You know burnout when you see it- lack of engagement, cynical attitude, extinguished creativity and waning professional passion. Burnout is detrimental to the individual and costly for organizations. Organizations spend limited resources on recruitment and training to replace one employee. Still, an organization with a burnout-prone culture will assume this cost repeatedly, with turnover as a common symptom of the syndrome. In a 2016 article, Maslach and Leiter define burnout as emotional exhaustion, diminished sense of personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.
Personal and professional self-care support employee flourishing and stave off burnout. Personal self-care includes those nourishing practices [meditation, exercise, nutrition, good sleep, maintaining doctor appointments, interpersonal connection, etc.] that are related to work-life balance. According to a 2017 article by Dorociak and colleagues, professional self-care is implemented within the workplace and includes five domains:
Self-care can lead to employee retention and can be a hedge of protection against burnout even in very high-stress work environments, according to a 2021 article by Lathan. Although there is substantial support for implementing personal and professional self-care, these practices may not be effective in an unsupportive work culture that is incongruent with workplace wellness [Morse et al., 2012].
To determine if you are successfully cultivating a burnout-proof, wellness-promoting work culture, consider the following questions:
1. Do you say to your staff that self-care is important but fail to practice taking care of yourself? For example, Do you send emails at midnight on a Friday? Do you take the day off when you are sick?
2. Do you reward people who work around the clock - days, weekends, and evenings?
3. Is your value of wellness in conflict with the high demands and limited resources employees face?
4. Do you initiate conversations in staff meetings related to self-care and burnout prevention, especially in times of increased internal [organization-level] or external [socio-cultural level] stress?
5. Do you recognize signs that someone is becoming burned out and initiate a conversation about self-care or work-life balance?
6. Do you allow time for employees to engage in professional development training?
If you were disappointed with your answers to any of the above questions, you are not alone. It can be challenging to promote wellness while also trying to meet higher goals for productivity. If the first question hits home with you, remember that it is important to model self-care for your team. As the old airplane adage indicates, you must put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Look at the examples of personal and professional self-care practices above and see what you can start implementing. Then, make a tactical plan for self-care.
Synchronizing our walk with our talk is important. If you communicate to staff that their wellness is a priority but give public recognition to employees burning the candle at both ends, you may inadvertently be perceived as hypocritical. Your team may interpret the tribute as a potent message of what is actually valued and expected by leadership even if you give lip service to self-care and burnout prevention at another time. Your communication, actions, values, and accolades must be consistent.
To implement self-care and wellness values, schedule training to provide professional development and social events to build supportive connections among colleagues. You can also make staff check-ins a normal practice. This includes discussing signs of burnout and asking employees to identify their own personal “warning signs.” Work as a team to brainstorm ideas for personal and professional self-care. These check-ins are essential during times of exceptional stress. If you get awkward glances and scant volunteers the first time you try this, do not be afraid to respect silence; sometimes, people need time to reflect before answering. Lack of engagement may also indicate a need to build psychological safety. You can also make it clear what kinds of answers you are expecting by being vulnerable first and identifying your own commitment to self-care and burnout prevention.
Developing a culture with self-care as a communicated and actualized value takes time and intentionality. Still, the benefits of individual wellness, team cohesion, and turnover mitigation are well worth the effort.
Challenges such as burnout have greatly affected our lives & our workplaces. These challenges have taught us to value people; the people in our organizations, the people in our communities and the people in our lives.