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Shortly after graduating from college, I was talking to a friend who was living in Central America.

He had dropped out of college our senior year, and we all wondered what had happened to him.

Apparently, he had decided to become a scuba bum.

A short conversation was all it took to become extremely jealous. He talked about hiking in the jungle, how everything was dirt cheap, and of course—the incredible beaches and scuba diving.

So I loaded a backpack and booked a redeye ticket to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Of course I recruited a couple good buddies to come along.

Our first stop was a small island off the north coast called Utila.

The puddle jumper we took had what looked like office chairs bolted to the floor, open windows, and chickens in the back. We were greeted by four wheelers at the “airport” when we landed to take us to our hostel.

The next morning our first priority was to get dive certified.

You would think that safety might be our first concern when learning to scuba dive, but being fresh out of college, we were more interested in who was offering the most competitive price.

We walked down the main street in town (a dirt road) and found a quaint dive shop appropriately named Captain Morgans Dive Center, after the Caribbean rum.

The shop was staffed primarily by a rugby team from New Zealand who—unsurprisingly—when not scuba diving, made a professional pastime out of imbibing.

It made sense later that one of the first diving skills they taught us was how to vomit through one’s regulator without choking underwater. In retrospect, this might have been a red flag.

They said they could put us into a class right away, so we were fitted for gear and grabbed our study materials.

Most people don’t get to do their scuba certification in the Caribbean, so we were blown away. The visibility was fantastic, and we had all kinds of turtles and stingrays swimming by us on our very first introductory dive.

All humor aside, we did get some excellent instruction from this fully certified dive center.

Before I took this course, I mistakenly assumed that one could keep diving all day as long as you had enough air tanks, but this is not the case.

As we dive deeper and the water exerts increased pressure on our bodies, the nitrogen bubbles are compressed and easily enter the bloodstream from lungs and are transported throughout the body’s tissue.

This can result in things like nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness (aka “the bends”). This is also why you cannot dive and fly on the same day.

Even if we had an unlimited air tank, human beings were apparently not meant to live underwater.

You can help this situation somewhat with the requisite surface intervals (taking breaks on the boat while the gas leaves your bloodstream) but the only way to completely prevent the accumulation is not to go diving.

This image reminds me of some recent research I was reading on workplace burnout.

As leaders, we need to ensure we are not creating an environment where our team members are “under water” for extended periods of time.

By the way, my friend the scuba bum did eventually return to college and graduate in case you were worried!

Understanding the costs and causes of workplace burnout

Why should we care about burnout in the workplace?

Workplace burnout has gotten so much attention lately that the World Health Organization even recognized it in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, Volume 11). However, it is important to note that burnout is not a disease or medical condition, but rather an occupational phenomenon.

How many people are affected by burnout? Microsoft conducted a global survey in 2022 where nearly 50% of participants said they felt burned out.

And the cost of burnout is massive. In 2015, researchers from Harvard and Stanford estimated in workplace stress cost the United States $190 billion in healthcare expenses per year and contributed to 120,000 deaths. Furthermore, Gallup estimates that employee turnover (a frequent result of burnout) costs a company approximately half to double the persons annual salary depending on the level of their position.

Christina Maslach is a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley who is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on workplace burnout.

Maslach defines burnout as “a psychological response resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that shows up in three primary symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of lack of accomplishment.”

Like nitrogen building up in your bloodstream when you stay underwater too long, the primary cause of burnout is a chronic accumulation of overwhelming stress.

I highly recommend the 2019 Harvard Business Review article entitled Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People—where the author interviews Dr. Maslach. Link provided at bottom.

This article is illuminating because we often thing of fixing burnout by encouraging employees to do things like more self-care or time off. But no amount of self-care or vacation can compensate for a chronic workplace culture that burns people out.

Listen to what Maslach says, “When we just look at the person, what that means is, ‘Hey we’ve got to treat that person.’ ‘You can’t work here because you’re the problem.’ ‘We have to get rid of that person.’ Then, it becomes that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them. We should never suggest that if they’d just practiced more grit or joined another yoga class or taken a mindfulness course, their burnout would have been avoided.”

Maslach identifies the six most common causes of workplace burnout that she has discovered from her research:

  1. Excessive workload
  2. Lack of control
  3. Inadequate rewards
  4. Lack of community
  5. Unfair practices
  6. Values misalignment

It’s also worth considering a 7th factorpersonality traits and personal stressors that can lower the ability to cope with workplace stress.

