Beating Burnout

by Col. Irene Folaron, MD
86th Medical Squadron commander

I was at the height of my medical career. After nine years of medical education followed by 12 years as a full-time physician, I should have been pleased with my professional progress. After all, this was the goal all along. However, instead of feeling overwhelming pride, I felt overwhelming misery. Although I remained dutiful in my studies and patient care, I was simultaneously looking for something else…really anything else…to do. Every day was a struggle and it would take me a year to realize and admit in hindsight that I had experienced burnout.

First described by H.J. Freudenberger and later by C. Maslach, burnout is a work-related syndrome marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of reduced professional efficacy. With a prevalence as high as 50 percent, burnout among physicians has received increased attention due to the negative effects on patient care and the healthcare system. However, this phenomenon is not limited to physicians; a survey of business executives revealed that up to 60 percent of business leaders felt “used up” at the end of the workday, emotional and physical signs indicative of burnout. With today’s challenges such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the demands of executing support of Afghanistan evacuation operations, leaders must remain cognizant of the signs of burnout not just in themselves, but their employees as well. Here are some reflections on how to avoid employee burnout:

Be a good steward of employees’ time

Meetings are an essential part of business where leaders can communicate with their teams and reinforce priorities. When participants are chosen thoughtfully, they can all benefit by sharing ideas, gaining valuable information, and contemplating strategies to execute the leader’s vision. However, not all leaders reflect on their meeting culture, such as the frequency to hold meetings, the duration, or participant composition. Some meetings are either too frequent to be productive, too lengthy for the participants to stay engaged, or, with the recent evolution of online meeting tools, simply unnecessary. Also, meeting invitations can be cast out too generally for it to hold value for every invited participant. A meeting places deliberate constraints on employees’ time during the workday, so reflecting on the intended outcome and communicating that up front helps the team to stay engaged and understand their value in the meeting. Above all else,
start the meeting on time and finish on time.

Protect down time

Employees understand that they may not be able to control some aspects of their workday. Last-minute tasks or unexpected events may arise that force employees to reprioritize their agenda. Intermittent surging is inevitable in business. However, leaders must appreciate that off-duty time is when employees can regain control of their lives. It is the time when they can prioritize their personal needs over those of their occupation, thus enabling a work-life harmony necessary to prepare for the next (work)day’s challenges. Continually asking employees to extend their work hours, or to bring their work to their home beyond the workday, inculcates a mental risk-benefit calculation. When the effort to do the work becomes disproportional to the perceived benefits, work quality will suffer and the leader risks losing the employee to another endeavor where they can achieve a more conducive life balance.

Celebrate results

Mission and vision statements represent the leader’s top priorities and anticipated pathways to achieve their most important goals. These statements are hung on walls, discussed biannually at the executive off-site, or routinely recited on presentations. While some employees can deduce an organization’s mission and vision based on their routine duties, they have not likely digested the mission in full detail. This is where the leader can steer their organization, applying the adage of “praise in public, punish in private.” When employees perform in a way that reinforces the mission, celebrate it widely. Publicly highlight aspects of the performance that emphasizes the mission and the resultant outcomes. When performance is substandard, provide timely feedback and remind the employee of the organization’s path. These cues from the leader will help employees understand how they can continue to add value to the organization, and knowing one’s value promotes employee enthusiasm which averts the risk of burnout.