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We’ve got to make sure we’re creating cultures where it’s not only okay, it’s expected, it is a behavioral norm in your culture for people to raise their hand or to raise their voice and say, “I need help.”
Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we help HR and business leaders embrace joy in the workplace. I’m JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink and Powered by Purple Ink, and with me is my dear friend and co-host Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting, an HR consulting practice. Our topic today is “Cut the BS and Address Burnout and Stress in the Workplace.”
So BS stands for burnout and stress. Good to know. Thank you.
That’s right. And our guest today is Jason Cochran. Jason is a licensed psychologist of over 15 years and the co-founder of technology companies iAspire and Dulead in the Indianapolis area, both of which are focused on human development. Fascinated with the exploration of human potential, Jason has devoted his life to building scalable solutions that attract, develop, and retain talent. His passion is to help organizations build growth cultures where people elevate to their potential and organizations fulfill their missions in the world. Most recently, he became co-host of the podcast called The Geeks Geezers and Googlization Show – try and say that really quickly – where he interviews global thought leaders concerning the convergence of technology and people strategy and its impact on the future of work, jobs, careers, business, and HR.
Jason, we are delighted that you’re here. What is burnout, and what do you think the effects are on people’s lives of burnout?
So burnout is actually a clinical classification. In fact, the timing of this was funny. 2019, the World Health Organization put burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, the 11th edition. That’s basically the diagnostic Bible for doctors and mental health practitioners like myself, right? So that means it can actually be diagnosed, it’s diagnostic code QD85 – I doubt anybody out there was wondering, but just to let you know it really is a diagnosis. But what makes it different and unique is it’s actually considered an occupational phenomenon. And what we mean by that is, unlike with clinical depression or anxiety disorders – those things affect every aspect of your life, and that’s why they’re considered mental health disorders or illnesses. Burnout’s different, because it specifically is in the work context. So in other words, you experience burnout because of conditions at work. And there’s primarily six drivers that lead to someone feeling burnout. But before we get to those, burnout can look like a lot of different things to different people, but what they’ve settled on is that there’s really three kind of dimensions to it in terms of how most people feel when they’re feeling burned out from work, and that is they have increased exhaustion, increased mental distance or negativity toward their job, and then the third one is reduced professional efficacy. In other words, how effective you are at doing your job. And then those six drivers that often lead to burnout are organizational factors, and so this is where culture plays a big part. And those six are if people are working too much – so work overload is a driver. Lack of control – so if people feel like they don’t have any autonomy in their job and they’re just basically told what to do all the time, that’s a driver for burnout as well. The third one is your rewards and recognition programs. Are those aligned to the needs and desires of your employees? If they’re not, then that can lead to burnout. The fourth one is lack of a supportive community. Is there cohesion in your culture among people? So working with their colleagues, do they have an affinity for who their supervisor or manager might be? Those things are really important in terms of community and that’s a driver for burnout as well. And then the last two are unfair practices – so if… if people perceive that things are unfair in the organization in terms of how certain people or groups of people are being treated, that’s a driver for burnout, and then last one is values mismatch. So if your values as a person don’t align well with the organization’s, then more than likely at some point, that’s also going to lead to you feeling burned out as well.
Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of those definitions before. So I’m glad to hear that… technically what all that means. I sort of always thought of it just as someone who maybe is working too much or just isn’t engaged in their job, so interesting to hear the in depth answer.
Absolutely. And the things you just described there, JoDee, no doubt are probably the most prevalent things that we see. But as with a lot of things, everyone’s unique, and… and so the way that they may feel, or, you know, manifest burnout can be a little bit different from someone else. You know, maybe one person it is the number of hours, but for another person, that’s, “Hey, I feel like somebody was treated unfairly in this organization, because of…” whether it’s race, gender, you know, whatever the reasons might be, and it leads them to start having those what I call “icky feelings.” That’s not a technical term but…
…icky feelings about the work that they do, right? There’s something not right here, and it’s making me not feel as good about working here and the work that I’m doing.
I’ve got a technical term for icky feeling. It’s “stinking thinking.”
I love that.
