatility, which is an increased risk of economic hardship that can degrade physical and mental health,” and that irregular schedules “can also lead to work-life conflicts that negatively affect relationships both in and out of the workplace, including behavioral and mental health challenges in children of working parents.”
To avoid those negative effects, organizations can promote work-life harmony by giving workers more control over how, when, and where work is done. According to the Framework, this can be achieved with the following actions: provide more autonomy over how work is done, make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, increase access to paid leave, and respect boundaries between work and non-work time.
Mattering at work
Showing recognition for employees’ accomplishments and efforts, along with assigning them more responsibility and more meaningful tasks, will reinforce their value to the organization. Additionally, it will show them that even if they feel overworked from time to time, it’s all for a reason. At the very least, it can help them be more interested in the work. This is another area where communication is paramount. Understanding the needs of your employees and providing meaningful tasks translates in a more engaged worker.
Some recommendations to cultivate this Essential include engaging workers in workplace decisions, building a culture of gratitude and recognition, and connecting individual work with the organization’s mission.
Workplace leaders can build a culture where workers feel seen, respected, needed, and valued. Regardless of their position, when people feel appreciated, recognized, and engaged by their supervisors and co-workers, their sense of value and meaning increases, as well as their ability to manage stress.
Opportunity for growth
The Framework suggests that workplace leaders provide workers with training and education to increase their skills and knowledge, enabling them to offer more value to the organization and find their work more meaningful. Some of these growth opportunities may be coaching, mentorship, or online courses. By offering quality training, education, and mentoring, leaders can foster clear, equitable pathways for career advancement and ensure relevant, reciprocal feedback.
Leaders and managers can provide guidance by considering workers’ strengths and growth opportunities. Organizations can create more opportunities for engaging with their workers in positive, collaborative, and outcome-oriented ways.
Overall, the framework covers multiple aspects of mental health, and it is brought up as a series of interventions to improve workers’ quality of life. Recognizing that the pandemic years intensified job-related stress and the level of burnout experienced by managers constitutes a step forward and a clear intention to mitigate these ailments.
Acknowledgment of the existence of mental health challenges is the first of multiple steps to address a reality that was kept ignored for many decades. The possibility of not being “the only one” contending with a mental health challenge, the empathy generated by awareness, and the opportunity to discuss mental health issues at work could be a turning point for many.
Mitigating burnout is a very personal process that goes beyond a list of interventions. When a person invests in their own well-being, the results are more powerful. For those going through a burnout situation, they should first ensure the situation is truly burnout and not something transient. Once that is confirmed, they should then explore and understand where they like to go in search of energy, flow, and fulfillment. Some people prefer the comfort of their home. Others reach out to their families. Some individuals recharge at social events. For others, immersing themselves in reading or research is the escape. Nature, art, time with friends—there are many different options.
A recent Gallup publication established a clear correlation between people’s strengths (based on the CliftonStrengths assessment) and their styles of coping.3 That is why there is not a prescription that will help the entire workforce to cope with burnout. Although there is no “cure” because burnout is not a disease, attending to one’s own needs in the most effective way for them will improve wellbeing. Get to know yourself, your needs, and your sources—and tap them often.
- “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes”. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx.
- “The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being”. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/workplace-mental-health-well-being.pdf.
- “Fighting Burnout with Strengths”. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx.