Beating Burnout in the Workplace

Teams can be key in the battle against chronic stress and exhaustion. Author Paula Davis shares ways these minicultures can create an environment that helps employees feel safe, builds resilience and promotes well-being

Burnout has become one of the most talked about workplace topics, and its impact is far-reaching. The 24/7 pace of work and scant resources often put busy professionals on a path to burnout, a cycle that has only accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Burnout affects the health and well-
being of the entire company, yet most attempts to help focus on quick-fix strategies aimed at individuals.

In “Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience,” Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, explores a new solution to the burnout problem at work: a comprehensive approach focused on building the resilience of teams of all sizes. Davis argues that teams, and their leaders, are uniquely positioned to create the type of cultures that are needed to prevent burnout.

Brett LoGiurato, senior editor for Wharton School Press, sat down with Davis to talk about her book, her own burnout story, and how to start on the path to resilience and thriving.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Brett LoGiurato: Congratulations on the publication of your book, “Beating Burnout at Work.” I wanted to first ask, what made you want to write it?

Paula Davis: I wanted to write it ever since I burned out during what became the last year of my law practice. I wanted to help busy professionals recognize the warning signs and not go down the same path that I did.

LoGiurato: A big part of the book is your own experience with burnout as a lawyer as you just discussed, but I was wondering if you could take us through that burnout a bit more and how it helped inspire you to help others manage stress and resilience.

Davis: Yes. There were three big warning signs that I missed when I was going through this process. The first one was that I was chronically physically and emotionally exhausted. No matter what I did on the weekends to try and recover, nothing seemed to work. I absolutely hated Sunday nights, because I would stare at the clock on the wall thinking, if I could just freeze time I won’t have to go into work and become more exhausted this week, because I’m not even recovered from last week and the week before. That was a big one.

Teams are really little minisystems. They’re little minicultures that exist within the larger workplace organization, and they’re much more malleable.

The second big warning sign that I missed was that I was chronically cynical. People just started to really bug me, and that’s not my usual personality. I noticed that, outwardly, I was very professional in all of my dealings with my clients, but inwardly there was a lot of eye-rolling going on. I would think to myself, “Do we really have to talk about this issue? Can’t you solve this on your own?” 

Lastly, I started to notice that I was becoming more ineffective. Not in my ability to be a good lawyer, but really starting to lose my confidence in terms of seeing a path forward for myself in the profession. That led to a lot of, “Why am I doing this? Am I really making an impact?” With my clients, it was: “You’re not going to listen to my advice, so why bother?”

What’s interesting is that once I finally got out of my law practice and started to research burnout, those three warning signs that I missed are actually the three main symptoms of burnout. As soon as I realized that, I understood more about what was going on. Then I really felt called to help others not have to go through the same process. My burnout lasted almost a year, and it progressed to a really bad place. I was getting panic attacks on almost a daily basis, and I was in the emergency room twice because I had stomach aches from the stress that were so bad that I couldn’t actually stand up.

I realized at that point that some big changes had to happen. I don’t want people to get anywhere near that point. I want to be able to help people understand a little bit more about what burnout is and give them some tools to help. And I also want to start talking to leaders and organizations so that we can look at what cultural factors at work are causing this problem. 

LoGiurato: What you just talked about brings up the unique method you have for dealing with burnout at work, starting with the culture and teams. Why do you think it’s so important to focus on teams as the key antidote?

Davis: What was interesting to me when I first started down this path was that I placed a lot of blame on myself. I thought to myself, “Wow, I must have missed some sort of stress management strategy.” There was something about my wiring or something must have been missing within my personality that caused me to burn out. I started looking at the issue through very much an individual lens.

As I dug into the research and as I continued to talk to more and more people who had experienced burnout, I started to understand that it’s really a systemic issue. Yes, there are ways that individuals can get better at managing their stress and that can move the needle a little bit, but it’s more of a complex issue that also involves how you interact with your leaders and the style of leadership that leaders in your organization bring.

Also, on an organizational level, different factors are going on that can make burnout more likely.

Where can we focus in this workplace continuum to help move the needle forward? That’s how I identify teams. Teams are really little minisystems. They’re little minicultures that exist within the larger workplace organization, and they’re much more malleable. There are a lot of tools and techniques that I can teach leaders and teams and individuals who make up teams to help them create the kind of culture that really either prevents or slows down burnout.

That made me really excited to start digging into that intersection, and realizing that it was really an untapped area of review when it came to burnout. With Covid-19 happening, we’re all working from home, and so I think the future of work is going to be some version of a blended virtual and physical-space work environment. Teams are going to be critical to helping organizations manage all of the complexity that’s going to be happening at work going forward.

LoGiurato: I want to talk about your Primed model for team success. Can you quickly walk us through each component of that model and explain why it’s so important in the fight against burnout?

Davis: The Primed model is the result of looking at dozens of research studies. If we’re going to talk about helping teams build the positive cultures that they need to slow down burnout, what are the ingredients that they really have to focus on in order to make that happen?

Primed is the acronym that I created from reviewing that research. The P is psychological safety and psychological needs. The P is the foundation of building resilient and thriving teams. Teams have to be able to develop trust, so that’s the psychological safety — trust at the team level.

Psychological needs are autonomy, belonging and competence. We all need to feel as though we have some sort of say or control over our day and over our work. We need to feel like we are part of a team or part of a group that matters to us, that we feel like we belong, and that we feel like we’re supported.