Some stinking thinking’s happening.
Jason, do you see… does this burnout have a connection, or could it have a connection to other mental health conditions?
Yeah, that is… I tell you what, that’s a Pandora’s box, but it’s one that we’ve got to start addressing. Interestingly, when the World Health Organization came up with the diagnosis in 2019, they also commissioned a lot of work to be done to explore, What is the relationship between burnout and other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders? And here’s what they concluded: we don’t have enough research to make any conclusions.
Don’t you love it when that happens?
But… but it’s important nonetheless, because the few things that they did discover are really important, and here’s one of them. The first one is that typically, when we think of mental health in the workplace, I’m sure most of your listeners and certainly myself, too, you think of pre-existing conditions. In other words, you know, by the time someone is age eligible to have a full time job, if there might be, you know, a mental health challenge there, they may have already been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and so it’s something that they already had in their life that they’re bringing to work. But here’s what they found. Yes, that’s true. But also, up to 25% of mental health diagnoses are caused by work.
So let that sink in. So we also have the other side of the coin. Yes, there are things that people bring to work because of, you know, their… their psychosocial history and things they’ve been through, but it’s also possible that you haven’t experienced those things, you start working somewhere, and over time, you actually can develop depression from work, or you can develop an anxiety disorder that’s caused by work. And so there definitely is, you know, some more research that has to be done in that area. But the preliminary estimates are one out of four mental health diagnoses are caused by work, and so that’s something important that we have to consider. The other thing we have to consider in terms of those relationships between burnout and mental health is burnout really is just in that work context. The other diagnoses stretch across the span of your life. And so the difference not only is the context or environment, but also what’s the severity of the symptoms. Typically, as the severity of the symptoms increases, then it becomes more of a mental health diagnosis. And also the period of time. Like, you can have acute bursts of burnout, you know, potentially related to certain kinds of project or work conditions. But typically, mental health tends to be more long term, when we think of those things. And so those are definitely some important distinctions that we need to understand when it comes to it. And what I like to think of it as is related to physical health, right, because sometimes mental health is harder for us to get our minds around. And so in mental health, probably all of us can relate to going and getting, like, a blood panel done. And if the doctor says, “Hey, we’ve got some high triglycerides here,” basically what that is, is a marker for a… if we don’t get this under control, this could eventually lead to heart disease, or it could eventually lead to you know, a plaque buildup on your blood vessels which could lead to a stroke. And so triglyceride counts being high can be a marker for things later on down the road. Well, burnout’s the same way. If burnout goes untreated and it goes on long enough, it can eventually seep into and become something where now it starts to affect those other parts of your life. Maybe now you’re starting to enjoy things outside of work less and less, you want to be around people less, because you’re just stressed out all the time. So there definitely is a strong relationship among mental health and burnout. But as the… the World Health Organization said, we are just now on the cusp of starting to understand what some of those are.
Interesting. Which I think makes some of the things you talked about at the beginning so much more important, right? Thinking about, you know, we don’t always know or it isn’t always so obvious to think about what people might be bringing with them when they start with a new company. But things that develop at the work, it just… sounds like anyway, it could be… some of that could be avoided, if we really do focus on aligning the person’s values, or, you know, using people’s strengths, or allowing people to do what they do best. Because if they come in and then get stuck in a place that is not the right fit, it just could really fester for them.
You know, I’ve had so many employees say to me, “This job is killing me.” And you know what? It very well may be. I think this adds a lot of credence based on what you said, Jason, that the job could be making them sick because things are out of alignment.
You’re absolutely right. And I didn’t mean to gloss over the physical impact that work has on our lives, also, that you bring up there, Susan, but that… that report that the World Health Organization came out with in 2020, it was kind of a mental health workplace model, but it also went into the impacts that work has on our heart disease potentially, like, the risk factors for that, for strokes. And so work is something more than just what we do. It’s a part of us. I mean, it is a very real part of who we are and impacts the mental health and the physical health side. And so that’s a great point that unfortunately, for some people, if they haven’t lined up those values, like you mentioned, JoDee, that as you said, Susan, it actually… our work can be killing us gradually, or shortening our lifespan, or the focus of your podcast, it can be robbing us of our joy and making us feel stuck. And that’s just not a good place not only for work, but for the rest of our life, in terms of the type of impact and joy and things we want to experience in our lives.
