Sustaining High Performance Through Uncertainty and Change

By Dr Lucy Hone, Co-Director, NZIWR.


These are challenging times, requiring us to consider how our thoughts and actions help or hinder our capacity for resilience – both at the personal and team level. Dr Lucy Hone, from the University of Canterbury and the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, suggests that if we want to avoid burnout at work, we need to understand it much better.


Have you ever laid in bed and found yourself thinking, ‘I’m done, I cannot do this job any longer, I’m absolutely exhausted - there’s really no point in me getting up, nothing I seem to do makes a difference’? Burnout is a much talked about, read about and feared workplace syndrome, but sadly it also little understood.


Demystifying the myths of burnout:


Burnout doesn’t come on suddenly. Instead, it’s more likely that you didn’t see it coming as you’re not good at reading the signs. There’s a fine line between super-productivity and burnout because the people most at risk are those who love their jobs and derive a sense of identity and meaning from them. In this sense, burnout comes from hyper-engagement, when people erroneously believe the solution lies in working harder and end up neglecting the world beyond work. Doing so puts you at risk. There’s more to burnout than overwhelm and exhaustion. Science has in fact identified three different dimensions (or symptoms) of burnout:

  • physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion;

  • over-arching cynicism; and

  • a feeling of ineffectiveness.

When people burnout they often express cynicism that the amount of work they have to get through is achievable, and consequently wind up feeling really useless and ineffective. Most often, the demands of their job exceed the resources at their disposal.


Burnout is not just the inability to cope with stress on behalf of the individual concerned. Far from being individual failing, burnout out should be viewed as the individual’s response to systemic challenges - and/or sustained stress with no let up. For this reason, it is highly irresponsible and unfair for organisations to offer staff resilience training if they are not prepared to back this up with a realistic and transparent appraisal of how workplace burdens impact their teams. If burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, prevention is as much the responsibility of executive leaders, and people leaders, as it is personal.


Six ways to prevent burnout in yourself and others:


Focusing on these drivers of burnout supports sustainable high performance among your teams, particularly when working in VUCA environments:


1. Work overload


Make sure work volumes don’t outstrip available time and resources. Consider how you can reduce different aspects of workload, such as meetings, emails, zoom calls – for yourself and your teams. No one is saying this is easy, but burnout is costly is so many ways, so you’re better to delay a project than lose a key member of staff.


2. Lack of autonomy


When workers have insufficient authority over the way they work (are micro-managed), or insufficient access to the resources required to do their job effectively, cynicism ensues. Humans work best when they are given the opportunity to make choices and decisions for themselves; autonomy builds respect. Where and how can you give your teams/individuals autonomy?


3. Feeling under-valued


Lack of recognition from management, colleagues, and clients pushes workers to tune out and stop caring about the end results. Whether it’s in the form of praise, pay, or even personal pride, we all crave reward. Make sure you notice and praise people’s individual and collective contribution, share their wins, and acknowledge contribution.


4. Lack of support


The overall quality of social interactions in your workplace matters: the better your relationships at work, and the better and faster conflicts are resolved, the lesser the odds of burnout. Workers need to feel resourced and supported, that their opinions count and that they can be themselves. Don’t rely exclusively on surveys to assess your team, people leaders should know them well enough to sense who needs support, when they need it and in what form.


5. Unfairness