Being honest about burnout can help us rethink resilience in the workplace
- 7 Min Read
Bruce Daisley posits alternatives to resilience training and offers 3 strategies to stave off burnout in the workplace.
In June this year Gallup unveiled their latest treasure trove of HR data, in the form of the 2022 edition of the State of Global Workplace study. The report is always essential reading and there was an audience eagerly awaiting the impact of Covid-induced working from home on the workforce.
The headline from Gallup left readers in no doubt, declaring that: ‘Stress among the world’s workers reached an all-time high – again’.
Delving into the pages of the report is richly rewarding – if grim – reading. If we were in any doubt, Gallup’s data shows we’re in a burnout epidemic. Gallup gives five main causes of burnout:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
The single cause of this burnout? Managers!
If you’re not feeling resilient enough to stave off burnout then Gallup say their evidence gives them a clear understanding of the reasons why. For the avoidance of debate Gallup say all of these causes have one thing in common – bad management.
This rings a bell to me, I’ve just spent two years writing a book on why the idea of resilience that we are peddled is a toxic myth. I found that the version of resilience we’re invited to conjure up is something deeply individual. Something that we can be trained to summon once we’ve been in schooled in the techniques. If we’re not feeling resilient then an online seminar could be what the doctor ordered. It stands to reason that if you believe resilience can be trained then a deficit of it is in someway the result of a personal shortcoming.
The two challenges of asking workers to be resilient to burnout
It’s worth reflecting on what happens in these sessions. Largely based on the research of super psychologist Martin Seligman and his proteges, resilience training often schools us that if we’re not feeling strong it might be a question of mentally reframing our challenges, or ‘hunting the good stuff’ in our unhappy lot. It’s worth considering two challenges with this approach.
The first challenge is that if we re-read the list of Gallup’s five causes of burnout then it seems disrespectful to someone suffering from an unmanageable workload, to say that actually the burnout is on them. That they’ve shown a deficiency by ending up worn down by it. There’s no other way to construe this than ‘victim blaming’. Do we tell victims of natural disasters that they need to be more resilient? Actually, we also do that too. Resilience is, and has always been, the perfect alibi for victim blaming.
In the world of HR we know this well, I chatted to social psychologist Alex Haslam who reminded me of an episode way back in 2003 when the UK’s Health and Safety Executive issued a ‘Stress Improvement Notice’ to West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust to resolve burnout issues there. The move was seen to demand of employers that they were expected to resolve the toxic workplace they were creating. And it worried them.
Haslam explained to me that faced with the responsibility for burnout and stress the Trust chose to reframe the issue, ‘One way they did that was rhetorically by saying “OK, we’ve had enough of talking about this bad stuff. So let’s start looking on the positive side and talking about resilience’. And so the long-storied reframe of burnout began, it wasn’t the understandable output of unsustainably toxic working environment, it was what happened when workers weren’t hardy enough.
Independent research says that resilience training doesn’t work
The second challenge of the typical way we deal with burnout, is the aforementioned work by Martin Seligman. Seligman is an icon of psychology, in many ways its worth regarding him as the Robert DeNiro of the discipline, capable of dazzling brilliance in his early career but with his share of patchy work in his later years.
Specifically, the question mark hangs over his contribution to the resilience orthodoxy that exists in western circles. Seligman’s organisation has earned multimillion-dollar commissions for his resilience training for schools. His resilience training for the US Army has, according to investigative journalist Jesse Singal led to an investment of over half a billion dollars.
The big challenge with all of this work is that when others set out to measure the impact of it they end up saying it simply doesn’t work. Jesse Singal performed a rigorous analysis of all of the peer-reviewed studies into Seligman’s work with the US Army and pithily concluded that the Seligman intervention was ‘a mess’ and that ‘there’s zero evidence that CSF, a mandatory Army program for over a decade, does anything to help soldiers’. The co-creator of Seligman’s (PRP) school program acknowledged in her own analysis of the school scheme that ‘data show no evidence that PRP is superior to active control conditions’.
This is the double whammy of the resilience discussions that increasingly permeates every workplace. Firstly the very idea that our colleagues can’t handle unsustainable working conditions is due to their lack of resilience is victim-blaming. Secondly, the training that they are offered has been shown in independent analysis not to work anyway. We’re gaslighting our colleagues and then offering them a sugar pill.
With that in mind it’s worth returning the Gallup workforce study. The study describes the experience of those who are engaged with their jobs saying that 95% of engaged workers report being treated with respect all day at work. 87% mention that work involves “smiling and laughing a lot”.
So what can leaders do to stave off workplace burnout? Here are three clear pointers from the Gallup research.
1) Set about reducing the burden of meetings
Microsoft has used the data gleaned from Teams to estimate that the number of meetings has increased by 2.5 times in the last couple of years. When I worked in a big tech firm we performed an audit that suggested our team members were spending over twenty hours a week in meetings – I have no doubt it will have got worse in the two years since I left. At the time we set about trying to halve this burden. Reducing time spent in meetings is incredibly difficult but almost nothing has a stronger effect on employee satisfaction.
2) Think about introducing a meeting-free day
In May I wrote about the impact that meeting-free days are having on employee wellbeing. The researchers reported a 26% decline in employees reporting feeling stressed from one meeting-free day per week, rising to 43% with two.
3) Invest in better training for middle managers
Professor Sir Cary Cooper often talks about the ‘line manager lottery’. The Gallup research backs this up, that some of us win by getting a great manager and others of us end up with burnout based on the leader we’re given. The role of manager has fundamentally changed in the last few years and providing better training can help organisations create engaged teams.
Any leader questioning whether these initiatives can have an impact on their business can find final comfort in the Gallup report. The report joins the dots for us, saying that business units with engaged workforces reported 23% higher profits than those with disengaged employees. Redesigning jobs can not only beat burnout but can transform business outcomes.
Bruce Daisley is a workplace culture consultant and the host of Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast. His new book, ‘Fortitude’, is about the mistakes we make when thinking about resilience.