Do you and your team arrive at work on Monday mornings fresh, invigorated, and ready to tackle the week ahead?

If the answer to this question is “no,” workplace burnout might be to blame.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout costs the United States more than $500 billion every year, according to the WHO.

And the worst part?

Burnout is highly contagious. One colleague, team member, or leader behaving negatively, acting resentful, or being checked out puts your organization at risk for widespread workplace burnout.

Ideas such as workplace burnout, The Great Resignation, “quiet quitting,” boomerang employees, retention, and the Great Re-Evaluation have made headlines and spread virally on social media since 2020. Workplace disengagement increased, and by the end of 2022, the proportion of engaged workers in the U.S. was down to 32 percent, while those who were actively disengaged increased to 18 percent. Millions of people were simply meeting their job description instead of going above and beyond at work and thousands had stepped away from their jobs.

Although individuals and companies took steps to remedy burnout, in many instances the traditional methods– self-care, mindfulness and meditation, connecting with nature, and seeking better scheduling or support – were ineffective.

Because often it wasn’t just burnout. It was a sense of betrayal that caused the symptoms of burnout. To retain employees and stay engaged more fully in our own careers, allowing us to reach our full potential and find the satisfaction we crave, we must stop workplace burnout – and the sense of workplace betrayal – in its tracks.

HOW TO SPOT WORKPLACE BURNOUT

Burnout, defined by the WHO as a workplace phenomenon resulting from stress that has not been successfully managed, is characterized by three symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career
  • Reduced professional productivity

Feelings of bitterness, resentment, disillusionment, or like one’s life (or career) has let them down or been a disappointment are also sure signs of burnout.

THE CAUSES OF WORKPLACE BURNOUT

Some of the causes of workplace burnout are easy to identify. If your organization is understaffed and workloads have increased, chances are you and your employees are experiencing stress and overwhelm, which can spike workplace burnout through the roof.

Workplace burnout can show up when you or your employees:

  • Feel like you have no control over your schedule or workload
  • Have a constant need or desire to work, or be involved with work-related projects
  • Give all of your energy and time to work

While being highly engaged and caring about work might seem like a good thing, it can lead to high stress levels, which can allow resentment to build, ultimately leading to workplace burnout.

There is another cause for these symptoms, however, that is responsible for much of workplace burnout—betrayal. While betrayal tends to be thought of as infidelity or dishonesty, workplace, or corporate, betrayal is the result of ruptured expectations and unmet assumptions or beliefs we hold about ourselves as employees, our careers, or the way the world “should” work.

Everyone has expectations about what they want from their careers. Receiving extra pay for extra work, for example, or obtaining a certain amount of paid time off (PTO) after so many years of service, or even getting periodic promotions.

Along with career expectations, we also have personal expectations as well—beliefs and ideas about who we are, what we deserve, and how life “should” work out for us. Rarely do we communicate our personal expectations in the workplace because these expectations, which arise from culture, family, and society, are often so ingrained we typically aren’t even aware of what they are.

When career or personal expectations are ruptured we tend to feel disillusioned, disappointed, or let down by our careers and lives. We resent what we determine is unfair treatment by our company and may even adopt an attitude of “my company owes me.”

WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT WORKPLACE BURNOUT

While experiencing workplace burnout (or a sense of betrayal) can be overwhelming and leave you feeling helpless, there are a variety of tools you can use to uncover ruptured expectations, gain clarity, and stop burnout from progressing.

One such tool is facilitated self-reflection. The following self-reflective exercise can help you or your employees uncover and gain perspective on both personal and career expectations and understand where the inadvertent rupture of those expectations might have led to burnout.

For example:

  • What expectations did I have when I first began my career or started this job?
  •  How have those expectations evolved over time, taking into account both my personal level of growth as well as the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and changing working conditions?
  •  Are my expectations being met?
  • What can I do myself to better address those expectations?

You can also create a fair warning system to help you to recognize when your stress levels are rising out of control. First, make a list of your personal stress warning signs. Things like tensing your shoulders, clenching your teeth, or snapping at coworkers. Then make a list of five to ten things that make you happy, like going for a walk, chatting with a favorite coworker, or listening to music.

