The setback of workplace burnout

Exhaustion and feelings of cynicism related to your job are characteristic of workplace burnout. | Freepik

Exhaustion and feelings of cynicism related to your job are characteristic of workplace burnout. | Freepik

Published Mar 7, 2024



WORKPLACE burnout is a feeling of exhaustion, distress and cynicism related to one’s job and career. By this definition alone, it is a condition of feeling “burned out”.

Several global research studies and surveys have revealed a dramatic increase in stress and burnout in the workplace – and South Africa is no exception. While the hangover from the pandemic and lockdowns continues, much of the workforce in most countries must now also contend with a dramatically increased cost of living and uncertainty about the future - all while trying to perform at previous levels as well as maintain personal and family relationships.

In South Africa, these challenges are exacerbated by a number of additional factors including load shedding and historically high interest rates.

The reality is that life is very hard right now; and for many employees, showing up to work and trying to deliver their best feels like drawing blood from a stone. People are worn thin, and while most will put on a brave face at work, leaders should be aware that burnout, while invisible, is a reality they need to recognise and take into account when dealing with their teams.

During lockdown, there was empathy for and awareness about what people were going through – and accommodation was made for that, with support structures put in place. Post-pandemic, workplaces have mostly returned to normal in terms of logistics (albeit with greater variety in terms of work distribution) – but employees mostly have not. Employee burnout is a ticking time bomb; and leaders should act proactively. Responding after the proverbial explosion will be too late.

Key characteristics

According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout is characterised by:

• Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

• Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;

• Reduced professional efficacy – meaning low evaluation of one’s workplace performance.

It doesn’t take a leadership expert to recognise how the above can have a severe impact on a company’s well-being and culture - and ultimately its bottom line. There is a clear need for leaders and managers to consider how they can support employees for the foreseeable future, until equilibrium returns.

Bye to ‘busywork’

The most important first step is for employers and managers to realise and understand that the general workforce is on a knife’s edge; and then introduce small but impactful interventions. It is neither realistic nor desirable to reduce core deliverables for individual employees. However, what needs to go – and honestly, should have gone a long time ago – is so-called “busywork”. “Busywork” is understood as the actions and behaviours which were in the past required for career climbers, but which became de facto ways of working across all levels.

Attending endless and pointless meetings, scheduling meetings that could have been an e-mail, coming in early, leaving late, spending hours on box-ticking writing of reports that disappear into a black hole as soon as they are done, attending evening work functions or weekend teambuilding exercises … These are but some of the examples that have become real pain points for employees who are already stretched thin professionally and personally.

Empathetic leadership

Most South Africans are appreciative for and value their jobs, and will continue to try their best despite challenging circumstances. However, motivation and pushing through can only take you so far.

Leaders need to recognise that they have a role to play – in their own and the company’s interest, at the very least – by being empathetic and trying to make things easier where possible. If employees are treated as whole people with whole lives, and their boundaries respected – for instance by not expecting them to be always on and available – this will be a start to limiting and containing the extent of burnout individually and within a company. In turn, this will ensure greater commitment, loyalty, productivity and engagement.

* Naidoo is Africa MD at Jack Hammer