Managerial burnout – whose responsibility is it?

Both workplaces and individuals can take steps to manage this potentially devastating condition

Many high-earning managers  burn out as a response to chronic job stressors and a lack of adequate job resources

Many high-earning managers burn out as a response to chronic job stressors and a lack of adequate job resources

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Peter was in a restaurant when the first panic attack happened. He was completely overwhelmed by it and had no idea what caused it. When he calmed down, he began to reflect on his recent failed promotion opportunity, which he had been working relentlessly to achieve.

He began to feel exhausted and had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Peter continued to work – ignoring his doctor’s advice of three weeks’ bed rest – fearing that time out would impact his chances for future promotion or that he might even lose his job. Burnout was not something that was taken seriously in the company and he would feel less than a man to admit that he could not cope with his job pressures.

Subsequently, depressive anxiety was diagnosed requiring a long course of counselling and anti-depressants. It took Peter two years to recover.

Peter’s case is all too familiar to those working in jobs with high demands and long hours, such as fast-paced work under tight deadlines, with inordinate scope of responsibility, availability to clients 24/7, a large number of direct reports or a large amount of travel.

High price

High-earning managers often wear these commitments like a badge of honour. But they can pay a high price in doing so. Many burn out as a response to chronic job stressors and a lack of adequate job resources.

Companies might wonder why they should be concerned. These individuals devote these long hours freely, feel exalted in the process and, in doing so, serve their companies well. However, research shows that burnout – defined as emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment – is related to more sick leave, lower work productivity, and more employee turnover.

In short, while extreme jobs might be beneficial to companies in the short run, can they live with the costs in the long run?

So, whose responsibility is it to tackle the burnout phenomenon? One could argue that managers need to develop coping skills and build resilience. An alternative view is that organisations need to be proactive in matching the demands and resources of jobs.

Our answer to this question is: both.

Personal Resilience

According to the American Psychological Association, “resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors”.

Research conducted at the leadership and talent institute in DCU Business School by Patrick Flood and Johan Coetsee shows that the threat of burnout is common among leaders.

However, interviews with senior leaders in Ireland and Britain showed that the chief executives who encountered extreme difficulties along the way developed higher levels of resilience. These CEOs have learned the three Cs of psychological hardiness:

– Challenge to reframe threats as opportunities;

– Control difficult situations and positively influence them;

– Commit to action based on a strong sense of personal purpose.

Difficulties challenge us and strengthen us. Nevertheless, while individual differences in resilience and coping effectiveness affect reactions to a stressful work setting, research clearly suggests that burnout is most likely caused by factors within the control of the organisation itself.

Organisations’ work practices

Organisations and managers have opportunities to enhance the working environment. Our 2017 research with Steven Kilroy at Tilburg University, and Denis Chênevert at HEC Montreal, examines the role of human resources practices in lowering levels of employee burnout in a hospital context.

High involvement practices including participation in decision-making, information-sharing, non-monetary recognition, and training and development of employees provide employees with the opportunity and ability to positively influence the organisation and to feel appreciated. The study findings showed that these practices reduced employees’ job demands (ie. role overload, role conflict), which in return led to lower levels of burnout.

What should organisations do?

1. Select resilient managers: those who have persevered and conquered difficulties are likely to do so in the future.

2. Build supportive relationships: good relationships with colleagues protects executives and employees from burnout. Learn to ask for and accept help.

3. Offer interventions in the workplace: relaxation, time management, and mindfulness training are some examples of useful and cost-effective on-the-spot interventions that facilitate employee wellbeing.

4. Build engagement with work by designing work settings that provide employees with the necessary resources at job, team, and organisational level and support the positive development of employees.

5. Strengthen resilience: pursue new activities that challenge and ensure you have time to reflect at the end of each day on your business and personal life.

Professor Janine Bosak is Director of Research of the Leadership and Talent Institute and an Associate Professor in Organizational Psychology at Dublin City University Business School.

 Professor Patrick Flood is Co-Director of the Leadership and Talent Institute and a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Dublin City University Business School.

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