Yeah, absolutely. Jason, why do you think that burnout appears to be more prevalent today? It’s spring 2022. Why is burnout so ever present right now?
I think a lot of people are struggling with the collision of home and work life now. Interestingly, you know, I often say be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. That’s something my parents taught me. The data that we have right now on how remote work is going for a lot of people is actually kind of startling. Even though it’s something most people want, many people are reporting struggling working from home in terms of setting up those boundaries. And so now, on average, what we have is the average worker working from home is working 5.6 hours more per week than they were whenever they were in the office.
They are engaging with their manager or supervisor less than when they were at the office, so they’re feeling more invisible. And then during the day… I mean, I can relate to this. I currently have I have four kids who are eight and under, and all of them except one is sick today. And so, you know, trying to bounce in between, you know, different tasks and things I need to get done today, it’s a challenge, because there’s just constant switching on and off of your mental set and your attention between, “Okay, I’m working for 30 minutes now,” “Now I’m going to go check and make sure, if my kid’s doing elearning, are they okay?” Maybe I need to call a parent if… if they were sick and dealing with COVID. Just this constant bombardment now, of work and home. Now, that’s not to say that we do away with remote work. We don’t. I mean, it’s what we want to do. But where we are right now is we’re trying to figure it out. People are trying to figure out now, “Okay, now that I’m working from home and I’ve got these other things that may interfere with my day-to-day tasks, what do I need to do to change my daily routine, to set those clear boundaries, to help me be successful working from home?” And that’s where a lot of people are struggling. And here’s the thing, too, that was alarming in the research that’s been done. Most people can’t figure it out on their own. They need support from the organization, from their leaders to say, “Hey, here’s going to be our policy,” you know, “We’re going to do hybrid work, we’re going to come to the office a couple days a week, you’ll be able to work from home two or three days, and then here’s when we’re going to shut off email. That includes me as a leader, too.” Because unfortunately, what often happens is, you know, folks will stay up late trying to catch up on things they didn’t get to during the day. So if leadership can put in some boundaries and say, “I’m going to abide by this. Once I am, quote, unquote, clocking out at five or six o’clock at night, you’re not going to get an email from me, you’re not going to get a Slack message from me, you’re not going to get a call from me.” We really need to make sure we’re still setting those boundaries in place between work and home, even though we’re doing more work from home. Without those boundaries, many of us are struggling to be productive and to prevent starting that… that feeling of burnout, because of the extra work that we’re doing and feeling less connected to others.
Yeah. You know, I think one of the things too, you mentioned earlier, people are interacting with their managers less than when we were all live in the office, which I totally agree with, but I think some of that is a… should be on us, too, to reach out to the leaders and not just sit back and wait for them to come to us. You know, it would be so much easier in the office to drop by your manager’s office or to see them in the break room and have those conversations. And yet, when we think about setting up an appointment just to talk or setting up a Zoom call, it seems like it needs to be more formal, and so people avoid doing that, as well, too.
Well, you are spot on, JoDee, and I know this is a podcast, so they can’t see my arms, your listeners can’t…
…but I’ve got them up in the air like, “preach.”
Preach! 89% of employees reported burnout in 2021. Staggering statistic, right?
92% of senior executives reported it.
And so we often think in terms of, you know, leadership always needs to be doing stuff for the employees. But what as employees you need to realize is, your leaders are going through burnout too. This is a really challenging time for them. And so the same things that you’re wanting in return from them, they probably need in return from you. And so one of those things you can do is reach out to them. They don’t have a crystal ball to know what’s going on in your life all the time. Make sure that you as an employee are reaching out to them to let them know when you’re going through some challenging times or if there’s some circumstances that are making it difficult in some ways to be yourself and do your best work like you normally do. And leaders, on the flip side, make sure you’ve created a psychologically safe environment and you’ve invested enough in your people that they trust you, that they can step forward and speak up and say that “I’m having a challenge.” But absolutely, we need to be looking out for our leaders, as well, just as we are our employees, to make sure that they’re being taken care of, too.
Yeah. That’s a very interesting statistic, I think, that 92% of executives are burned out also. Right? You think if they’re burned out, yet we’re talking to them about how important it is that they engage their teams… That can be extra hard for them when they… they might not be engaged themselves, or they likely are not engaged themselves based on your stat.
That’s right. And there’s a word that’s really important when we talk about burnout, mental health, and that word is “stigma.” Unfortunately, we still are living in a time where many people are afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to admit things around mental health or burnout. And sadly, those 92% of senior level executives on this anonymous survey who said they’ve experienced burnout in 2021, half of them said they feel like they can’t acknowledge it to anybody, because they’re worried about what it would do for their career, that they would be perceived as being weak in the eyes of their… their fellow leaders and employees, that it would basically show a chink in their armor, and that they need to be perfect, that they need to be strong. And so that’s the other side of the coin, too, is we’ve got to make sure we’re creating cultures where it’s not only okay, it’s expected, it is a behavioral norm in your culture for people to raise their hand, or to raise their voice and say, “I need help. I’m struggling this week, and I need some help.” And that’s what we’ve got to focus on, in order to try and chip away at the stigma, the fear, the embarrassment, the shame that people often have of admitting what’s really going on in their life related to mental health and burnout.
I love that. Now, I’m gonna sort of talk out of the other side of my mouth again for a minute and ask you, because we’re talking about the executives are struggling as well, and you’ve mentioned a few, but what can some of those leaders or the organization on a broader scale do to address the primary causes of burnout? And, you know, what are some specific things you might recommend for organizations to create those burnout proof cultures? If we can even get to that, right?
Absolutely. Yeah. So… so I’ll talk in terms of personally, what leaders can do, and then I’ll talk about in terms of organizational policy, a couple recommendations. Let’s talk about the personal first, because this is honestly where it all starts. So for leaders, you want to make sure that you are opening up and admitting whenever you’re going through a challenging time. It’s really important, because I’ll share something that is no surprise. But guess what? Even though you might think you need to be perfect, your people know you’re not perfect.
They’ll let you know what your faults are.
Exactly, it’s not going to be a shocker if they come to you and say, “Hey,” you know, “I’ve kind of been short in some meetings here the last week,” they’re not going to be like, “Oh, I didn’t notice that.” They’re gonna be like, “Uh, yeah.”
“What’s going on? Are you okay?” Right? And so you’ve got to make sure you’re being honest. You can’t act like everything’s okay all the time when someone asks you what’s going on. Second thing you can do is make sure you have somebody there at work that’s a confidant that can kind of check in on you maybe, like, once a month. In psychology, we have a trick we often do to peel back the layers and really get the true answer. We ask the same question three times. And so, “How are you doing?” “How are you doing?” “No, how are you doing, really?” And then by the time you do that, you usually get to what’s really on their heart and what’s going on. And so making sure that leaders – employees too – that you have someone that you can go to at work that’s… or that they’re going to come to you, rather, and ask and just check in each month. “How are you doing?” So it’s really important, those personal steps, that leaders take those to start creating a culture of it’s okay to talk about these things. And then also sharing, just like we do with our physical health… like, if someone’s training for a marathon, you know, we ask them about, like, how’s that going? What are you doing to prepare for that, and to be, you know, physically healthy? I think it’s really important that we create a culture where people talk about the things they’re doing, like, “Hey, I go to a counselor,” or “I go to a life coach,” or, you know, whatever that is, fill in the blank, you know, openly sharing about those things. You don’t have to get into the details necessarily of why, but just being open and sharing those things makes people think, “Hmm, if that person is going to a counselor,” you know, I hold them in high regard, “then maybe it’d be good for me to have one also, or a coach, too.” Now, moving away from the leaders, just personally, these are kind of employee-led things. What can employees do? One of the first things is use your paid time off. Use the PTO. It’s astonishing how few people feel like they can get away from work. Well, you got to. You’ve got to use that PTO time. And I know many times those thoughts that start going through their head, as well. “If I take time off then I’m going to have twice the amount of work whenever I come back.” Well, what’s interesting is if you take two weeks off, usually people figure it out.
