3 Common Leadership Myths About Burnout – And What to Think Instead

February 28, 2021
Suzi McAlpine

Although the word ‘burnout’ is a term everyone has heard of, it’s still largely misunderstood. It has become part of our workplace vernacular, although the way we refer to it often adds to the misunderstanding of what it actually is.

We often describe everyday stress as burnout when it is in fact, not. “Man, I’m so burned out after that week from hell!” we lament after a stressful week, not realizing that true burnout is something altogether different and far more malevolent.

The problem when an organizational phenomenon is misunderstood, is that it’s a breeding ground for misconceptions. And the trouble with misconceptions? They’re often unconsciously held mental models. They’re common opinion, but we assume they’re fact. And because of this, they form our basis for making decisions.

If we can begin to dispel some of the myths that circle burnout, we’ll be far more effective in tackling it in our workplaces. So let’s dive into some of the more common myths about burnout that I come across regularly:

MYTH ONE: Burnout is all about the person, not the workplace

One of the biggest and most insidious myths that surround burnout is that it is predominantly an individual’s problem, not an organizational one.

We tend to put way too much onus on the individual to prevent, treat and recover from burnout in the workplace. The internet is awash with articles on burnout for the burnt out. They offer an array of tips and tools, from yoga and mindfulness to resilience courses, prioritizing and ‘just saying no’.

Although most of these strategies are useful, they’re not enough. Nor is it merely the individual’s responsibility to tackle burnout — because it’s not an individual problem.

It’s dangerous to look at burnout in a singular light, or to view the person suffering from burnout in isolation. In doing so, we forget that they’re part of an ecosystem. And it’s this ecosystem that is almost always at the root of the problem.

This is a bit like treating a sick fish when it’s the water that’s contaminated.

Unless we start to view burnout in a more holistic, systemic way, we will continuously ‘treat’ sick fish — then put them back into the contaminated water, just to have them get sick again. In some cases, we even start to blame the fish for being weak, or somehow flawed, instead of taking a closer look at what’s making them sick in the first place. Yep, that toxic water.

How to counter this myth if you’re a leader:

Adopt the mind-set that burnout is an organizational problem to fix, not just an individual one. Take a closer look at the ecosystem. Learn about the causes of burnout and look at what levers you can pull to reduce these as a leader. Do not blame the person or put too much individual responsibility on them for either avoiding or remedying burnout.

MYTH TWO: People who suffer from burnout are either mentally weak, can’t handle stress or are poor performers

While there is a common unconscious mind-set that people who suffer from burnout are weak or poor performers, in many cases it’s quite the opposite. In fact, it may be that your highest performing, most dedicated and passionate workers are most at risk from burnout.

A five-year study in the UK found that the mental health of 20 percent of the top-performing leaders of British businesses was affected by corporate burnout.

The fact is that many people who suffer from burnout have previously been high-performing and engaged employees. Burnout has even been described as ‘overachiever syndrome’.

Unsurprisingly, high performers are often the ones assigned the most challenging projects. Not only that, but the breaks between these projects tend to be short, if they have one at all. Because they’re deemed a top performer, others are constantly asking them for help. The expectations on high performers around mentoring others are also higher.

Next, consider overwork (a major cause of burnout) and the high performer. Who do leaders tend to give the new projects, high-priority tasks and the most important work they need to get done to? Yep, you guessed it: the most competent among the team. The adage ‘If you want something done, give it to the busiest person’ applies here. (I would add ‘. . . and the highest performing’.)

As Eric Garton and his colleagues found in their research, outlined in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article entitled Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person:

“In one company we studied, the average manager was losing one day a week to email and other electronic communications and two days a week to meetings. The highly talented managers will lose even more time to collaboration as their overwork earns them more responsibility and an even larger workload.”

How to counter this myth if you’re a leader:

If you find yourself judging a person for experiencing burnout in a negative light and view them as mentally weak for it, notice that thought – and STOP. Then, replace it with the well-researched fact that organizational levers play a far bigger role in whether a person experiences burnout or not. Replace judgment with compassion and support.

MYTH THREE: Just take a few days off and you’ll be right

A third common myth that circles the halls of many organizations, and the minds of many people, is that all you need to do to get over burnout is to take a holiday or a couple of days off and it’ll all be tickety-boo.

Yes — and no.

Rest and a complete break can help people start the process of recovering from burnout. But it’s not enough on its own. Sometimes it’s not enough, period.

One of the common markers that someone is suffering from burnout is that they’ll take a break or go on holiday, but return to work just as exhausted. Their tank can’t fill up. Their batteries can’t recharge. They’re still exhausted, despite the break. Burnout can’t be solved merely by taking a holiday.

In a 2018 American Psychological Association survey of more than 1,500 U.S. workers, two-thirds of respondents said that the mental benefits of vacation had disappeared within a few days of their return.

Remember the fish in the contaminated water? The myth that a holiday will fix the problem is just like expecting the fish to get better, despite it being plopped back into that same water after a break.

If we continue to put burned-out people back into an organization with exactly the same conditions, it’s unlikely you’ll see them rebounding any time soon. It sounds simplistic, and it is — if nothing has changed, then nothing will change.

How to counter this myth if you’re a leader:

If you or someone is experiencing burnout, rest and a break will help. But don’t stop at this. As a leader, get curious about the root causes and work purposefully to not only uncover these, but address them, not only for the person experiencing burnout, but also for perhaps others who are also suffering from burnout and who are soldiering on.

In my book “Beyond Burnout: How to Spot it, Stop it and Stamp it Out“, I cover more myths – and provide four strategies that can be applied at an organizational, leadership and individual level.

We cannot address a problem if it remains hidden or shrouded in misconceptions. Learning more about the truth about burnout is a great start.

About the Author

Suzi McAlpine is the New Zealand author of award winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest and the newly released book, “Beyond Burnout: How to Spot It, Stop It and Stamp It Out”. As an executive coach and self-confessed ‘leadership geek’, she works with organizations throughout New Zealand to ignite better leadership.

Photo by 2 Bro’s Media on Unsplash

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