There has been much talk of, ”burnout “ due to the pandemic. Often with a focus on exhausted NHS staff. But burnout has been recognised by HR staff since the 70’s when it first appeared in scientific journals to describe employees reaction to unremitting stress. We have all come across colleagues and individuals we have managed who have low energy levels, who express negative feelings and are cynical about work. I confess my response has not always been sympathetic or to recognise this as stress.
Stress often goes unrecognised by the individual themselves and their manager. With hindsight I now recognise that there were periods in my time as a senior manager when I was under persistent pressure and I did not manage it well. I got the job done but my family suffered as did my physical health. I ended up having a quadruple heart bypass which my wife is convinced was due to work. The thing is if any one had asked me If I was stressed I would have said no. In fact my hairdresser routinely started a conversation by asking if we were busy at work. I always said not particularly. I was so use to this pace and pressure it was normal. More fool me.
When I did discus stress it was to express the view that managers were often the problem. Imposing unrealistic deadlines, setting conflicting priorities and failing to provide adequate resources to do the task the way it should be done. This did not go down well with the hierarchy who took the view that burnout was due to some one not being able to cope with the stresses of the job. The management role was to identify employees before their behaviour became a cause for concern or they when off on long term sick. Managers were to get HR involved, refer the individual to occupational health, reduce their work load in the short term whilst discussing their future in a less stressful role.
There was a reluctance to accept that stress might be due to the line manager or the circumstances of the job, neither of which the organisation was willing or felt able to address. For me personally my worst experience as a senior manager was the two years I worked for a totally unreasonable boss, he was inconsistent and unpredictable, often asked me why I hadn’t done something which I had no idea I was responsible for and when I said so he would retort well who did you think was responsible. He would regularly disrupt my work schedule and commitments by insisting at short notice I drop everything and attend a meeting. At the weekly senior management team meeting he would suddenly announce he wanted a detailed report for the next meeting. If the person tasked to produce this pointed out it would not give time to consult interested parties he became angry and said make time. Only once did I have the inpertance to ask which of my other priorities should I and others drop to complete this task. Hence my view that managers are often the ones who cause stress.
Thinking has moved on and progressive employers recognise that burnout is not a sign of individual weakness. Managers can reduce stress by the way they manage and organisations are more willing to acknowledge that the work may have become unreasonably stressful and needs redesigning. Rather that employees who suffer burnout being seen as weak they should be see as an early warning , the canaries in the coal mine, as they were recently referred to in an article in the Guardian.