3 Ways Connection Provides Protection From Job Burnout

October 30, 2017
Mike Stallard

Recently, I gave the closing keynote speech at the ATD/Columbia University School of Business Healthcare Summit in New York City. In conversations with some of the people I met at the two-day event, I sensed a growing alarm and frustration about rising levels of burnout in healthcare. Two national surveys of physicians in America found that nearly half of the doctors show signs of burnout and 300-400 commit suicide each year. This is cause for concern.

I believe the problem of job burnout is growing, not just in healthcare but across industries. It is one reason why we’re seeing an epidemic of loneliness and addiction today. People who are burned out are typically spending much of their time on tasks and dealing with unhealthy relationships, leaving them little time for connecting with others who energize them. We are human beings, not machines. We’re hardwired to connect and when we don’t, our bodies send us a distress message by rebelling physically and/or mentally. As a result, we don’t feel well, and often engage in addictive behaviors and/or consume addictive substances to make us temporarily feel better.

This problem has been brewing for years. In the 1990s, researchers from Gallup found that the identities of Americans became more connected to their job titles and employers than to their families and communities, as was the case historically. Hours worked and commute times crept up as people were willing to invest more time and energy in their work and spend less time with family and friends. During this period of time, a productivity push in the workplace crowded out time for connection with colleagues. For example, if you left your desk for lunch with colleagues, you were branded as a slacker. With increasing stress and less connection, people didn't feel well and didn't treat each other well in the workplace. Many people have turned to addictive behaviors and substances to ease their pain. In 2011, Sussman, et al. studied the co-occurrence of 11 addictions in the U.S. (cigarettes, alcohol, illicit drugs, binge eating, gambling, Internet, love, sex, exercise, work and shopping). By reviewing 83 studies with more than 500 respondents, Sussman and his coauthors concluded that approximately 47% of Americans had one or more of the 11 addictions.

The Primary Cause of Job Burnout

The gold standard job burnout assessment is the 22-question Maslach Burnout Inventory (“MBI”) by University of California at Berkeley psychology professor, Dr. Christina Maslach. The MBI surveys three areas: exhaustion, depersonalization and professional efficacy. According to Dr. Maslach, people often think the demands of their jobs are the primary contributors to burnout. Interestingly, she has found that poor relationships in the workplace – incivility, passive-aggressive behavior and bullying – are often the real culprit. 

In other words, people have a misconception when it comes to burnout. They think it’s caused by work demands when more often it’s attributable to a poor state of relationships or, what I call, a lack of connection. Matthew Lieberman, a social neuroscientist at UCLA, has noticed this blind spot, too, and he refers to it as “our kryptonite.” In his TEDtalk, “The Social Brain and Its Superpowers,” Lieberman calls connection a superpower and points out that this lack of appreciation of our social superpowers keeps us from becoming smarter, happier and more productive (similar to how kryptonite prevented Superman from exercising his superpowers of flight and x-ray vision).  

3 Practices to Protect Yourself

Burnout is often the result of spending too much time on tasks that consume energy and insufficient time on activities that energize. Here are three practices that can boost connection and emotional energy to help protect you from burnout.

1. Connect with Yourself

Schedule time for self-care. I know one person who literally schedules time in his calendar and guards it as he would an appointment with a client. Self-care will make you emotionally sturdier and more resilient. A word of caution, however. A growing fad of solitary happiness pursuits, as described in "Happiness Is Other People," could contribute to the problem of loneliness.

At one time in my life, my habit was to run hard until I collapsed, take time to recover… and repeat the cycle. It wasn’t until a client of mine had me complete the Hartman Values Profile that I was even aware of this unhealthy pattern. It was a wake-up call that resulted in changing my attitude and behavior. Today I have several safeguards in place. Each week, I take at least one 24-hour period off from thinking about work and chipping away at my to do list, and instead do things that are life-giving and that "recharge my batteries." I also exercise on a regular basis and devote time on most days for self-reflection (such as praying and recording entries in the Gratitude 365 app). 

2. Connect with Others Outside of Work

While it may not be a personal issue for you, you should be aware that America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness (read excellent articles about it in Harvard Business Review, Slate and The Atlantic). I can relate. Earlier in my career, when the demands of work and the strain of commuting crowded out time for family and friends, I began to suffer from loneliness. I didn't feel well physically, but wasn’t aware that loneliness fueled by stress was behind how I was feeling.

As I mentioned above, people are hardwired for connection. No one ever told me that we will dysfunction when our need for connection goes unmet. If you’re not convinced that you need connection in order to thrive in life, read the “Science of Connection” chapter in Connection Culture where I present the scientific evidence. Now I’m intentional about spending time with my wife and going to my men’s Bible study on Saturday mornings. You should be intentional about investing time connecting, too.

3. Connect with Colleagues and Customers

Over the course of my career, I have worked in cultures that energized me and cultures that drained my energy. Mind you, I hadn’t changed. I’ve come to see that it was the differences in attitudes, uses of language and behaviors that affected me. Workplace cultures either control people, are indifferent to people (because everyone is so busy they don't take time to connect) or they connect people. It’s connection cultures that help people thrive, individually and collectively.

To establish and sustain a healthy workplace culture, it’s necessary to have a common vocabulary that defines what culture is, a framework to create a healthy culture and examples of how others have done it. Rather than trying to assemble this on your own, I recommend taking time to get your team together to read our latest book, Connection Culture. As a companion piece, download free copies of the 28-page 100 Ways to Connect e-book. You and your team can use these practical resources to develop a shared language and approach to team culture, and then identify individual and collective actions for implementation.

The bottom line? Connection is protection from burnout.

I sincerely hope you will mark this day, begin connecting and watch what happens. I promise that over time, you will see that connection affects much more than the financial bottom line. As you experience greater levels of productivity, prosperity and joy that come from having an abundance of connection in your life, you will discover wealth of even greater value.

More From Michael Lee Stallard

Burnout Results From Living in Conflict With Values

10 Practices to Create a Workplace That May Lengthen Your Life

Why We Connect

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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