A smarter approach to combating burnout

Despite greater autonomy in the workplace and a societal push to unplug, burnout is on the rise.

By James Gibb, senior director and chief of staff, international markets at Dell Technologies

During the industrial age, work was repetitive, monotonous and simply done for a wage. Today, knowledge workers have more autonomy than ever before and are left to define how to fill each minute of the working day. Yet, despite this freedom, there has been an alarming increase in worker burnout, further intensified by the pandemic.

Burnout is a serious problem facing today’s workforce. Initiatives like Zoom-free Fridays and no-email Tuesdays are common tactics to ease screen fatigue, while governments have debated more far-reaching proposals like a shorter working week (which was recently implemented in the UAE for federal employees). As well-intended as they are, I don’t believe they solve the burnout facing many knowledge workers.

Instead, we need to address the underlying issues of burnout. I see two key issues. The first is physical—the sheer volume of work. The second is mental—our modern-day culture of embracing speed and hustle.

Too much work short-circuits our brains

The computer science professor and New York Times bestselling author of “A World Without Email,” Cal Newport has been a leading voice on how we can work smarter, and his ideas are worth repeating.

In a recent podcast, Newport spoke about a part of the brain that specializes in assessing tasks, creating long-term plans to complete them and the feeling of satisfaction in checking them off the list. However, when we have too many tasks to complete—excessive work volume—that part of the brain begins to short-circuit, creating anxiety.

Newport also describes what he terms the cost of ‘overhead spiral’ associated with knowledge work. For a task or project, ongoing activities such as meetings, calls and emails (referred to as overheads) are essential parts of the job. But as organizations add more and more tasks to an individual’s plate, these meetings and emails spiral out of control until days are consumed by overheads and core creative and improvisational skills are impaired. This is where anxiety reigns.

His solution is to reduce work volume.

Businesses must do more to streamline work

Newport argues organizations should do more to keep employees’ work at sustainable levels. This can be achieved by assigning work sequentially, so people work on a smaller number of important tasks and complete them fully before moving on. Rapidly switching between tasks eats up precious time and energy. Think of it as a triage system in hospital emergency rooms: what’s most important is attended to first.

Technology aids this approach, with a virtually limitless number of digital tools available to help employees work smarter while maintaining autonomy. These tools create better workflows to organize and assign tasks, with more automation and less context-shifting, resulting in less distracted and more focused workers. And it’s likely these individuals will produce a higher quality of work as a result, with no spiraling overheads or feelings of anxiety associated with too heavy a workload.

Essentially, let people do what they do well. Then give them the next thing to work on.

This type of approach isn’t easy or quick. Leaders will need to set aside time to plan, experiment in smaller groups and run pilots. But the results could be less-stressed employees being more productive, more focused, happier and fulfilled. And that will impact the bottom line too.

Slowing down helps us become more creative

Reducing work volume alone isn’t enough. We must commit to slowing down, rejecting today’s pull to stay ‘crazy busy’ and unplugging completely at regular intervals.

Jennifer Roberts is an art history teacher at Harvard University. The first assignment she gives her students every semester is to visit a local museum and choose a painting or sculpture to look at for three straight hours. No checking email or social media, no coffee breaks. Just intent focus for three hours.

Roberts sees this assignment as a critical life lesson for her students. She knows they face so many external pressures to move fast, so she gives them a different set of rules, permission to slow down and time to focus on the craft. At various stages during the assignment, the chosen art reveals things the eye didn’t see at first. These revelations lead to new thoughts and perspectives.

The Dutch have the concept of ‘niksen,’ which is intentionally taking time and energy to engage in activities like gazing out a window. The thought is that in allowing our minds to wander, we become more creative and better at problem-solving. This can result in greater clarity and emotional control, leading to better decision-making.

Shifting the perception of guilt

This notion of slowing down feels at odds with the pace of modern life. But it’s not really about slowing down. It’s about being smarter and more strategic in our approach to daily life and recognizing we can’t do everything. Instead, we should focus on a smaller number of things that are most meaningful to us thereby reducing our own volume.

Solutions to burnout exist at both organizational and individual levels. Reaching them requires planning and dedication, and the individual discipline to reject busyness for busyness’s sake.

Lead photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash.