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Burnout is a 'management issue'. The 'help' actually gaslighting Aussie workers and how to fix issue impacting millions

"With new ways of working and mindsets slow to adapt, burnout is continuing to grow.”

It turns out the laid-back, easy-as, chilled-out Aussie stereotype is as big a myth as drop bears that fall from gum trees and attack tourists. It's not all, 'She'll be right, mate' when it comes to work. We’re as burnt out as buggery, and it's getting steadily worse.

The Microsoft Work Trend Index found Aussies suffered a higher level of work burnout than other countries surveyed. A whopping 62 per cent of Australian workers reported being burned out at work, compared to the global average of 48 per cent. Crikey!

Burnout in Australia is rife according to The State of Workplace Burnout Report 2023 from Infinity Potential, a think tank dedicated to helping organisations and leaders create environments that can bring out the full potential in people.

Burnout cartoon image of a woman with her head down on a desk and stacks of books beside her.
Burnout is impacting nearly two-thirds of Aussie workers. (Credit: Yahoo Finance)

It found more than 38 per cent of participants were experiencing all three dimensions of burnout:

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  • Exhaustion (emotional, mental and physical)

  • Cynicism (mental distance, alienation, and negativity)

  • Reduced professional efficacy (inability to produce at the same speed or quality)

Post the pandemic, the report found, workplace stress and burnout rates continued to hit new record levels, climbing 4 per cent, year on year.

"With new ways of working and mindsets slow to adapt, burnout is continuing to grow,” the report's lead author, organisational psychologist Dr John Chan told Yahoo Finance.

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However, burnout is more than just being exhausted and counting the days until we wrap up for Christmas. The World Health Organisation defines it as: "A syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

"People focus on exhaustion,” Chan said. “But the second dimension is this feeling of disengagement or mental distance from your work. That's when you start hating your job and everyone associated with it, whereas you may have previously enjoyed it.

“Your performance subsequently drops, and when that happens, you start doubting your abilities, creating a complex psychological cycle to get out of.”

According to Chan, when we talk about burnout, it usually focuses on what is wrong with people. What are they doing or not doing to cause them to burn out?

"As if it's a weakness, illness or a medical condition that needs to be fixed or cured," he said. "Self-help gurus and apps claim to be able to fix someone with burnout, but they're gaslighting people into thinking that they're the problem."

Instead, Chan said, we must look at burnout's definition: "Chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

"Burnout is a management problem," Chan said. "Leaders and organisations often attribute it to just being part of work. ‘You have to put in the tough yards’, ‘suck it up’, or ‘this is just how we work’. But burnout is very specific to the workplace.

“It's a syndrome created by workplace stress. So, they need to understand the root causes of burnout and how to spot the symptoms early.”

So, what are the tell-tale signs to look for?

"Burnout and chronic stress keep our fight-or-flight response on at all times, and our body and mind eventually forgets how to turn itself off,” Chan said.

“So, you're always in a constant heightened state that leads to physical symptoms such as the inability to sleep, gastro-intestinal issues and chronic headaches. There are also mental and behavioural signs - such as being easily distracted, mood swings, and debilitating anxiety.

“These symptoms often affect an individual's ability to perform in their job, which causes more stress that can become a downward spiral that's difficult to get out of."

Chan said irritability was also a common symptom.

“You might be working with a colleague, and they were quite easygoing. Once symptoms start showing up, they are much more irritable, distracted, and cynical about their job and even with their colleagues,” Chan said.

“Mood swings and changes in their behaviour may indicate that they are chronically burnt out and may need professional help to get out of it.”

Rather than a bad day or week, Burnout manifests slowly over time.

"It's a chronic condition and, by its very nature, quite low-key,” Chan said. “People who've gone through burnout don't even know that this is happening to them until, at one point, they just break down. Once you get into that burnout state, you're mentally and physically shutting down and in survival mode. The only thing you're trying to do is get through the day."

Chan hopes there will be a push to create a more sustainable workplace and prevent people from burnout in the first place.

"Ultimately, it will be up to leaders to be courageous and prioritise the redesign of how we work and how work is done within organisations. Work is no longer working for a lot of people,” he said.

“As work is a determinant of well-being, organisations and leaders have the responsibility to create an environment that, at a minimum, does no harm to their people. There needs to be a stronger focus on managing workload, psychological safety and inclusion, and building strong team dynamics, which creates a significant barrier against burnout, even when workloads are high.”

Organisational leaders and political figures are forever discussing the need to increase productivity. Chan says the key to unlocking productivity is addressing how we work.

"We will only be able to increase productivity if we address the issue of employee well-being first," he said.

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