Burnout: no escape?

As a coach, I meet people in the workplace who suffer from long-term stress on a daily basis. Yet there are many ways - as a company or employee - to take preventive measures that stimulate resilience. And these do not always have to be major interventions.

Talent Management
Stefanie Geerinck

Our minds are always restless

Stress and being on the go all the time characterises our society at work, in traffic, and even in our 'scarce' free time. In itself, stress or busy schedules are not necessarily an issue. After all, healthy stress keeps us sharp, alert, and creative. It ignites the fire in us and makes us take the initiative and prompts action. An important precondition here is that there is always sufficient recovery afterwards. Stress only becomes a problem when there is chronic overload.

Nowadays, we find it almost 'normal' to always strain our brains. Besides having to cope with increasingly stronger stimuli and urgent tasks, we must also deal with ever-higher expectations, performance anxiety, and the Fear of Missing Out. ‘Daring’ to rest and relax has become difficult.

At the same time, we are faced with many changes that also demand a lot of commitment and flexibility. Not surprisingly, the resilience of many employees snaps and their ‘ability and well-being’ barometers hit the red zone. So, developing a coherent approach that safeguards job viability in an enduring manner is essential.

Seeing the wood for the trees

Burnout rarely has an isolated cause. Rather, the source is a combination of factors that may be both work-related and private. I often notice during my contact with organisations and employees that they no longer see the wood for the trees due to all of the possible stressors. A lack of insight and overview can have a paralysing effect. A kind of powerlessness takes over. People no longer take action and just let things run their course.

This tendency towards inertia is understandable, but that is absolutely fatal for the resilience within an organisation. This is why I like to use the House of Work Ability during my coaching sessions. This is strongly intertwined with the 5 Ws of Work, which provides the necessary guidance. The combination of both concepts provides a strong basis for working holistically and sustainably on resilience.

Say Wwwwwhat?

Nowadays, there is - quite rightly - much talk about burnout, job satisfaction, and engagement. Many models mainly focus on recovery after burnout or only scratch the surface in terms of prevention. However, we must look beyond the simple formula ‘you are engaged when high in energy and feel committed to your work, and you are close to burnout when low in energy and experience low engagement’. This awareness is certainly valuable. But then you must know what boosts employees’ energy and why they feel engaged or not. The 5 Ws answer these questions. They set the context. The 5 Ws are:

  1. Work conditions
  2. Work content
  3. Work organisation
  4. Work relationships
  5. Work employment terms

Making a psychosocial risk analysis is particularly complex because of multifactorial causes and dangers hidden at multiple levels. The 5 Ws model is very suited to this type of exercise. However, as a coach, I personally find it necessary to not restrict my preventive counselling to merely organisational and work characteristics. This is why I often work with the House of Work Ability.

The House of Work Ability

The House of Work Ability, developed by the Finnish professor Juhani Ilmarinen, highlights the impact of individual, social, and organisational characteristics on work ability. And it is this combination that makes it so interesting. Because, in my opinion, good work ability is only achieved when the individual characteristics and organisational requirements are balanced. And that balance continues to evolve. It is valuable to reflect on this regularly throughout one’s career.

The House of Work Ability is literally visualized in the form of a four-story house.

  1. The ground floor is the employee’s health. Good physical and mental health is vital for one’s work ability. Health is the indispensable basis - the crucial foundation - of the House of Work Ability.
  2. The first floor symbolizes the employee’s competencies. For good work ability, an employee must have the right mix of professional and social knowledge and skills, so they can continue to perform the job now and in the future. Indeed, the required competencies, knowledge, and skills are also subject to change.
  3. The second floor houses an employee’s norms and values. They will only feel a real and lasting bond with an organisation when they can identify with its norms and values. Respect, appreciation, recognition, and justice are often decisive values and preconditions.
  4. The third floor focuses on the work itself. It symbolizes the organisational and work requirements, working conditions, work organisation, work content, and division of duties. But leadership, together with management structure and culture, also play a major role here.

A staircase runs through the house connecting all the floors because the balance of good work ability is only achieved via the interconnections between all the floors. Only then can the house hold up the roof that ensures work ability.

In Ilmarinen’s concept, only the second floor has a balcony, which symbolizes the impact of the immediate surroundings. Undoubtedly, our environment (family, friends, society) massively influences our norms, values, and attitudes, and thus indirectly our work ability. But, in my experience, every floor has a window to the external environment and this significantly impacts every floor.

Where does it go wrong?

Knowing where to draw the line is not easy. Each individual has their own history, distinctive character, and unique situation. And every job and organisation is different.

What I can say is that the elements people get hung up on differ greatly according to the generation to which they belong. Young starters more often struggle with a lack of knowledge and self-insight, while 30-somethings may have particular difficulty combining a busy job with a household and young children. Those in their 40s ask more existential questions and look for meaning.

When I look back at the progress of my coachees, I see several themes recurring regularly that the employees can change themselves. For example, the biggest sore points often concern self-knowledge and reflection, self-leadership, communication, and working relationships. I will tell you more about this in my next blog post.

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