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Burnout is an organizational fact: stop blaming the workers!

When we talk about stress we are usually referring to a subjective phenomenon, as each person reacts to possible stressors - situations perceived as potentially stressful - differently depending on their personality and life history. Traditionally, research on stress has mainly focused on how a person is able or unable to manage and deal with stressful situations rather than on how certain work environments can cause or alleviate states of discomfort and strong pressure.

In reality, it seems that factors linked to the workplace are the main causes of illness, stress, exhaustion, damaging - with the consequent decrease in productivity and effectiveness - both for the worker and for the organisation.

In this article, Eleonora Valè, a work psychologist specializing in the neuropsychology of well-being, explores the common causes of stress in the corporate context, including work overload, interpersonal conflicts, job uncertainty, lack of autonomy, role ambiguity, lack of support, excessive or inadequate work challenges and pressure to achieve results. All conditions that can lead to burnout.

Burnout as an organizational factor

With the official recognition of “burnout” by the World Health Organization in 2019 ( Source ), the responsibility for its management has shifted from employees to employers. The good news then is that burnout is preventable. Within this perspective, the work of Karasek and Theorell (1990) correlates two different constructs, that of stress with that of job redesign . In their model, 3 variables are taken into consideration that can cause stress and burnout:

  1. the demands that are made at work such as having an excessive workload, not having sufficient time to complete tasks, etc., are sources of psychological stress and anxiety associated with the feeling of job insecurity

  2. decision-making freedom or perceived control , characterized by two components: the authority of the decision, i.e. the worker's autonomy to decide freely on issues relating to their work, and skill discretion, i.e. the degree of discretion that the worker in using their skills

  3. social support , i.e. positive relationships with colleagues and managers

From this line of research it emerges that in an environment, which the authors define as one of tension (strain) in which there are another degree of demands but with a low level of control, health problems and stress seem to be more frequent than in environments called active (active) with a high level of questions and an equal level of control. In an environment where tension prevails people tend to be more rigid, less flexible and more prone to illness. In such circumstances, productivity is also affected. Differently, in an active environment, where people have more opportunities to experiment with their ability to learn new skills and put them into practice, a greater feeling of satisfaction and a high state of health tend to prevail. Working on these 3 variables is therefore a way to make organizations healthier.

Read our blog "How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment" to find useful strategies for your business.

Tiredness at work and burnout
Tiredness at work and burnout

Recognize the organizational dimensions that lead to burnout

The causes of high stress in the corporate context can be multiple and vary depending on the individual and the working environment. However, some of the most common causes include:

  1. Work overload: An excessive amount of tasks to complete in a limited time can lead to high levels of stress and arousal. This overload can result from stringent deadlines, unrealistic expectations, or poor resource management.

  2. Interpersonal conflicts: Tensions and conflicts between colleagues, superiors or customers can cause increased arousal, negatively affecting emotional well-being and productivity. Fear of unpleasant confrontations or the need to manage difficult relationships can keep stress levels constantly high.

  3. Job uncertainty and organizational changes: Sudden changes in the organization, such as restructuring, layoffs or role changes, can generate insecurity and fear of the future, heightening arousal. Uncertainty about the stability of one's job is a significant source of stress for many workers.

  4. Lack of autonomy and control: Having little control over your job, working methods or goals can increase levels of arousal. The perception of not having a say in decisions that affect your work can lead to feelings of helplessness and stress.

  5. Role ambiguity: Not having clarity about your tasks, responsibilities or expectations can cause confusion and stress. Role ambiguity can lead to constantly wondering if you are meeting expectations, fueling arousal.

  6. Lack of support: A lack of support, both on an emotional and practical level, from colleagues or superiors, can increase the sense of isolation and stress, contributing to a high level of arousal. Support is essential to effectively address work challenges.

  7. Excessive or inadequate work challenges: Both an excess of challenges, which may seem insurmountable, and a lack of challenges, which can lead to boredom and disengagement, can cause stress and increased arousal.

  8. Pressure to Achieve Results: Constant pressure to achieve results, especially when those results are tied to rewards or job retention, can be a significant source of stress and arousal.

Psychological safety to prevent burnout

Within this context, the concept of psychological safety , theorized by Amy Edmondson, takes on a critical role. Psychological safety refers to the perception of being able to display and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences to one's self-image, status, or career. In a work environment characterized by psychological safety, employees feel free to express concerns, ask questions, report errors or propose new ideas without fear of ridicule or punishment. This feeling of security is essential for reducing negative activation and promoting a general state of well-being.

“The noise of the urgency creates the illusion of importance” wrote S. Covey, author, educator and consultant on topics such as leadership, time management, productivity and personal growth. One of the most frequent mistakes found in companies, often among leaders and executives, is underestimating the prolonged effect of stress and excessive pressure over time. In fact, the state of stress must be temporary, or linked to particularly intense periods and particular efforts. Accepting that it will continue, underestimating the consequences and/or thinking that it is "normal" is not a good idea at all and seriously jeopardizes creativity and effectiveness, which are enormously weakened.

So what happens in a prolonged state of fear due to toxic leadership?

The various stressors of the work situation, such as overload, continuous pressure, role ambiguity and the absence of psychological safety can interact with the personal characteristics of each of us leading to high levels of stress and therefore to burnout. This leads to an increase in demotivation for 68% of workers and a decrease in productivity by 55% (Landry, 2020). The toxic micromanagement approach to leadership stifles innovation, undermines employee self-esteem, and fuels insecurities as it diminishes positive changes in the workplace and is detrimental to employee well-being and organizational success (Hill, 2017; Mohamed, 2021).

Do you want to know if your company is close to burnout?

Book a free call with Trainect experts who will help you identify priority areas of intervention and design the most suitable wellbeing strategy for your company.

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