For example, if a worker has tendencies toward people pleasing, perfectionism, poor boundaries, or workaholism—these traits will increase your likelihood of burnout.

And it’s no surprise that things like health problems, family tension, or financial strain might make someone less tolerant of workplace stress.

The signs and symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person, but might include the following: exhaustion, irritability, trouble sleeping, lack of focus, memory problems, getting sick more often or other physical symptoms, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, social isolation, feeling more cynical toward people, dissociation, or feeling ineffective at work.

You might be wondering, “Okay great, so now that we know burnout is extremely widespread, very costly to organizations, what causes it, and how to recognize it, what do we do now?”

Let’s get into the solutions.

Take action now

As a manager or leader, it is your job to ensure that you are not asking your employees to stay under water for extended periods of time. Now that you know what causes burnout, it is your job to influence those factors.

Don’t treat the symptom with more workplace yoga programs, treat the root cause of burnout by changing the environment.

Note that all of the areas that Maslach identifies are potential areas that a manager could intervene.

  1. Start with yourself: If you have symptoms of burnout or model burnout tendencies, you must begin with yourself as the leader of your team. More is caught than taught and the first rule of leadership is that people do what people see. Take a burnout self-assessment. Don’t model working on your time off and make sure you take your vacation time. Your team will likely copy what you do.
  2. You must ask! Harvard business writer Jennifer Moss says, “Leaders would save themselves a huge amount of employee stress and subsequent burnout if they were just better at asking employees what they need.” Whatever you do, find ways to get employee input from 1-1’s, team meetings, and most importantly—anonymous surveys to get them to share how they really feel. When you don’t ask, they assume you don’t care.
  3. If everything is a priority, nothing is: Most organizations drown employees in an ocean of endless requirements. Team members need to know what the highest value tasks are and it’s your job as the manager to keep those things very clear and let some stuff go. Allow people to skip some meetings and mundane tasks. People will almost certainly burnout if you send the message that everything is important and fail to clarify what is supremely important. Try to define what a reasonable workload is, then stick to that however you can for most of the time. Anyone can work 60 hours for a few weeks, but if there is no end in sight, you will lose people quickly.
  4. Give control and flexibility: Control is a fundamental human need. Numerous studies have confirmed this. The more control you are able to reasonably give away to team members, the better. People are much happier when they have some control over things like their schedules, deadlines, or projects they are working on. Allow people to give input into organizational decisions whenever possible. Also a good rule for parenting.
  5. Provide the right rewards: People often look for a job initially because of the salary and benefits, but once they get those needs met, research shows they want a workplace that provides recognition, performance feedback, training, and growth opportunities. As the manager, it’s your job to provide those things.
  6. Create a sense of community: Organizational research shows that people stay at jobs when they make friendships. As the manager, its your job to create fun and engaging activities that help foster a sense of community. Help people get to know one another through meetings, parties, work projects, or training activities.
  7. Unfair practices: You can do everything else right but if you have unfair work practices, it will hurt your reputation with everyone.
  8. Values. You might have an employee who doesn’t believe in the mission of the company. This is hard to fix and you may need to work on correcting this in your hiring process. But it’s also important that you show and remind employees how their job contributes to the overall mission of the organization. Help them see the meaning in their tasks or duties by discussing this in one to ones or meetings.
  9. Personal issues: If you or one of your team members has personality traits or personal stressors that might make you more vulnerable to burnout, take action now by seeking out a therapist or coach that can help you. The employee assistance program at my workplace offers several free sessions of coaching or therapy. Over the last 20 years, I have had numerous therapist and coaches that have helped me through challenging seasons. It’s always difficult to make that first session a priority, but I’m always glad I did and it has been enormously helpful every time.

It is important to mention that just because work is hard doesn’t mean it will burn people out. After all, people compete ferociously to be part of elite groups like the Navy Seals. Don’t be afraid to set a high bar, but work on the things above to reduce the probability of burning out your team.

If you are a DSH employee, we will be offering a couple of classes on this topic soon. Keep your eye out for upcoming information.

Have a great weekend!


Want more? Suggested Resources

  1. Burnout is about your workplace not your people HBR
  2. Less than half of US workers take their vacation days

The research is clear, long hours backfire

Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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