Dr Fran Longstaff is Head of Psychology at Fika. She is a HCPC registered Sport Psychologist and has over 15 years experience working in a range of high performance environments. Over the past 5 years with Fika, Fran has brought her knowledge of performance psychology to the workplace.In this article she discusses how her experiences of working with burned out athletes influenced how she now approaches burnout in the workplace.
Burnout: the epidemic of 2022
I can’t even count the number of articles that I read reporting on the exhausted workforce.
As a Sport Psychologist, burnout isn’t new to me. It’s the risk that many athletes run in pursuit of excellence. It’s characterised by a drop in performance and confidence, and feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, staleness, detachment and ‘stuckness’ - once it takes hold it’s extremely difficult to recover from.
Everyday athletes all over the world walk the fine tightrope between burning bright and burning out. And the same balancing act is happening in the workplace. Yet, despite many organisations best efforts, levels of burnout are on the rise.
Lessons about burnout from sport
In my early career as a trainee sport psychologist, I hate to admit it but I worked fairly unsuccessfully with a handful of athletes who were on the verge of burnout. Like many other practitioners even today, I worked with the individual to identify ways in which they could approach their sport and lives differently. But nothing worked. Now when I reflect on my work, I understand why.
As a trainee, I often approached burnout as an individual affliction. But burnout is rarely just about the individual. Unhelpful perfectionist tendencies or poor coping strategies only ever form part of the problem.
Oftentimes burnout is a reflection of the environment where the individual is in. The poor but widely accepted practices and ways of operating that people in that environment have normalised (e.g. poor planning, communication, relationships, and monotony), eventually grind them down.
It’s therefore unsurprising that burnout interventions that focus solely on the individual rarely work. Preventative burnout solutions need to be delivered at a team and organisational level.
A ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ approach to workplace burnout
Similarly to sport, for many years burnout in the workplace was approached as ‘the individual’s’ issue. As a result, largely ineffective interventions reflected this approach (e.g. subscriptions to meditation apps and stress management workshops).
However, in 2022, the McKinsey Health Institute encouraged workplaces to adopt a more systemic approach to burnout after finding toxic behaviours (e.g. unfair treatment, belittling, exclusion, etc) to be the leading cause of burnout at work. While this report took an important step forward in how organisations approach workplace burnout, I believe there is scope to go further.
At Fika we have evidence to show that the workplace behaviours that cause burnout don’t necessarily have to be toxic or malicious - they just have to be poor.
We surveyed 115 workers and found that in those who were highly burned out:
- 57% reported frequently being pulled away from one project and placed on another with little forewarning
- 41% reported that work was frequently duplicated in their organisation
- 32% felt that their organisation rarely played to their strengths
- 30% didn’t feel connected to their colleagues
I’m sure all of us have experienced at least one of these working practices and while we can all agree they’re annoying, we probably haven’t thought of them as harmful before. But they are.
Workplaces can drastically reduce burnout simply by supporting teams and colleagues to work better together.
I've spent the past five years with Fika developing team training software that is supported by empirical data. Our goal is to help teams and individuals within them collaborate more effectively. If you’d like to find out more please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our next expert-led webinar session