Burnout is closing in. Here's how to keep it at bay

Empathy is the sudden hero in the battle against burnout

Vidhi Kumar
Director - People Capability 10 Feb 2022

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four matchsticks with one burning out and one growing a new leaf
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Burnout is closing in. Here's how to keep it at bay

Empathy is the sudden hero in the battle against burnout

While all of us were busy fighting COVID and dealing with variants, vaccinations, and virtual work, a silent epidemic was creeping upon us.

Recognised by the WHO in 2019 as an “occupational phenomenon”, ‘burnout’ is the new workplace epidemic that is catching up faster than anything else since March 2020. Workplace stress and feeling professionally deficient were challenges that employees have always faced but what changed with the onset of the pandemic is the intensity and direction. Stress became all-encompassing with uncertainty and job insecurity high during the early days of the pandemic. Subsequently, logging in for endless hours from home, while being monitored and screen-grabbed added to the tensions - both physical and mental. The pandemic jolted us into the realisation that our mental and physical wellbeing was prime. And if I spend eight to ten hours of my waking day at work, my wellbeing is impacted by the nature of work. No doubt then, many attribute the Great Resignation to the post-pandemic stress and resultant burnout.

Organisations and governments are indeed taking cognizance of these trends and solving for them. However, it doesn’t take away the need to develop our own personal arsenal as well to prevent ourselves from burnout.

As social creatures, we need to be in contact with others - not just for our once in a while outings but on an everyday basis. Connecting with others, sharing stories, that post-lunch walk or seemingly unproductive water cooler chat - all lead up to one outcome: shielding us from workplace burnout. Think about it - how many times did you step out for fresh air with a colleague after an exhausting presentation, only to come back refreshed. No amount of efficiency tools, productivity resources, and time management principles can replace that. This emerges from Empathetic Concern - which is shared across our work with colleagues and helps us connect to our work in a much more meaningful way. Empathy can emerge to be one of the strongest tools in this battle against burnout.

With the pandemic nowhere close to relenting and our real water-cooler still distant, can empathy still help us in managing burnout as we continue our virtual routines? I have found the following three fundamental principles truly effective in bringing empathy into our work lives in order to keep burnout at bay:

1. Set boundaries

Empathy doesn’t always need to be outward. It is important to be empathetic towards your own needs and make time for self-care. Don’t be a hero and take tighter deadlines than needed or more assignments than you can handle. Reach out for help when needed. Raise flags if projects are going off-track to avoid last-minute stresses. Setting clear boundaries on what you can and cannot do helps set expectations and manage burnout.

2. Build meaningful relationships at work and beyond

To the surprise of many, it is possible to build a meaningful relationship with colleagues and others, while still at home. For starters, have all your virtual calls with your camera on. Try it for a day and you will feel the difference it has on your mood and overall connect with the person on the other side of the screen. The importance of having team calls beyond work has been talked about so much as well, as has sharing our personal stories, successes and challenges.

3. Ask insightful questions

Asking the right questions with empathy can help us understand where the other person is coming from. While our own tensions mat seem overwhelming, it is important to step back and see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This is a huge win in beating stress, avoiding unnecessary conflict and inefficiencies.

These principles can stand in good stead, whether you are working onsite or virtually. Burnout can creep up anytime, anywhere. Let’s bring empathy to work and keep burnout at bay!