First, I think it’s important to be sure you’re dealing with burnout and not something else. For example, if your job isn’t a good fit, you don’t like your boss, or you think your company is unethical, I would say you’re not dealing with burnout. You may need to stay at your job (perhaps as you search for a new one) and it’s important to find ways to take care of yourself in the process, but that’s different from dealing with burnout. Also, if your feelings of sadness are pervasive, or if you’re considering suicide, you absolutely need to see a professional to be assessed for depression. Strategies for coping with burnout may help a little with depression, but it’s often necessary for people to get additional help, whether that’s psychotherapy or medication.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Dan Jolivet, PhD, Workplace Possibilities Consultant at The Standard insurance company in Portland Oregon. Dan is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 40 years of expertise in behavioral health. He is a published expert and speaker on the topic of mental health and in the course of the last year has examined the impact that the pandemic has had on workers across the United States. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Standard insurance company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, and I have fond memories of playing in the woods behind our house and swimming in the local pool during the summer. My father was a university professor, so education was extremely important in my family, but my siblings and I were also very musical.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I’m one of those people who fell into a career and later realized it was perfect for me. I was majoring in mathematical statistics in college when I decided I wanted to get some experience in an applied setting. My advisor suggested that psychology would be a good way to do that, since the introductory psychology classes would be relatively easy to get through, but I found that I was fascinated by the field. I started working as a research assistant for one of my psych professors in 1980 and then did a work-study program at a Community Mental Health Center in 1981. It wasn’t until I’d been working as a therapist for more than a decade that I realized psychology was truly my calling and my passion.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
This is really hard, because I have been helped and encouraged along the way by so many people. As a psychologist, I owe a tremendous debt to Donna Billingsley, Ph.D., who chaired my master’s committee; Ray Craddick, Ph.D., from whom I learned the Rorschach test and for whom I was a Teaching Assistant before he chaired my doctoral dissertation; Robert Brown, Ph.D., who supervised me after I graduated; and Carrell Dammann, Ph.D., who expanded my understanding of how people change. I can’t leave out my recent supervisors: Ron Mihalick, Ph.D., who guided me through a dozen years of my career in health insurance; Lori Sauer, RN, who taught me much of what I know about disability insurance; and Brian Kost, MA, who’s taught me most of what I know about rehabilitation, Stay-at-Work and Return-to-Work services. I’m leaving out so many people, including people who support and encourage me today, I could go on and on.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
It isn’t funny, but I was once completing an assessment of a woman whose therapist was considering admitting her to the hospital because of self-harm, cutting on herself. I borrowed a friend’s office for the session and the client was sitting on a pristine white couch when she suddenly cut her wrist and started bleeding profusely. It wasn’t a deep or dangerous cut, just the kind of cut she did every day, but I was horrified that the blood might get on my friend’s beautiful couch. I made her get up immediately and gave her tissues to make sure she didn’t bleed on any of the furniture. In that moment, I wasn’t empathic at all, I was just worried about my friend’s nice furniture. The client was obviously irritated with me, but I’d told her it wasn’t my office and I felt responsible for it.
At the end of the session, the client said she didn’t feel like she needed to be hospitalized and went home. Her therapist called me a few days later to say that whatever I had done had worked; the client had stopped cutting herself for the first time in decades. Months later, the therapist mentioned the client had continued to abstain from cutting since that session and the therapy had moved on to discuss the client’s history of trauma. That incident reinforced my belief that sometimes people can change in an instant within a social context that reframes their actions and makes them see what they’re doing in a new light.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” — Robin Williams (restating a quote usually attributed to Plato)
As a friend and as a therapist, I’ve been privileged to have others share their struggles with me, so I know that life is at times very hard for everyone. Even when it appears that someone has it easy, life can be overwhelmingly difficult. Treating others with kindness, with respect and dignity, costs nothing and is the least I can do. The world can never have too much kindness, in my opinion.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m working on a variety of projects to help employers better support the well-being of their workers. I offer resilience training to help people learn more effective ways to cope with the stresses in their lives, as well as well-being training to help people learn ergonomic and psychological self care strategies. I teach sessions to help others understand mental health and substance use issues, particularly in the workplace, and I also write about strategies for companies to create a culture of health and mental wellness. I’m also working to help police departments and hospitals with internal peer support networks find ways to improve their functioning. And I’m involved in an internal Employee Resource Group (ERG) at The Standard to support employees with an interest in mental health.