Competence is just simply feeling like we’re progressing toward goals that are important to us and that we feel like we are becoming successful and the type of professional that we want to be. There’s just loads of research that shows when you have these two components present, you see more motivation: higher levels of well-being, higher levels of resilience, lower levels of attrition, higher morale and a whole host of outcomes that are important to whether burnout happens.

The R in the Primed model is relationships. It is hard to get to a sense of resilience and engagement and well-being if you don’t have good relationships and a good support network. 

The I is about impact. Do you feel like you are making an impact in your work? Do you feel like you’re influencing the greater good or the world around you? And do you derive a sense of meaning and satisfaction from your work?

The M is about mental strength, or mindset. This is often very much an overlooked factor when it comes to creating high-performing and resilient teams in these positive cultures. How are we thinking about obstacles and stressors and challenges and change? There are a lot of great techniques to help us increase our individual and collective mental strength.

The E is about energy. This is how you deal with stress within the team. Do you talk about stress? Do you create a sense of positive energy? I know when I talk to teams, this is one of the biggest areas of concern. We’re oftentimes so busy with our own work that we don’t pay attention to or recognize signs of overload with our team members. We have to start paying attention to that.

The D is one of my favorites. This is design. This is the area where, if you as a team realize, “Wow, there are some tweaks we need to make or there are some changes that we want to make within the culture of our team. We can actually do that.” Collectively, this model really paints a wonderful picture and a pathway — multiple pathways — to help teams build these positive cultures and resilience.

When we are thanked, it’s not just about gratitude; we feel really supported. It actually helps to build psychological safety.

LoGiurato: One of my favorite concepts from the book is what you called TNTs, or tiny noticeable things. Can you explain the concept and how they help prevent burnout?

Davis: I loved the acronym TNT — tiny noticeable things. One of the things that I realized early on if I was going to be talking to leaders or teams or anybody within an organization, I had to make the techniques and the tools user-friendly.

These are small strategies that individuals, leaders and teams can deploy that really lead to big downstream outcomes when it comes to building well-being and positive cultures and resilience.

One very basic example is just saying “thank you” more. When we are thanked, it’s not just about gratitude; we feel really supported. It actually helps to build psychological safety in some of these other capacities in ways that we might not think about. So, thinking in terms of these tiny noticeable things can help frame for people that making these little changes doesn’t have to be hard, and they’re really easy to do.

LoGiurato: You started writing this book in early 2020. The world has changed quite a bit since. How has Covid-19 impacted people’s experiences with burnout, and how will it affect things going forward?

Davis: It’s been quite a unique challenge and very interesting to be writing a book about burnout in the middle of a pandemic. When I first started writing the book, this was not on our radar, and I don’t think anyone saw this happening. I think people really are experiencing not only a lot of stress, but also there’s so much uncertainty and anxiety and ambiguity still around the situation.

I have already seen, just anecdotally, elevated levels of exhaustion with people. This chronic physical and emotional exhaustion is starting to set in.

But I think we have to caution ourselves that there’s also a lot we don’t know in terms of how this is going to manifest with burnout rates. In my book, I include burnout rates for a whole host of different professions, but they were all pre-Covid. So, we have that data going into the pandemic, but I think we’re going to need some good research studies to empirically support some of the anecdotal evidence that we see about increased levels of burnout.

I can say pretty confidently, I don’t think burnout is going to be lower than it was pre-pandemic. I think we’re definitely looking at the same rates, if not higher levels. But we want to make sure that we collect data to support that.

LoGiurato: There are tons of lessons and takeaways in the book, but if you had to pick one lesson that you hope readers take away with them, what would that be?

We’ve got to get better at looking out for each other, especially in this virtual environment.

Davis: I think that the big message is the “aha” that I had as I was learning about burnout — that burnout is a systemic issue. I know that so many people put a lot of blame on themselves and feel like they can’t say anything about it if they feel like they’re burning out at work, and that it is definitely a systemwide problem with systemwide causes that needs systemwide strategies —which is why I wanted to focus on teams being these little minisystems within the bigger organizations.

Just recognizing that, yes, your individual wiring and personality traits and things like that do play into the burnout equation, but it’s also a much bigger issue from a leadership and organization standpoint. When we can start to look at the problem in this holistic way, we can implement specific strategies that will help.

LoGiurato: Finally, if someone is reading this and struggling with burnout, what’s one thing you would tell them to do today?

Davis: The biggest thing would be to have them say something. Burnout exists on a spectrum, on a continuum, so it depends on where you are on the continuum or the spectrum. It could be just simply telling a significant other or a friend that you’re feeling this sense of chronic stress and are overwhelmed at work, talking to a mental health professional or your health care provider … or talking to a trusted colleague or a leader at work.

We’ve got to get better at looking out for each other, especially in this virtual environment. We’re all living in a very different way than we’re designed to live as human beings, and it is hitting people differently depending on their unique situations. Just taking five minutes to reach out to a colleague or everyone on your team, to check in and say, “Hey, how are you doing? This has nothing to do with business, I’m just really interested in hearing how you’re doing.” And not doing that once every nine months, but really making that a regular habit, I think is something that is really, really important.

I give a specific strategy in the book to help folks craft that type of conversation if they want to have it. I know I would have appreciated somebody taking an interest back when I was burning out, just checking in with me to see how I was doing. 

Those conversations sometimes can maybe feel a little uncomfortable, but I think just given the state of the world, we have to push through that discomfort a little bit and put ourselves out there and have the conversation. Because I think in this unique time it can have a really profound effect on how somebody is dealing with the world right now. •

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