Because they won’t wait two weeks to get an answer, right? So just think about the way that you’re structuring your paid time off and that you’re using it. And then make sure that you’re establishing agreed upon, clear boundaries between work life and home life with your employer or with your direct manager. That’s really important. You know, setting a time limit and saying, hey, you know, given my life context, if I’ve got several young kids at home, I’ve got to be a dad or a mom, so after five o’clock, unless it’s an absolute emergency of some kind, like somebody passed away or, you know, whatever it might be, I’m not going to be responding to messages until the next day, you know, and working on those things. Those are just a couple things personally that can be done. Organizationally, really quickly. We’ve got to measure burnout and some mental health stats as well. Because what gets measured gets managed. Contrary to what might be out there, this is not a separate policy. When we’re talking about mental health and burnout, it needs to be part and parcel of your employee experience strategy, because mental health and burnout are part of the employee experience. They drive it, and then it also affects mental health and burnout, as well, the types of experiences people have. And so we have to make sure we have clear metrics around it. And so some of the things that we do is we make sure each month we’re doing a short burnout poll survey with leadership and employees, just so that we have some baseline data, and we’re tracking over time to see if certain departments, certain teams, certain times of year, we’re hitting trends when people may be struggling more with those things than others, and when we need to beef up supports. So absolutely, make sure that you are measuring it. And then the other one, organizationally, empower your people to have a seat at the table. Many times – and I’ve experienced this myself, and I’ve been guilty of it – we can think we know what the solution to a problem is. And so it’s really easy to start saying, okay, here’s the ideas that we’re going to come up with as leadership. But if you don’t have the buy in, and you don’t have the right people at the table, and by that I mean, you have employees there as well, you can very easily start coming up with strategies and tactics that are created in a vacuum, and it isn’t for them, it’s not what’s going to be effective for them. So make sure you’re including your employees in this kind of strategy and plan so that their inputs are being heard as well about what they need for their mental health, and what they need to try and prevent burnout, too. One of the clever things I’ve seen around this is employee support groups, that leadership said, hey, you know, at the leadership level, we have some support groups we’ve created internally, we want you employees to do the same thing, if that’s something that would be helpful for you as well. So those are just a few tips and strategies and tactics I’ve seen with some organizations that have really helped to start down this road of trying to create a burnout proof culture, and also create some mental wellness initiatives within the company.
I think those are great advice, especially… what hits home for me is empowering your people to be involved in the decisions. I know when I was a young leader, I felt like, oh, I’m… you know, I’m in charge now, so I need to have all the answers. And the thought of asking my team or other people about an idea literally didn’t occur to me.
Because I felt like, I need to know the answers, I’m the leader. So it was a hard lesson for me to get past that.
So Jason, as a takeaway from today’s episode, what is one small step our listeners could do to create more joy at work?
Yeah, I think one of the first things is, if you haven’t done a personal purpose and meaning statement, I think that’s something that’s really important to do. Because fundamentally, maybe there’s a mismatch between what you’re about and what’s important to you and the work that you’re doing. And this is something I’ve drawn on from Jacob Morgan, he wrote a book called “The Employee Experience Advantage.” And this exercise is what he has a lot of people do in the organization, and it’s really simple, there’s just three parts to it. Again, it’s called the personal purpose and meaning statement. And so at the very top, you fill in the blank that says “My job is to…” The second one is “My purpose is to…” And the third one is “The fulfillment I get from this is…” And you fill in the blanks. What this will do is this will really help you figure out if you don’t know what your values are, it’ll start making you think about what your values are. It’ll get you thinking about what you typically do in your job. It’ll get you thinking about what is the purpose that you want to have in this world. And then purpose is the bridge to meaning. Bringing meaning. Those are the good feelings, the oxytocin and the things that our brains release to make us feel good. We have to have fulfillment and meaning from the work that we do. And so if there would be one thing I would leave with people, if they haven’t done a personal purpose and meaning statement, I would start there, because of those six drivers that lead to burnout in organizations, the first one to start out with is looking at the values mismatch. And you can only start there if you know what your values are and knowing what your guardrails are, knowing the kind of purpose and impact and transformation that you want to leave in this world as part of your legacy. And those things sound easy to do. And they are, from a practical standpoint, but I’ll tell you what, when I first did it, I stared at a blank sheet of paper with those three sentences for a long time.