All these projects are focused on helping people understand mental health and wellness, and supporting efforts to improve at the individual, corporate and societal level.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Curiosity: I’m curious about everything — I can spend an hour on YouTube watching videos about film criticism, quantum physics, history, and virtually any other topic. When I was offered my first job as a manager, I got some books on management and read them, and then I asked my boss, who had been managing others for decades, to help me learn how to manage people.
- Flexibility: When there’s a task that needs to be done, I jump at the opportunity. At my previous company, two of my jobs were in new roles that hadn’t been fully developed yet; one was managing large outpatient provider groups across five states and Washington, DC, and the other was overseeing compliance with state and federal laws in a 20-state region.
- Humility: I’m not a naturally humble person, but I’ve found that I can learn from everyone I meet. Whenever I make a mistake, I admit my error as soon as I realize it. I try to apologize whenever I fail to treat a person with the dignity and respect they deserve. One example was when I snapped at a team member who approached me with a complaint at a time when I was stressed to the limit because of a personal medical problem and my father’s worsening Alzheimer’s Disease. I hadn’t been working with her for long and she went to my boss to complain, but, when my boss approached me to discuss it, I had already contacted the employee to find a time when I could apologize. I told her later that day that I was sorry to have reacted poorly to her complaint. We later developed a positive work relationship and continue to be friendly years later.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
I’ve worked in psychology since 1980 in a wide range of settings, including universities, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and businesses. I’ve treated business leaders dealing with burnout and worked with teams I managed to help avoid burnout. One of the topics I speak about frequently is helping companies develop a culture of health that supports the mental well-being of their workers, which I consider essential to preventing burnout.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
I define burnout differently than some people in that I believe it’s distinct from not liking your job or being overworked. To me, it’s a feeling that your energy and enthusiasm for work have been used up, and you aren’t able to find ways to get re-energized. It’s almost a spiritual crisis or a loss of your way, and I believe most people who feel burned out are also struggling to find meaning in their work and lives.
That’s still consistent with the definition used by the World Health Organization, which focuses on chronic workplace stress that has led to feelings of exhaustion, detachment from your job, and reduced professional efficacy.
In my view, burnout describes a change in a person’s perceptions of their job, going from satisfaction to dissatisfaction. Often, it impacts people who truly enjoyed their work in the past, but now feel negative or indifferent about it. It’s frequently the best employees, the ones who have been good workers and who are committed to their jobs, who burn out.
It’s also distinct from depression, although it may share some of the same symptoms such as lack of motivation, sleep problems, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness. Depression is a pervasive feeling of being down and isn’t relieved by changes to your situation, whereas a person dealing with burnout will often feel better when they’re not at work or after leaving their job.
This is complicated by the fact that burnout has been shown to be a precursor to mental health and substance use conditions; that is, people who are burned out are at heightened risk of subsequently developing a diagnosable behavioral health condition.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
I believe the opposite of burnout is thriving. That’s when you’re able to confront stressful situations and, not just bounce back, but use those situations to grow and flourish. Thriving is evidenced by a sense of purpose, joyful feelings, meaningful connections to others, and creativity.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
The National Wellness Institute (NWI) and Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems (OWLS) have developed an evidence-based resilience training program I use that has been shown through peer-reviewed research to have a positive impact on people’s ability to cope with stress. As part of that program, they identify a coping style they call “hardiness” as an approach that isn’t generally effective for dealing with stress. When you soldier on, you don’t address the source of the stress and you have no opportunity to grow or thrive. You just get through it, and you miss both the chance to solve the problems and the possibility for growth that’s hidden in most stressful situations. Hardiness is certainly better than some negative coping strategies (such as drinking or taking drugs), but it just avoids both the problem and the potential for progress.
Beyond that, burnout has been shown to be correlated with a wide variety of medical problems, including heart disease and musculoskeletal conditions, and there’s evidence it contributes to high cholesterol, gastrointestinal disorders, and early mortality. It’s also associated with alcohol misuse, insomnia, and general mental health problems.
In the workplace, burnout has been found to lead to more frequent absences and a higher rate of disability claims. Plus, it appears to lead to high levels of presenteeism, such that workers’ productivity, work quality, and relationships with coworkers are negatively impacted. Those impacts have real-world costs for employers, so suggesting that workers just grin and bear it is advice that’s likely to lead to poor outcomes for their companies.
