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Bogged in burnout

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Bogged in Burnout?

If you ask someone at the moment how they are, they’ll typically respond with ‘exhausted’, ‘frazzled’ or ‘tired’ (or another synonym). As we approach the end of the year, many people are limping towards the finish line.  This is a common end-of-year response. However, people have been saying that they’re exhausted for months now (if not years). This chronic exhaustion and burnout is not something that we can attribute to the usual end-of-year frantic pace that typically transpires. 

On the brink of burnout?

As a result of this chronic exhaustion and unresolved stress, a concerning number of people are experiencing burnout. Rates of burnout are at worrying levels.  Several studies are confirming that a significant number of employees and leaders in Australia and internationally are experiencing burnout.

For example, in the latest Microsoft Work Trend Index Report, Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong? data confirmed that 62% 𝐨𝐟 𝐀𝐮𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐚𝐧 𝐞𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐨𝐲𝐞𝐞𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 66% 𝐨𝐟 𝐦𝐚𝐧𝐚𝐠𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐫𝐞𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐲’𝐫𝐞 𝐚𝐥𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐝𝐲 𝐛𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐭 𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐤. This is a huge concern in Australia and globally (where 48% 𝐨𝐟 𝐞𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐨𝐲𝐞𝐞𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 53% 𝐨𝐟 global 𝐦𝐚𝐧𝐚𝐠𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐫𝐞𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐲’𝐫𝐞 𝐚𝐥𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐝𝐲 𝐛𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐭 𝐨𝐮𝐭).

A recent Atlassian Report suggested that 23% of employees who had up to 15 hours of meetings each week experienced one or more signs of burnout and 23% of people exhibited burnout symptoms when they had more than 20 hours of meetings each week.

At the time of publishing this blog post, the 2022 Global Workplace Burnout Study was yet to be released. However, the 2021 study found that 34.7% of workers reported experiencing burnout symptoms.

Whilst the statistics may vary in each of these studies, collectively they point to a problem: burnout is at concerning levels. So why are more and more people reporting feeling depleted or on the brink of burnout?

Digital burnout- the chief threat to hybrid work 

I believe that our digital habits and behaviours are one of the chief reasons why many people are burnt out. We’re using technology, both personally and professionally, in ways that are completely incongruent with how our brains and bodies are designed- our human operating system (hOS). The harsh reality is that we cannot outperform our biological blueprint. As humans we have some biological constraints. The ways in which we’re using technology is adding to our stress and if left untreated, unresolved stress leads to burnout.

Our digital habits have resulted in two simultaneous changes:

1. We’ve introduced a range of micro-stressors into our days.

Many of us spend our days responding to incessant digital demands (alerts, notifications, emails, reminders), sitting in virtual or hybrid meetings multi-tasking, working for long stretches of time without taking breaks. These habits may seem benign, but they’re adding tiny assaults to our nervous system, leaving many of us stressed. 

Many knowledge workers are trapped in the ‘urgency fallacy’ where we feel we need to be instantly responsive to the Teams chat, email or SMS and in doing so, nothing important gets done (this is why Microsoft data suggests that we’re now seeing a triple productivity peak day with 28% of workers now working between 10-11pm at night). This recent LinkedIn post highlights how the hyper-responsive culture many people find themselves in, is counter to their wellbeing and productivity.

2. We’ve eroded some of the biological buffers that help us manage stress.

Our sleep, physical movement patterns, exposure to sunlight, our stress tolerance and even the way we breathe have been significantly shaped by our digital habits. These biological needs help us manage stress, but our digital habits are changing how we buffer ourselves from stress (which is an inevitable part of being a human and not something we should shy away from). The problem is that our stress coping mechanisms are being shaped by our digital behaviours.

So I coined the term ‘digital burnout’.  Digital burnout draws on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of burnout which suggests that it’s a workplace syndrome characterised by exhaustion (both physical and psychological), becoming more cynical towards one’s work and reduced feelings of efficacy. So digital burnout is the result of our intense and unsustainable digital behaviours. 

One of the biggest threats to hybrid work is digital burnout. My data corroborates this concern. One of my most popular keynotes and masterclasses this year has been ‘Beat Digital Burnout‘. The Digital Burnout Barometer tool that I created and have shared with employees in Australia and abroad reveals that many teams currently have a moderate to high risk of experiencing digital burnout. 

This problem will continue to be amplified with hybrid work. Why? (i) The work-life boundaries we once (if ever) had have become obliterated thanks to more flexible work arrangements and(ii)  our reliance on digital technologies will continue with distributed teams. Now is the time for organisations to help employees and leaders cultivate healthy and sustainable digital skills that will bolster their productivity and protect their wellbeing. We need hybrid teams to develop specific digital skills and competencies,  particularly around meeting hygiene and how collaboration tools should be used.

How can organisations buffer digital burnout?

      1. Determine manageable workloads– we need to focus on outcomes, not hours worked. Employees cannot outperform their biological blueprint and so it’s imperative that they have realistic and achievable workloads. This can be difficult to achieve when there’s high staff turnover and an implicit expectation that the work just needs to be done. All the wellbeing days and initiatives are pointless if we don’t address this issue. Grandiose slogans and wellbeing gestures are redundant if basic principles like manageable workloads aren’t first addressed. Don’t let your organisation be accused of ‘wellbeing washing’. Instead, examine your team’s workloads and make adjustments, where possible.

      2. Articulate your team’s digital guardrails– Hybrid teams must develop more sustainable and healthy digital behaviours, that are congruent with our biological constraints. Behaviours that are aligned with our neurobiology. In many instances this requires a significant shift in behaviour and organisational culture. To facilitate this shift, organisations must establish their ‘digital guardrails’. The shift to hybrid work means that organisations will continue to be reliant on a host of digital technologies. If we don’t take the time to articulate how technology should be used (on most instances, as these guardrails are not policies or prescriptive ‘rules’ but rather suggested parameters), then we will continue to have people using devices in unhealthy and unsustainable ways and burnout will prevail.

        I’ve worked with a number of organisations to help them establish their digital guardrails- these are the digital norms, practices and principles that underpin hybrid work. Through focus groups, a data audit (looking at how technologies are currently being used) and co-creating these guardrails, teams have suggested guidelines (not rigid policies and procedures) about how to optimise their digital practices, based on brain-science and psychology.

      3. Arm your team with brain-based solutions to optimise their digital behaviours– I often say that we cannot outperform our hOS. We need to equip people with the brain-science behind how we should be working online. For example, in my keynotes and masterclasses I share that we know that ten-minute buffer breaks between virtual meetings have a significant impact on reducing stress. We also know that video calls are exhausting, so a simple practice like closing our eyes for 30 seconds will give our occipital lobe and fusiform gyrus, both regions of the brain that are highly active on video calls, a much-needed rest.


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