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4 Lessons for Battling Burnout at Work (Employers, Take Note)

Burnout is catching, and stopping it starts with companies.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It was a hallelujah moment for any of us who acknowledge it’s not just engines and motors that burn out these days. People do too. The recognition of burnout as a legitimate and pervasive force has, unsurprisingly, made employers and employees alike determined to manage, overcome, and prevent burnout. And while the term still denotes something gone wrong, burnout today often signifies symptoms of a toxic, high-stress work culture.

According to Dr. Clare Purvis, Director of Behavioral Science for mindfulness application Headspace, 40 percent of employees in the United States will leave a job because of stress. When you consider that most of us will spend more than 90,000 hours at work over the course of our lives, that statistic is sobering, to say the least.

So what can companies do to prevent burnout among their employees? And what can you do to cope with burnout at work? Four mental health experts, including Dr. Purvis, attempted to answer these questions at an event hosted by San Francisco’s tech trade association, sf.citi, and Pinterest on World Mental Health Day. Here are a few of the lessons we learned.

Employers, stop blaming your employees.

Dr. Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent much of her career studying what burnout is, what causes it, and how to assess it. She was, in fact, the person who invented the Maslach Burnout Inventory, or the first widely used tool to measure burnout.

During our discussion about burnout, Dr. Maslach said that the worst thing she’s observed is the blame laid upon employees for work-related stress. Too often, she explained, employers assume there is something wrong with people who admit feelings of burnout. She said employers should respond instead by examining their workplace and changing elements of the culture that contribute to burnout and stress among their employees.

Set boundaries. And bosses, respect them. 

Bob Boorstin has worked in Washington for the past 25 years, which, he joked, is “enough to give anyone conniptions.” Currently the Senior Vice President of international consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group, Boorstin previously served on the National Security Council as the President’s chief speechwriter under the Clinton administration. He also spent seven years at Google and continues to advise top tech companies today. One detail not included on Boorstin’s impressive resume is the fact that he is a diagnosed manic depressive and has been hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes.

Well versed in both mental health and high-pressure work environments, Boorstin understands the importance of balance and boundaries. Moderating the evening’s discussion, he told the audience that he advises all of his colleagues to make their boundaries clear as soon as they start a job. “Your employer will not respect your boundaries unless you set down those boundaries right from the beginning,” Boorstin cautioned. Naturally, boundaries go only so far as they’re respected, so managers have a part to play in facilitating work-life balance among their employees.

Band together around mental health.

Kelly Greenwood is the Founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that works with businesses and organizations to drive culture change around workplace mental health. One of the most exciting developments she’s observed in recent years is the growth of mental health employee resource groups (ERGs). Not only are these groups eliminating the taboo associated with discussing mental health at work, they create social support systems for people struggling with mental health. When she started Mind Share Partners three years ago, Greenwood said she could not have fathomed employees self-organizing around mental health. Now, however, Mind Share Partners connects mental health employee resource groups across companies.

Dr. Clare Purvis of Headspace also emphasized community as a solution for burnout. One of the most effective stress management strategies she’s seen at companies in Silicon Valley and beyond is coworkers banding together to keep each other “supported and accountable for taking mindfulness moments throughout the day.”

Remember, it’s just work. 

Though easier said than done, Bob Boorstin believes a small dose of perspective can go a long way for overall mental wellbeing. “As you get older,” he said, “You realize that what you’ve accomplished at work doesn’t add up to much compared to your personal life and your family.” Recognizing the limits of work fulfillment can certainly alleviate the amount of stress you feel about your workload or upcoming deadlines. As Boorstin puts it, the sooner you reach that conclusion, the happier you’ll be.

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