Burnout Syndrome: When the boss is the cause!

Work is an integral part of a person’s life and its imperative on organizations to take the issue of burnout seriously especially in current times where it is laden with layoffs, job insecurity, work from home and high dependence on technology. The present dynamic and uncertain work climate calls for drawing upon divine democratic managerial style for creating a synergistic work environment. It should be noted here that workplace burnout can be cumulative, so if a manager is experiencing burnout, it may affect those working with him too owing to the snowball effect.

The term burnout was first coined in 1970’s by Herbert Freudenberger. The concept was developed further by social psychologist Christina Maslach, who subsequently developed the most widely used questionnaire for assessing burnout. Until the mid-1990s, when a general version was published, burnout was more or less a phenomenon restricted to the human service or caring professions. Some researchers like Leone et al. argued that burnout is the heir of neurasthenia an illness first described in 1869 by  neurologist George Miller Beard. Neurasthenia centred on the notion of a somatic depletion of nervous energy caused by excessive demands on peoples’ brains owing to fast paced modern life causing symptoms such as exhaustion, anxiety, despair, insomnia, palpations, and migraines. The striking similarity between burnout and neurasthenia is that both are considered maladies of their times and mental exhaustion is a common  defining symptom in  both the conditions. So, the concept of burnout is archaic yet not obsolete.

Burnout: A Medical Condition

In May 2019, WHO included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defining burnout as, “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ This update served the purpose of not only raising awareness but strengthening its strong connection to workplace factors causing burnout. Many assumed that burnout would now be considered a medical condition. WHO then clarified that it has been included as an occupational phenomenon and not a medical condition. Often people experiencing burnout ignore its severity, perceiving it to be temporary work stress. However, it’s important to note, that there is a major distinction between stress and burnout. Stress is characterized by over engagement while burnout is characterized by disengagement. Stressed people can still see the silver lining in the cloud but burnout is associated with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness

Burnout can be caused by multiple factors, related to individual, interpersonal stressors or workplace environment.  Whatever the cause be, it’s important that burnout is not discounted as a problem specific to certain employee/s. Just as it is critical to understand what is wrong with the worker, equal attention needs to be given to what could be wrong with the company? A survey of 7,500 employees by Gallup 2018 found the top five reasons for burnout to be; unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of support from manager and unreasonable time pressure. Another survey by TeamBlind Inc done in 2018 with 9103 participants identified poor leadership as the number one cause of burnout in Techworkers. Various researches in recent years, including those conducted by Harvard, University of Manchester, indicate that poor leaders/toxic bosses are often the culprit for employee burnout. This article intends to explore ‘boss burnout’ taking into consideration eastern wisdom and western literature.

In June 2018, The Predictive Index conducted a survey with 5103 respondents from 22 different industries asking them to rate their manager on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a terrible manager and 10 being an awesome manager. Those who got ratings of 4 and below falling in the category of “bad managers’ shared  certain commonalities. They failed to communicate clear expectations, played favorites, didn’t show any concern for career development of subordinates, were not open to feedback, wanted to prove themselves right, betrayed trust, were poor in listening and put their own needs first. These managers though focused on themselves lacked self-awareness and knowledge of how their behavior impacted those around them.

Types of Managers

Analyzing different types of managers in the light of Human Quality Grid by Dr Subhash Sharma presents us with four types of managers or leaders. 1)  Democratic & Divine-like  2)  Authoritarian & Divine-like 3)  Democratic & Demonic-like 4)  Authoritarian & Demonic-like.

Figure 1: Management Styles and Leadership Grid

 

Management Styles & Leadership Grid

First strand of thought views humans in terms of the authoritarian-democratic modes of management style. Second strand of thought is derived from the lessons about human nature from Gita. The divine-like human qualities include truthfulness, gentleness, modesty, steadiness, forgiveness, freedom from anger, malice and excessive pride, (Gita, XVI, 2&3). The demonic-like display arrogance, excessive pride, anger and manipulation (Gita, XVI,4,10).The combination of democratic & divine-like can be considered as an ‘idealized’ type of manager. The authoritarian and divine-like is the typical benevolent-dictator. Democratic and demonic-like is the typical manipulator type of manager. This type uses the democratic process as a facade to cover up his/her manipulative tactics. Authoritarian and demonic-like is an oppressor as depicted through many mythological characters.

The ‘bad managers’ in the study by the predictive index quoted above seem to be more of the democratic-demonic types. In the same study respondents were given an open field question to share the top words that came to their mind when thinking of great managers. Strong work ethics, respectful, supportive, communicative, honest, transparent, fair were the key words used by them to define great managers correlating with the idea of divine democratic managerial style. If managerial style is more of authoritarian-demonic type, there is likely to be high levels of negative energy taking a toll on employee’s emotional and organization’s financial health.

The need for due credence

In a research by Tait et al published in Mayo Clinic proceedings studying the impact of organizational leadership and physician burnout, respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed with a set of given statements about their supervisor. The statements were like; my supervisor- holds career development conversations with me, inspires me to do my best, treats me with respect, recognizes me for a job well done, empowers me to do my job, is interested in my opinion, keeps me informed about changes and encourages me to develop my talents. It was found was that for each 1-point increase in composite leadership score, there was a commensurate 3.3% decrease in likelihood of burnout. While this research reestablishes the close linkage between managerial style and burnout, it also suggests that the key for positive workplace lies in divine managerial style (autocratic or democratic) depending on the situational contingencies. Implementing such kind of surveys where managers can get feedback and take coaching for making improvements in their management practices can be worthwhile for reducing burnout caused by bad managers or boss.

Work is an integral part of a person’s life and its imperative on organizations to take the issue of burnout seriously especially in current times where it is laden with layoffs, job insecurity, work from home and high dependence on technology. The present dynamic and uncertain work climate calls for drawing upon divine democratic managerial style for creating a synergistic work environment. It should be noted here that workplace burnout can be cumulative, so if a manager is experiencing burnout, it may affect those working with him too owing to the snowball effect. Hence organizations will have to keep a close eye on all workplace factors that could cause burnout, be it a bad boss, work policies or factors rooted in the organization culture.

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