May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) has included burnout a health condition.

Here is the official definition taken from the WHO site.

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

My question is: why did it take so long to recognize this condition?

The answer is money.

I won’t get started about the quest for money, I’ll keep it for family discussions.

The cost of burnout is much more important to the person suffering than it is to the employer.

In this blog, I will focus on the person not the money.

As the HR director, I would be the one to receive the doctor’s notes.

When we had a doctor’s note for burnout, I would have the discussion with the person’s leader. We would discuss what happened (work wise of course), why it happened and what to do (and not do) next.

Some company cultures are very intolerant or judgmental towards people who suffer from mental health condition. If people have a heart condition we don’t judge. Why is that? I still don’t have the answer.

To me, its always been the same conversation with the leader and it goes a bit like this

The fact that a person burns out at work is a 50-50 responsibility. The person should admit that they are having more and more difficulty coping. They should ask for help, take their vacation or a few rest days, cut down working hours, manage stress and sleep-eat-move. The issue with a person in a burnout spin is that these good healthy practices are perceived as impossible “because they have to work even more to perform and to keep their job.”

I want to emphasize that the word “perception”.

I believe them when they say “but I can’t take vacation, I have too much work”. It is their truth and their reality. No one can deny that.

That is why the person is burning out though. They have the deep belief and perhaps even value that work is important and working hard becomes their pride.

The other 50% of the responsibility is that of the employer as represented by the person’s leader.

As leaders, we must ensure a workplace that is exempt from all forms of incivility, bullying and harassment. See my other blogs about each concept here

Then as leaders, we must see the signs of exhaustion, stress, distress, pain etc. If we see the signs, we must have the courage to discuss this with the person.

Reminder that health condition is personal. You should not ask the person “are you feeling depressed or are you burning out?”

There is a difference between being a leader and being a doctor. Unless we are doctors, we cannot diagnose so let’s be clear on that: no diagnosis.

So what can you do or say

  • Make sure your people take their yearly vacation
  • No work on weekends and evenings
  • When sick, your employees should not work from home
  • Have a strict policy that between 7pm and 7am there are no phone calls or emails (and display this behavior)
  • Let your people know that they should seek colleague’s help if they have too much work
  • If no one can provide support, admit that you don’t have enough staff and get support for your team (that is your responsibility)
  • Don’t overwork yourself – not the right example to give
  • Lastly remind your staff that they have access to the employee help program (hoping your organization has one)

Many leaders cop out in the face of mental condition issues and all they do is either ignore it or tell the person to seek help.

That’s not enough. It is too vague, it lets the situation continue and grow.

This is not one of those situations that will go away if you don’t address it.

Yet it is not your responsibility to solve it.

Do you see the difference between addressing it and solving it. It can be a fine line. Here is a list of things to avoid doing

  • Don’t diagnose the person
  • Don’t probe with health questions
  • Don’t ignore the person or the work situation creating distress
  • No need to feel guilty or take on the responsibility
  • Don’t judge, try to understand
  • Don’t be naïve (yes, I have to say this, some people do abuse the system but this is less that 1% of cases)
  • Don’t convince yourself that “There is nothing I can do”, s/he has a mental health condition

Each person is responsible to act in the direction of what they want to change or solve. Your role as a leader is to support their effort, support their request before it is too late

Returning to work

Now let’s discuss the return to work.

Often times a burnout diagnosis comes with a doctor’s note for 6 weeks off from work (typical in my area). Then there are extensions and, at some point, there is a progressive return to work.

So let’s agree that the person has been off work for quite some time.

Now they are coming back. How will you treat this important and sometimes fragile moment? Who will you be?

What typically happens is that people at work will not know how to act around the person returning from a burnout. This stems from perceiving them as weak (judgement).

Instead, let’s change our perception and see them as fully recovered. Let’s welcome them the same way we would welcome someone who had an operation or a broken leg.

Tell them about what changed at work, introduce them to the new employees, let them know their desk and their responsibilities are waiting for them.

Please avoid phrases like: I can’t give you this important task anymore because you can’t take the pressure. This is a recipe for disaster.

It is a delicate balancing act between your performance expectations of this person and their progressive return. It’s also your role as a leader to make sure that your team knows how to act and react. You can and should discuss your expectations with the team and with the returning person. The more open you are (while avoiding the medical details) the smoother the return to work and return to performance.

Guidelines exist to help you if you’ve never thought of how to conduct a smooth and welcoming return to work. I’m building my own framework and tools, stay tunes, I may even make it a freebie.

Reminder: Cultivate What Matters!