At The Standard, we did some proprietary research in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, in which we found that more than one in four American workers (27%) reported that they felt burned out. Not surprisingly, the same percentage reported that they had missed work because of feeling burned out. Employees who felt burned out were twice as likely to report mental distress than other employees, and they were three and a half times as likely to be experiencing serious mental illness. Younger workers were significantly more likely to report feeling burned out than older ones.
I think it’s reasonable to believe that those rates have increased tremendously since the onset of the pandemic, especially for essential workers who would prefer to work remotely and for remote workers who would prefer to go into the office.
It’s also important to consider this within the current context, especially in terms of the ongoing “Great Resignation.” I’ve seen polls suggesting that between 40% and 95% of employees are actively looking for other opportunities or considering quitting this year, and we’re seeing record numbers of people leaving their jobs, so now is not a good time to suggest workers just grin and bear it. That’s especially true in fields where there have been particularly high rates of resignations, such as restaurants, or where there are worker shortages, such as hospitals and schools.
On top of that is the evidence that as many as a third of working women are considering reducing their work hours, changing to less challenging jobs, or leaving the workforce altogether. This has the potential to set women’s participation in the economy back decades, and to reduce the number of available workers to fill all the open positions left by resigning workers.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
My understanding is that burnout is caused by a few intersecting factors, usually including:
- Personality traits, such as perfectionism and workaholic tendencies, which are often also seen in poor work-life management.
- Job characteristics, including a heavy workload and frequent high-pressure situations.
- Work culture issues such as a business environment that rewards employees for neglecting their personal needs, high levels of competition, and low levels of psychological safety. This frequently includes unaddressed issues around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion or bullying and harassment that managers and leaders are blind to because of unrecognized biases.
- Management approaches that lead to a lack of control, minimal flexibility, and unclear expectations.
Within the context of these factors, a change in any area may tip the employee into a feeling of burning out.
It’s important to emphasize that I don’t believe that burnout is an individual issue, though; it’s a result of personal and external factors in combination, although certain people may be drawn to or remain at dysfunctional offices that are more likely to lead them to burnout. My perception is that burnout frequently occurs among multiple team members in an office, suggesting that there’s an interaction between individual factors and elements of the work environment.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- First, I think it’s important to be sure you’re dealing with burnout and not something else. For example, if your job isn’t a good fit, you don’t like your boss, or you think your company is unethical, I would say you’re not dealing with burnout. You may need to stay at your job (perhaps as you search for a new one) and it’s important to find ways to take care of yourself in the process, but that’s different from dealing with burnout. Also, if your feelings of sadness are pervasive, or if you’re considering suicide, you absolutely need to see a professional to be assessed for depression. Strategies for coping with burnout may help a little with depression, but it’s often necessary for people to get additional help, whether that’s psychotherapy or medication.
- Most advice around burnout focuses on self-care and I completely support that, although I don’t think that gets to the crux of the issue. Still, make sure you’re getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, connecting with friends, and so on. Adding in self-care strategies like resilience training, mindful meditation or yoga can also be helpful. If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that may be helpful as well since many provide work-life balance services.
- The key to addressing burnout, in my opinion, is to recognize it and proactively reach out to your supervisor to address it. That takes courage, especially in an office where psychological safety is low, but in my opinion that’s the only way to reverse burnout and avoid leaving the job — a job, remember, that was once satisfying. Sharing your difficulties, identifying what changed for you, acknowledging that your work is suffering, and expressing your feelings of distress, apathy, disillusionment, or irritability can begin a conversation with your supervisor that will generally go one of two ways: They may be empathetic and supportive, expressing their hope to help you overcome your burnout to return to being an effective employee; or they may act like it’s a problem you need to work out on your own. Luckily, my experience is that most supervisors will take the former approach; and those that don’t may have demonstrated that the job isn’t really a good fit for you or that they’re not an effective supervisor. (As in the first item, above, you then may focus on ways to take care of yourself as you start looking for a better option.)
