Everyone has had days in their career, or the average workweek, where the pressure of an upcoming deadline or project begins to mount on them. It can feel like a stack of heavy columns are weighing on your back, leaving your feelings frayed.
This is especially true for business systems. As leaders of a group that drives innovation and efficiency for stakeholders across business, the pressure of being able to execute things properly, meet team expectations and align with business goals can begin to feel insurmountable, which can lead to burnout.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. If unresolved, this can lead to serious consequences for your health and career. So serious that in May 2019, World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as an “occupational phenomenon” that could drive people to seek medical care. This definition will be reflected in the latest edition of their disease handbook, the International Classification of Diseases or ICD-11, which goes into effect January 2022.
Symptoms of Burnout
The new definition calls burnout a “syndrome” and specifically ties it to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
According to WHO, burnout is characterized by three symptoms:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, and Type 2 diabetes, because of its ability to lower your immune system, burnout can make you susceptible to other illnesses or exacerbate conditions you already have.
A previous edition of ICD described burnout in general terms as a state of exhaustion. The new edition upgrades it to a syndrome, a more serious set of symptoms, and is far more detailed – bringing greater clarity and urgency.
“People who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue,” says Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, who published a review of existing studies on burnout in 2017. As burnout has been officially recognized, now is the time to get business leaders involved and put measures in place to prevent it in the workplace.
Old Opponent, New Challenge
While burnout isn’t new, instant gratification in the age of the Internet is, putting a new face to an old problem. Constant notifications at work have become the norm, to the point where it may feel wrong when we’re not on alert. This ruins our ability to focus, which sometimes, on top of constant deadlines, can cause us to crash.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average full-time employee works 42.5 hours per week, up 12% from a decade prior. This may be driven by constant demand fostered by ever-present access and a desire to keep up that we can’t let go of.
“Stress is really important, and anxiety is what motivates us to do well,” says Siobhán Murray, psychotherapist and author of the book, The Burnout Solution. “It’s when we’re continually exposed to stress and anxiety, that we’re not letting go, that it starts to turn into burnout.”
While burnout doesn’t solely happen in the workplace – new moms and caregivers are at high risk, as well – those in the tech industry are especially vulnerable. A survey by the anonymous messaging app Blind revealed that nearly 60% of tech worker suffer from job burnout, with half of respondents from each of the Big Four claiming burnout, as well.
And burnout isn’t just left in the office. As anxious employees continuously bring work stressors home and spend less time with family, this can also begin to affect their personal lives.
All of this, of course, can lead to increased illness and absenteeism. According to Forbes, burnout costs between $125 billion and $190 billion in healthcare costs per year, accounting for 8% of national spending on healthcare. Burnout can also lead to disengaged employees, who cost employers a third of what the employee makes, and is responsible for significant turnover, between 20% and 50% or more, depending on the organization – even more of a reason to take steps to prevent it.
How to Avoid Burnout in Business Systems
Though burnout can seem impenetrable, especially in a job where you uphold systems for lines of business, there is a way to come through the other side. Here are a few warning signs for what burnout looks like in business systems – and how to avoid it:
1. Have you taken on too much?
Business systems leaders may feel like they have to solve everyone’s problems – after all, they are the go-to people for building processes that make LOBs more efficient. But, at the same time, you have to be able to weigh your priorities. Create deadlines, build strategies, and host meetings with stakeholders across business to let them know what your “big asks” are for the week.
As Frederik Hermann, senior director of marketing at BirdEye, said at the LOB partnerships panel at Biz Systems Magic: “Business systems are getting requests from all lines of business all the time, and it’s very important to consider what could all be on their plate.”
“What [business systems teams] are working on requires a deep understanding of the entire tech stack in order to filter projects in. So it’s helpful to involve each other much earlier in the process [when it comes to requests] and factor their time in, to be able to make the right decisions faster.”
2. Identify what brings you joy and what weighs you down
Let’s face it: there are things you like to do and things you don’t, inside of the workplace and out. One of your jobs as a Systems leader is to identify opportunities where automation could take the place of menial, repetitive work for LOBs. As you’re trying to remove annoying tasks to support stakeholders, the same should be done for yourself.
Take a look at your upcoming calendar for the week and identify activities that drain you versus fulfill you and focus on the fulfilling ones. Of course, there’ll be some draining activities you can’t avoid, but make sure there’s a fulfilling activity on those days as well, so there’s a balance.
