New Approaches to Workplace Burnout

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Feeling Burned Out at Work, Join the Club, reporter Rachel Feintzeig found that workplace burnout is pervasive and extremely expensive. In a follow-up interview, she noted that CEOs who used to dismiss the issue now realize they must address it because it leads to high turnover.

Workplace burnout is a special type of job stress that includes physical, mental and emotional exhaustion coupled with self-doubt. Many causes contribute to burnout such as dysfunctional workplace dynamics, lack of control over one’s work, poor job fit, lack of social support, and others. These can lead to symptoms like fatigue, cynicism, irritability, lack of patience, disillusionment, and problems with sleep. The net effect is employees become disengaged and eventually leave.

Many recommendations have been made to address burnout including developing social relationships, reframing your perspective on work, and reevaluating priorities. In addition to these, new approaches for maintaining personal resilience and effectively managing workplace conflict can help.

What is Resilience and How Can It Help?

Many see resilience as an inherent capacity to be able to bounce back from trauma. New research suggests that it is something that can be learned and improved for use in dealing with everyday stress. In Building Your Resilience, psychologist Kathryn McEwen defines employee resilience as “an individual’s capacity to manage the everyday stress of work and remain healthy, rebound from unexpected setbacks, and prepare for future challenges proactively.” 

McEwen’s model integrates several components that can be measured and developed to enhance an individual’s resilience. By creating and proactively sustaining a healthy state, these components work together to serve as an antidote to the stresses that could otherwise lead to burnout. They include among others holding on to your personal values, having a good level of emotional intelligence, finding work that provides a sense of purpose, staying flexible and optimistic, managing stress, cooperating with others, maintaining physical fitness, and developing support networks. 

In this new model, resilience is not seen as a steady state phenomenon. At times, we may be more resilient and at others less so. By helping you keep tabs on your current state the model provides a way of measuring your overall resilience at a specific moment in time. It also provides an evidence-based developmental approach that clarifies how to use components where you are already strong and enhance areas where you are less effective.     

Managing Conflict Effectively Can Help Prevent Burnout

Dr. Paul Spector, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, is a leading researcher in the field of stress and workplace conflict. His research, which is summarized in a chapter The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations suggests that conflict, when not well-managed, can be the greatest source of workplace stress.    

Conflict is inevitable in workplace settings. Although most people would rather avoid it, they recognize that this is not an effective strategy. When they do try to avoid it, the conflict typically festers and the stress associated with it builds. At some point emotions become heightened, and people become prone to lashing out. This destructive behavior escalates tensions and stress.

In my LinkedIn Learning course, Improving Your Conflict Competence, I recommend a different approach. This approach involves cooling down to manage your emotions, slowing down to reflect on the conflict, and then engaging constructively with the other person.

Cooling down is a form of emotional self-regulation. It includes becoming aware of what triggers irritation in the first place, developing skills to manage emotions so they do not get out of hand, and creating ways of buying time when you start to feel off balance.

Conflict is often very chaotic. Slowing down to reflect on what is happening before engaging with the other person can help clarify your own experience and what you want out of the conflict. It can also prevent you from acting impetuously, inadvertently making things worse.

Calming emotions and reflecting on the conflict sets you up to be able to engage more effectively with the other person to try to resolve a conflict. This is done using a series of constructive behaviors including:

  • perspective taking – imaging how things might look from the other person’s point of view
  • listening to understand the other person
  • expressing your own thoughts and feelings
  • collaborating with the other person to develop creative solutions to the problem, and
  • working to keep communications going when things get difficult.

Using these techniques will help you feel more confident and competent when dealing with the inevitable conflicts you will face and lessen stress that can lead to burnout.

Given the widespread and serious consequences of workplace burnout for individuals and their organizations, further attention needs to be given to the preventive qualities of enhanced individual resilience and conflict management skills.