- Once you’ve started a productive conversation with your supervisor, you can begin addressing the factors that have led to your burnout. That may include acknowledging and facing your own perfectionism, for example, and asking for support to overcome it. Aside from those issues, though, it’s important to clarify a few specific elements of your job and your supervisor’s expectations. That includes discussing your precise job responsibilities and your supervisor’s priorities. I’m frequently surprised to hear how people’s perceptions of their responsibilities and priorities are different from their supervisor’s perceptions, but apparently many people never directly discuss these issues with their bosses. Although there may be some room for negotiating job duties and priorities, it’s important to remember that your supervisor is the boss and sets the agenda, so ultimately you must accept their expectations. (Be careful not to pretend to accept them and hope you can pursue your own agenda on the side; that will only increase your burnout.) Along with that, discuss and come to an agreement on your work hours and other expectations, such as when you should be available to respond to emails and texts. Once you’ve agreed to all that, comes the hard part: hold them to your agreements. If they ask you take on more than you can handle, explain what you’re working on and ask them if they’d like you to reprioritize your tasks. It’s probably no surprise that setting appropriate boundaries is one of the most important tools you can use to overcome burnout.
- Finally, talk with your supervisor and the people close to you about why you used to like your job. For many people, that means rediscovering their passion or calling. Although it can sound silly, reading your company’s mission statement, purpose and values may remind you why you got into your job in the first place. There are all sorts of articles and tools online to help you discover your purpose and add meaning to your life, too. You may realize that your job fits with and advances your purpose, or that it’s just a step in the direction of your life goals.
To be clear, though, I believe that supervisors and organizations must take steps to reduce or reverse burnout among their workforce, since I don’t think it happens with people in isolation from their work. I was going to write my five steps for employers to address burnout here, but then I realized there’s a question below about that.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
When someone you care about is showing signs of burnout, I believe the most important thing is to be there for them, listening in a nonjudgmental way, and empathizing with their feelings. It’s a cliché to say that most people share their problems with others to get emotional support while most people respond to others’ problems by suggesting solutions, but it’s very often true. So, don’t immediately jump to solutions, unless you’re directly asked for advice.
Of course, part of providing emotional support is reminding others that it’s just a job, that they have value as a person, that they deserve respect and dignity, and that they need to take care of themselves through a healthy diet, exercise, sleep and so on.
If they ask for advice, I tell them to consider talking to their boss, as I said above, and I also talk with them about their hopes and goals for their future.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
For people managers (supervisors), I recommend the same steps to address their own burnout (as needed), but also the following the five things to do as a manager:
- Pay attention to the emotional tone of your team and consider whether your approach may be leading to negative outcomes, including burnout. Don’t ignore any comments that imply a negative view of the team, either by individuals or the entire team, but follow up to determine whether there are unexpressed issues that are undermining the effectiveness of the group. Ask your colleagues and your supervisor for frank feedback and be receptive to suggestions to improve your skill set.
- Any time an employee is struggling or exhibiting any change in their performance or behavior, discuss the situation in private, describing the situation in objective terms, and then ask how you can help. Don’t jump right to progressive discipline (unless the behavior is illegal or dangerous), but instead focus on understanding what’s going on with the employee first.
- Learn to listen to others without becoming judgmental or defensive. Remember that you’re not perfect and that others’ perspectives are valuable. It’s often the most difficult feedback we receive that leads to the most important changes.
- Learn as many management strategies and tactics as you can — be a lifelong learner. Recognize that every person is different, and no single strategy works with everyone, especially when you’re managing diverse teams. If you have an EAP, consider their on-demand content for management skills or schedule a management consultation.
- Recognize the power you have within your organization and be careful to use it appropriately. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, and always apologize when you fail to treat someone well. That also means owning up when you make a mistake, which is a crucial skill for developing psychological safety at work.
For employers and companies, my five things are:
- Review your mission statement, purpose, and values every year, and work to operationalize them in measurable ways that can translate into business objectives. Incorporate the health and well-being of your workforce into your mission and treat your employees as well as you treat your customers.
- Survey your employees frequently and ask about the issues they’re facing, their priorities, and their wish list for addressing any problems they identify. If your surveys aren’t identifying any concerns, redesign them with help from frontline employees and middle managers to capture difficulties that may be hidden or outside the areas you’re assessing.
- Ask hard questions about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, disparities, psychological safety, and well-being, and be prepared to translate your findings into action plans that include concrete steps and measurable results.
- Train leaders from the CEO down to be open to difficult feedback and to acknowledge errors whenever they’re identified, including apologizing as appropriate. Model humility and accountability at every level of the organization.