3. Put the phone down and manage your notifications
Gmail offering priority-only alerts for their email app was a blessing to many folks, and is an approach you should consider to help alleviate stress. Though many companies today live in Slack, you can opt to turn on their Do Not Disturb feature in account settings which will turn off notifications during set hours.
Another threshold to consider: when you’ve done all you can for the day and you’ve reached the end of your shift, close your laptop. There are some deadlines that need to be addressed immediately, but if what you have to do can be worked on tomorrow without causing issues, then do that. Your family (and brain) will thank you later.
4. Don’t give all of your energy to work
Yes, making business more efficient can be an exciting thing, but if you leave all of your energy on the work floor, then there’s nothing left for you, your family, or any other tasks or hobbies you appreciate. As much as building successful processes satisfies your professional life, there has to be things outside of the office that you enjoy too.
“Make sure you do build in the time for recovery [after stressful days], and that you maintain some balance, and draw on the source of support that you have,” said Nancy Rothbard, management professor at The Wharton School who explores what engages us at work. When employees aren’t engaged and are working non-stop is when major health factors come into play, she says, so there has to be a balance or else you’ll be putting yourself in dangerous territory.
5. Don’t feel bad for saying ‘no’
As a new business systems lead or just as part of the team who builds these processes, it can feel like whatever comes across your desk is essential for making the business work – but there is a balance. There are some processes that can’t work without the other, there are business-critical processes that must be up and running at all times to help business work, there are some projects that are handed down from C-suite that have tighter deadlines than the rest, and so on.
Whatever your to-do list looks like, make sure it’s categorized by due date, department, priority, etc. For those whose projects don’t make the very top of the list, make sure you follow-up with stakeholders and explain why you can’t get to it this week. “I don’t” have the scope to do this right now. “I don’t” have the appropriate resources to be able to execute this properly. “I don’t” know how this will fit into our current ecosystem, but maybe I can find an alternative option or build a connector at a later date.
According to the Journal of Consumer Research, the “I don’t” strategy is powerful because it establishes a firm rule about your availability and willingness to do something. “I can’t” on the other hand, leaves room for the asker to suggest scenarios where you could take on the work.
6. Make self care a priority
Getting enough sleep, eating, and staying hydrated are all things energized people do – but when you’re exhausted, you can begin to lose focus on essentials and likely won’t have the energy to socialize, cook healthy meals, exercise, or get adequate rest.
Without sleep alone, your body can begin to experience cognitive impairments, irritability and delusions (in extreme cases), leaving you susceptible to a higher burnout toll. To curb this, even leaving the office for a quick jog during your lunch break can reduce stress levels, improve self-confidence, prevent cognitive decline, increase productivity, and improve memory, according to Forbes. “The satisfaction of knowing you’re taking care of yourself, and the improved energy you’ll get from getting up and moving rather than sitting stationary at a desk all day, will help prevent that physical and emotional exhaustion that causes burnout,” the publication says.
7. Lean on your support system
Even in many people’s first experience in the job force, retail, you were required to take a 15-minute break, no matter how long (or short) your shifts were. The same rule applies here.
Use your 15 minutes to call a friend, post in your favorite Facebook group, send a loved one a text, etc. Spending even a few seconds chatting with your support system can lessen the toll of burnout – and, given how easy it is, why not take the time to do that?
8. Strong leadership
While there are certainly things you can do to improve the odds of avoiding burnout, there are other steps managers can take to ensure employees aren’t exhausted. Following WHO’s reclassification of burnout syndrome, the organization promised to “embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace,” which businesses can apply to combat widespread burnout.
According to another Blind survey of 9,100 participants, tech workers named poor leadership/unclear direction as the leading cause of burnout in the workplace (22.9%) with work overload coming in second (19.4%). This is a clear sign for management to provide clear direction and feedback to employees and lessen the workload if you see someone struggling. It may not be their ability to do the work – but the amount of work they have on their plate.
Surviving Burnout in Business Systems
Work doesn’t have to be all stress, all the time. If you begin to see signs of burnout in yourself or others, make a note of it and take the time you need. Know your limits, lean on your support system, and don’t be afraid to reach out to the many resources that are here to help (Stanford offers an excellent resource, as well).