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Corporate burnout is a hot topic in leadership circles this year. Over the weekend I was reading a post on Brené Brown’s website. In the middle of the article she added a meme with a quote that said: 

“It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol. -Brené Brown 

This particular observation is so true, it’s concerning. Corporate burnout is real and it’s prevalent in many organisations. 

Last year Personnel Today, the HR news portal, shared the research data on a five-year in-depth study into burnout and its impact. The study revealed that 20% of high performing middle and senior leaders in UK businesses are affected by corporate burnout. 


Stress Versus Burnout in Your Employees 

A critical thing to consider before we move further through this post is to clarify that stress and burnout are two different conditions. 

Stress, to varying degrees, can happen to all of us for a multitude of reasons such as end of month deadlines, delivering a key project for a client or pitching for a high profile advertising contract that could well add seven figures to your bottom line. 

At some level this is normal; we will all have times when more input is necessary to get the job done. 

Burnout on the other hand, as the name implies, is a complete inability to function. In some cases, the individual is unable to carry out work in any capacity.  

It often entails overwhelming exhaustion, resulting in disillusionment and an abnormal attitude towards work, colleagues and family. It’s even common for sufferers to be unable to get out of bed. 


How to Spot Burnout  

Ironically those who suffer burnout have little awareness or insight into what is going on. More reason to have wellbeing at your core as an organisation. 

So, what are some of the tell-tale signs that one of your team members is heading for burnout? 

  • We have already shared some clues; they tend to be high performers. 
  • Though it might surprise you, it’s the younger members of your team, 20-30-year olds being the biggest group. 
  • It’s not about the individual creating the conditions for burnout, it’s typically down to the organisation, culture and the workplace. 
  • It generally happens over their first five years in your company. 
  • It normally occurs after an ever so subtle dip in performance. 
  • Physical manifestations to look out for is niggling coughs and colds and excessive use of painkillers for aches and pains. 
  • A normally calm individual might suddenly have a short fuse as stress levels rise and potential burnout occurs. 
  • Though not always obvious, excessive alcohol consumption can occur.  Where Melissa normally stops at one glass of wine at an end of day pub visit, it turns into a bottle followed by a late-night scramble for the last tube. 


How Organisations Cause Burnout 

Burnout happens to overachievers and it’s easy to think that perhaps they bring it on themselves. 

It’s likely they are the individuals who volunteer for additional projects over and above their role objectives. Because they are perceived as superwoman or superman in an organisation, their line manager is more than happy to agree to make them the project lead of the next pivotal and challenging project for the organisation. 

“If you want a job done, give it to a busy man or woman” is a well-known phrase. Unfortunately, this suggestion might be a root cause of burnout too. 

High performers are often ‘expected’ to help other team members out. The nature of a high performer is they are more than willing to do this without complaint. 

Oh, and what about mentoring on the side? ‘Yes, of course, why not, Charlotte is more than capable’; and the list goes on.  

Then, there are all the other ‘small’ things high performers are asked to help with. 

‘Hannah, you are fab on word could you help Lauren get this table centred?’ or ‘Daniel we want to do the next 100k challenge for the British Heart Foundation. I know you are a keen walker could you organise this for us; we would love to get at least 20 people to participate… you are great at influencing so it shouldn’t be a problem!?’ 

On the surface, these might seem like small things. However, they chip away and eventually add to the problem. 

Is this ringing any bells for you?  


Change Starts With Awareness 

I suspect many leaders reading this post will have either recognised the signs and symptoms of burnout in themselves or members of their team. 

The logical next step is to do something about it which starts with communication and taking a second position stance on specifically what is happening. 

A first start is to have regular reviews with all members of your team. This is a time when a 15 minute ‘catch up’ won’t do.

Many leaders are strategic thinkers and in the training world are known as ‘big chunk’ communicators. This often means that detail is missed or the appropriate questions aren’t asked that would help identify if an individual is close to burnout. 

For example, here are a few coaching questions you could use to enable you to move from big picture thinking to a process that will uncover more detail.   

Tonality is critical here; think curious questions rather than aggressive tone as you demand to know ‘what’s happening! 

  • How are things, Dan? 
  • How specifically is project MindMoves progressing? 
  • What exactly is happening? 
  • …. and how are you managing to juggle all your priorities? 
  • Dan, I noticed every night you are still here when I leave at 6 pm; what additional support might you need? 
  • What parts could be delegated out? How can I best support you? 

Asking probing questions like these will help you uncover more detail about what is happening. 

Consequently, you then have an opportunity to do something about it. 





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