- Partner with your vendors to ensure you utilize all the services available to support your employees: most companies don’t take advantage of all the offerings from their health insurance, pharmacy benefits manager, workers compensation carrier, disability insurance, and EAP. It can help to have vendor summits in which representatives from all your vendors gather and discuss how they can partner to address any gaps. (For example, working for a disability insurance vendor, I know that we offer Stay-at-Work and Return-to-Work services that are welcomed by employees and that have very high success rates with people struggling with behavioral health conditions.)
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
There are several useful, but underutilized approaches to supporting employee mental well-being, including:
- Behavioral health assessments incorporated into annual Health Risk Assessments, to identify trends among employees with respect to issues like anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, prescription misuse, and so on. Make sure your Health Risk Assessment vendor is providing anonymized reports that give you actionable insights to guide your decisions around additional benefits and services.
- Manager training on behavioral health conditions and how to talk with employees who are struggling with mental health or substance use conditions.
- Manager training on resources available to workers who are struggling, so supervisors are always able to make suggestions for them to get help (even if it’s just to give them the EAP brochure or to assist them with contacting their health insurance company for a referral).
- Manager training on topics such as psychological safety, bullying in the workplace, trauma-informed management, managing diverse populations (including specific guidance on managing minorities such as Black, Indigenous & People of Color, Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, LGBTQ+ individuals, neurodiverse employees, and young workers, depending on the makeup of your workforce).
- Creating a single resource page on the company intranet that lists all the benefits that are available to support employee mental wellness and making sure that page can be accessed by a single click from the landing page. (One of the biggest barriers people face when they’re in a crisis is having to search through the company intranet to find the links or telephone numbers to their EAP or health insurance.)
- Education for all employees, especially managers, that effective accommodations exist for mental health and substance abuse conditions; most people don’t realize behavioral health conditions can be accommodated and workers go out on disability or workers compensation because they don’t see any other choice. Make sure, too, that everyone knows how to access accommodations, such as by adding them to the list of wellness resource referenced above.
- Anti-stigma campaigns can make a tremendous difference. There are a variety available for free on the internet and include step-by-step implementation plans, posters, training materials, and so on. These have been demonstrated to decrease behavioral health stigma and to increase employee utilization of employee-sponsored benefits, including EAP.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
The most common mistake I see is people trying to reverse burnout solely through better selfcare and a focus on the individual, without recognizing the systemic nature of the problem. It’s also common for people to believe they’re burned out when they never really liked the job, their supervisor, or the company in the first place.
I also believe it’s a mistake to just start looking for other opportunities or quit before you really confront the situation and have the difficult conversation with your supervisor about what you’re going through. It seems like many people believe it’s just easier to move on than it is to talk about their feelings and ask for help.
In most cases, the approach I suggest is talking openly with your supervisor. You can always quit if the conversation doesn’t help.
Even if you ultimately quit, I strongly advocate for people to complete an exit interview with the company’s HR Department to share feedback on the situations that led to their burnout; that feedback may not result in any changes after a few people leave the company, but it can become unavoidable if it’s shared by several employees as they are going.
For managers and leaders, the most common mistake I’ve seen has been blaming the individual, becoming judgmental, and losing empathy for the person who’s burned out.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’ve been thinking about civility recently, as a bridge between Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, psychological safety, anti-bulling, anti-harassment, and anti-stigma campaigns. Teaching people to be civil — to treat everyone with respect and dignity — gets around a lot of the political divisions we see these days and allow people to consider ideas that they might otherwise dismiss as mere political correctness.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Well, if I’m going to shoot high, I might as well say Jeff Bezos, since he could influence the treatment of a huge number of workers and raise the bar for every company when it comes to supporting employee well-being. But I’m happy talking to any business leaders about this — every little bit helps!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My work is available online on The Standard’s Behavioral Health Resource Center at https://www.standard.com/employer/behavioral-health-resource-center and I write for the Workplace Possibilities blog at https://www.standard.com/employer/workplace-possibilities-program/blog, and people can subscribe to both. I also blog on LinkedIn as Dan Jolivet, Ph.D. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dan-jolivet-phd/) and I’m on Twitter as Ask Dr. Dan @ The Standard (https://twitter.com/Dr_Dan_Jolivet).
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!