The coronavirus pandemic has impacted our mental health and wellbeing, heightening the risk of executive burnout. But to mitigate its effects, directors need to address the root causes.

    Just over a year since the pandemic began in 2020, Australia is still viewed as the gold standard in global response, despite a sluggish start to the vaccine rollout. On the face of it, we should be bouncing back in leaps in bounds. Yet, the emotional rollercoaster continues to impact our general levels of wellbeing. The consensus from leaders in the corporate workplace is neatly summed up in this recent comment from a client: “I feel tired all the time and I can’t work out what is wrong with me. I feel emotionally burnt out — so does everyone else around me. We just can’t work out what is wrong.”

    Researchers at the Kets de Vries Institute recently highlighted a model that helps make sense of this collective sense of emotional burnout. Originally developed 20 years ago, the Zunin and Myers model describes the shared emotional response leading up to, during and emerging from a disaster — in this case, a global pandemic.

    We believe it is an important model for all leaders because it provides a framework that helps people make sense of the seemingly irrational emotions that have been a product of this pandemic and, in part, helps explain the general sense of burnout. It also provides a useful roadmap that helps leaders normalise the remaining ups and downs we are still likely to encounter — even as we recover.

    To help others navigate what lies ahead, it is important to understand the five phases we have just passed through.

    • Pre-disaster

      The spectre of a new coronavirus was looming large. The uncertainty generated fear and anxiety, which was then lessened by a false sense of security as case numbers rose globally without any impact here.

    • Reality impact

      A spike in case numbers and the subsequent lockdowns created a range of intense emotional reactions — including shock, panic, confusion and disbelief — followed by a focus on self- preservation and family protection.

    • Heroic

      This phase is characterised by high levels of activity with low levels of productivity. There was a sense of altruism, collaboration and cooperation, which led quickly to the next phase.

    • Honeymoon

      There was a strong sense of optimism that everything would return to normal quickly. It led to a strong sense of community and a desire to help others.

    • Disillusionment

      The honeymoon phase was short-lived as soon as it became apparent there was no quick fix. False dawns (trigger events such as unrealistic vaccine hopes) were short-lived. A vaccine was reportedly a year away. Protracted lockdowns led to a sense of discouragement, negativity and prolonged physical exhaustion.

    We are now in the final phase — reconstruction. This phase is characterised by a sense of grounded optimism and future-focus. However, it’s important for leaders to understand that for support people to sustain high levels of performance, they need to first rebuild their energy reserves:

    One of the reasons the unrelenting emotional ups and downs of the pandemic have taken a physical toll is that it has been triggering our fight-flight response. This autonomic mechanism activates the sympathetic nervous system, providing the body with bursts of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. It is a bit like putting your foot on the accelerator.

    After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, putting the brakes on and promoting a “rest and digest” response to calm the body down.

    However, Harvard Medical School research shows that over periods of sustained threat (such as a pandemic) the body stays revved-up, continually producing stress hormones that deplete the body’s energy reserves of energies.

    For board members, executives and senior leaders looking to mitigate the effects of burnout in the recovery phase, a three-step approach can be helpful.

    At the human level, our recovery is fragile. Therefore, support is crucial.

    1. Build awareness and understanding of the problem

      It is important to get to the true sources of burnout rather than just the symptoms. Leaders need to take a whole-of-organisation approach that considers resourcing, systems, structures and processes as well as the huge range in people’s capacity to manage ongoing stress. An off-the-shelf approach is, at best, a band-aid solution. For some organisations, it will also mean a cultural shift that destigmatises burnout.

    2. Bring underlying issues to the surface

      While it is important to look beyond the symptoms of burnout, it is just as important for leaders at every level of an organisation to learn how to spot the early indicators of burnout — and the red flags (download the SMG worksheet).

    3. Provide practical solutions and support

      We have seen organisations provide consistent and generous wellbeing support to their people in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Now we are in the recovery phase, it might be tempting to deprioritise these initiatives. However, what the phase-of-disaster model implies is that at the human level, our recovery is fragile. Therefore, support is crucial. In some ways, investing in your people, communicating with them prolifically and empathetically, creating forums for people to share their concerns, and learning new skills for self-care is more important now than a year ago when our adrenaline-induced responses carried us through.

      There’s no question the global pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of burnout — yet this burnout crisis will outlive the pandemic because there’s no sign of a let-up in the underlying stressors caused by the speed of execution, unrelenting change, volatility and uncertainty.

    Target the root cause, not just the symptoms

    In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised burnout as a specific workplace condition. It says: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.”

    A growing body of research says addressing burnout needs both an individual as well as an organisational approach. A recent global study published in Harvard Business Review shows burnout has six main causes:

    • Unsustainable workload
    • Perceived lack of control
    • Insufficient rewards for effort
    • Lack of a supportive community
    • Absence of fairness
    • Mismatched values and skills.

    Many organisations are taking a general approach to burnout, helping individuals deal with the symptoms, rather than diagnosing, targeting and addressing the root causes. It helps to consider four domains of how an individual intersects with an organisation, leaders can identify or prioritise which of these four “categories” of root causes are the source of burnout for each person on their team.

    Individual/internal (cognitive, emotional, psychological)

    This represents internal dialogue with ourselves within the context of the workplace. If the root cause of burnout is in this domain, it can be addressed successfully by coaching people to perceive, interpret and respond to situations differently — for example, by giving them strategies to “reframe” situations to overcome perceived lack of control.

    Individual/external (physical, behavioural)

    This represents our behaviours. If this is the root cause of burnout, it can be addressed by coaching someone to build physical capacity or ability to manage the stressors that lead to burnout — for example, learning to be more effective in saying “no”.

    Organisation/external (systems, structures, processes)

    This domain represents how organisational systems, structures or processes impact us. If the root cause of the burnout is in this domain, it can be addressed by making changes to the structures or processes — for example,by making decision-making processes simpler or reducing the number of meetings. Organisation/internal (culture) This domain represents the internal “narrative” of an organisation, its cultural norms, values, priorities — “the way we do things”. If this is the root cause of burnout, it can be addressed by challenging unhealthy cultural norms or accepted “ways of working” — for example, eliminating late- night email requests.

    Tackling burnout holistically draws on organisational psychology, systems thinking, strategy execution, human behavioural change as well as a deep understanding of the commercial drivers of success.

    Virginia Mansell is an organisational/clinical psychologist and founding partner at SMG. Mehul Joshi is an executive coach at SMG.

    Further reading: Beyond burned out 

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