Whenever you find yourself slipping into one of your warning signals, take a minute to stop and refocus. Then pick one of the activities from your second list that you know will bring you reprieve.

It can also be helpful to harness the power of positive thinking. Make it a practice to notice and comment on five things every day that are going right at work. This isn’t just a feel-good practice—it also makes you more appreciative of your job and your colleagues because you recognize you and your coworkers’ dedication, quality of work, and contribution. In addition to bringing about more positivity, this tool also encourages innovation and engagement and enables you to stay mentally healthy at work.

HOW TO SUPPORT EMPLOYEES DEALING WITH WORKPLACE BURNOUT

As a manager or leader, helping your employees cope with workplace burnout is essential to the health of your team or organization. Because burnout is caused by a variety of reasons – including a sense of betrayal – repair is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

In some cases, repair might mean speaking up on your employee’s behalf, helping them set appropriate boundaries, or having a difficult conversation with someone they perceive is causing them harm. It might mean adjusting their hours or encouraging them to take PTO so they have time and space to get the mental clarity they need. It may even mean counseling them on career moves, addressing unrealistic expectations, or recommending they talk with HR or an employee resource group (ERG).

No matter what addressing workplace burnout looks like, effectively repairing feelings of betrayal is accomplished when you as a manager or leader acknowledges the specific harm the employee is feeling (whether or not you agree) and says why you are sorry without defending yourself or explaining your intent.

And oftentimes, you can reduce workplace stress and repair feelings of corporate betrayal your employees feel by encouraging respect and common courtesy. For example:

  • Remember to say please and thank you
  • Share with your employees how their project is important or fits into the bigger picture
  • Make eye contact, smiling, and acknowledging people as you walk by
  • Take the time to ask questions and listen to responses
  • Seek to understand the root cause of burnout, betrayal, and unmet employee expectations before implementing policies or solutions that might not address the proper root cause

HOW TO PREVENT WORKPLACE BURNOUT FROM RETURNING

When you are able to manage or reduce your workplace stress and stay conscious of your expectations, you prevent workplace burnout and can stay happy and engaged in your career for the long-haul.

But how exactly do you do this?

By setting boundaries at work, learning to validate yourself, and communicating up front, clearly and honestly, about your expectations and what you can and cannot do.

As a successful professional, you want to be competent and perform well, but focusing on others’ standards keeps you seeking to please, conform, and out-perform instead of setting your own goals and becoming the effective leader you long to be.

Boundaries restore autonomy, give you the freedom to innovate and grow, and allow you to feel a sense of internal satisfaction when you meet your own objectives. Instead of keeping yourself overwhelmed and distracted, hustling for your worth or staying stuck in your current repertoire, boundaries enable you to value yourself for who you are, not just for what you do, so you can more easily meet your own expectations and decrease a sense of burnout or betrayal.

One simple but important boundary that is enormously effective at reducing workplace stress is to schedule emails so they won’t be sent between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.—and to encourage your staff and colleagues to do the same. This gives everyone a break from the need to constantly be on call.

Communicating clearly about what you can do to resolve a situation or complete an assignment is a great way to show you understand your job duties and are supportive of your colleagues’ and employees’ needs. But so is stating clearly what you cannot do. Clear communication about what cannot be done, now or ever, addresses unrealistic expectations at the outset, lets your boss, colleagues, and employees know where everyone stands, and gives all involved the freedom and agency to make decisions and take the action necessary to get their needs met.

Lora Cheadle, Burnout Recovery Expert

Lora Cheadle, Burnout Recovery Expert

Lora Cheadle is a Colorado-based speaker/trainer, attorney, and coach who shows business professionals and their teams how to break free from burnout and find the personal and professional satisfaction they crave. Her 5-step framework to recover from burnout is unique because it allows professionals to uncover and connect to their beliefs and expectations, so they can speak up and advocate effectively for themselves and what brings them internal satisfaction.

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