The amount of time and effort I put into it to finally craft my personal purpose and meaning statement… It’s been my North star, given me my guardrails to know when to say yes and when to say no, what to go after what not to go after. And it was worth every bit of the effort to create it. And so that’s what I would recommend to everyone, wherever they are on their journey. If you haven’t taken that time to do that, I would do that. I think that’s step one.
Nice. Jason, you’ve given us so many good ideas and thoughts and different perspectives on burnout and what causes it and what we can help to do about it. How can our listeners reach out to you if they want to hear more?
Yeah, I would love for people to reach out on LinkedIn. I love LinkedIn. And so you can find me, Jason Cochran, my last name is spelled C-O-C-H-R-A-N. Please connect with me there. You can check out the work we’re doing at Dulead. That’s spelled D as in dog, U-L-E-A-D as in dog. You can find us at dulead.com. And then thirdly, you can also catch me each week with Ira Wolfe on the Geeks Geezers and Googlization show. We talk about adaptability, the future of work, and things like that to equip leaders for these unsettling and never normal times. So we’d love it if you tune into the show, or just give it a like on LinkedIn and follow the content, because we definitely want to try and help people in these challenging times.
Yeah, I love it. Thank you again, Jason. Very informative.
And it was a pleasure. Thank you.
Thank you, Susan and JoDee. And thank you, listeners.
JoDee, our listener question today is, “If you are an active listener and use your superpower listening skills, how do you tell if the other person or other people are intimidated by your behavior?” This person wrote in and said, “I’m afraid if I’m too engaged, and the other person is intimidated, they may not be inclined to converse as openly.”
Yeah, I thought that was such an interesting question. And first of all… of all, I want to give the person who asked the question, like, kudos for you for being an active listener. And I also think that what they may feel like being almost too engaged is probably not overly engaging. Like, I think most of us probably don’t do that enough. But if we feel like we’re going overboard with it, I mean, of course, that could be somewhat intimidating. But I would really have… maybe have someone else sit in on a conversation to see if they feel like you are a little bit too much. Because if you’re really listening a lot, you’re probably not doing that. In other words, most people, our fear is that we’re talking so much.
Certainly, and I might have some individual experience at that, but that I’m over talking and not doing enough listening. So I would think, if you’re really good at that, it’s not going to be intimidating, because you’re such a good listener to their issues.
I don’t know who said it…. Somebody said “No man has ever listened to their way out of a job,” which, I don’t know who said it, but I love it because I am sure there’s people who have talked their way out of a job.
Yeah, if you’re going to pick your poison, I would be a super listener…
…before I’d try to be an over talker, but yes, I… I’m really hopeful that if you are engaged with someone and you’re giving them your attention, and you are actively listening, most people are going to be flattered by that and they’re going to want to open up.
Good luck to the listener.
Yes, agree. In our in the news section today, in the January 25, 2022 Wall Street Journal, they noted that a November survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers found that 95% of those workers want flexible hours, compared with 78% who want location flexibility. So we really want flexibility more than we just want the opportunity to work remotely or from a different location. The new report from Future Forum offers a snapshot into just how popular hybrid arrangements have become in the second year, starting to go on our third year now, of the pandemic, how virtually all workers prize schedule flexibility above all, and the growing concerns that many bosses have about how to keep promotions and pay fair when some employees are in the office while others stay home. The survey also found that 72% of workers who weren’t happy with their level of flexibility, whether that’s based on time or location, are likely to seek out a new opportunity in the next year. This, of course, is so important for leaders to recognize. You might not be able to offer remote work, but likely most organizations and roles might be able to offer some flexibility.
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