Have you ‘caught’ burnout from your colleagues? Here’s how to manage it

Written by Amy Beecham

Collective burnout could be the fascinating reason why everyone you know is experiencing the same productivity slump right now.   

Is everyone in your team or friendship group feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated at the moment? It may not just be because we’ve returned to the office or the news is making us extra anxious – you could all be experiencing “collective burnout”.

Yes, like a cold, it is possible to ‘catch’ burnout from the people around you. Who knew that complaining about being overworked could be contagious?

It’s a concerning trend, seeing as 75% of UK workers experienced burnout over the past year and corporations have already started making arrangements to try and stop it in its tracks. Last year, dating app Bumble gave its 700 employees around the world five paid days off to recharge after an intense year of growth. 

So what does collective burnout look like, and how can we deal with it effectively?

What is collective burnout?

According to organisation tool Asana’s head of diversity and inclusion, Sonja Gittens Ottley, collective burnout is “a feeling of emotional exhaustion shared across people in the same environment, leaving individuals not only exhausted but unmotivated, overworked and directionless.”

Many of us will identify with collective burnout, not only in the context of work but also in our roles as parents, and even friends. “This is a result of the pandemic,” explains Ottley, “which has forced people to suddenly behave in a completely new and isolated way.”

Indeed, we don’t even need to be around our colleagues or friends for these feelings of stress to be transmitted. A study from 2012 explored how burnout can transfer without direct close contact among employees. It found that our shared perceptions about how burnt out and busy our colleagues are actually affects how burnt out we feel – even virtually.

How to deal with collective burnout?

Ottley identifies five key pillars to help you avoid experiencing collective burnout, particularly in the office.

1. Get clear on expectations

“According to Asana’s data, only 16% of employees say their company is ‘very effective’ at setting and communicating company-wide goals,” says Ottley. “This can create confusion around priorities, generating a lack of alignment within teams.” The result? More time spent on work about work, fuelling the onset of burnout.

“Establishing goals is a critical component in creating the clarity needed to ensure your team understands what’s expected of them and stays focused on the tasks that matter. Setting clear goals also helps ensure that at the end each day, you and your team can log off feeling confident that you’ve made a positive impact.”

2. Define your own success

Most of us know that it can be very easy to fall into the trap of measuring success based on your colleagues’ achievements and constantly comparing yourself to your teammates.

“Try to avoid this and instead define your own successes by establishing intrinsic goals,” Ottley suggests. “Think about what makes you feel that your day, month or even year was successful, alongside what defines a “team success”. To avoid “collective burnout,” think both individually and collectively – meeting goals that you’ve set for yourself and the team can provide welcome wins that validate you’re doing a great job.”

3. Put things into perspective

“Although we all like to travel on a straight trajectory towards our goals, life can sometimes get in the way. Whether it’s looking after family, helping out a friend or even just experiencing a bad day, life is a bumpy road. There will be days when you can’t perform to your best ability and it’s important that you communicate this to your colleagues. Suffering in silence will not only impact your own mental wellbeing but can fuel collective burnout by impacting your teammates around you.”

Ottley advises creating an open dialogue with your teammates and speaking up about your experiences can help keep feelings of self-doubt and burnout at bay. 

4. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

“Making mistakes is the best way to help your entire team grow and improve, so try things out, suggest your ideas and give things a go. The likelihood is that your proactivity and courage to dive into the deep end will be praised by your teammates even if things don’t work out perfectly. If work does fall through the cracks or something goes wrong, think about how you respond to your mistakes, learn from them, and bounce back stronger.”

This will help you to feel like your workload is manageable, and avoid feelings of overwhelm.

5. Reject the belief that you need to do more to be more

Ottley says: “With the blurring of work and home life, you may be guilty of overworking or struggling to switch off after working hours. You must try to avoid this, as when exhaustion rises, engagement and productivity falls, and this will have a knock-on effect. Provide time for your brain and body to recuperate by prioritising unplugged downtime and scheduling self-care into your day, such as taking regular intervals from your screen.”

Instead, finding a balance between work and play will allow you to discover that the time you spend at work is far more productive, and less likely to make you feel burnt out.

Images: Getty

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