Burnout is Not a Bad Word

TED Talk Review on Burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder:
Dr. Geri Puleo at TEDxSetonHillUniversity

“Burnout” is not a bad word, but in some industries, it might as well be. 

Dr. Geri Puleo, President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., starts her TED Talk with a question, “How many of you here have ever been burned out?” She then takes a jive at the audience’s honesty because they were sitting next to their bosses. 

In a culture where “How well do you handle stress?” is one of the first questions asked during an interview, admitting that you’ve experienced burnout is risky at best and suicidal at worst.

In Dr. Puleo’s talk she delves into the different What’s of burnout and interlocks them with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although, I hasten to add that the primary focus of the talk is burnout and as such, so will this review. 

She starts by posing the 3 questions that she aimed to answer in the past 14 years: 

  • “What causes burnout?”
  • “What maintains burnout?” 
  • “How can we avoid burnout?” or “If you’re already burned out, how do you overcome it and come out on the other side?”

These questions are the catalysts that catapult the discussion. To say that the talk was elaborate is an understatement. It provides the foundation and definition of burnout, branches out to the causes and effects of it, and lastly associates Dr.Puleo’s definition of burnout with PTSD. 

What is it?

According to the World Health Organization and as specified in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” While there is still a long way to go in terms of mental health awareness, it’s fair to say that Burnout is a condition that is very well known in the corporate world, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

What then is burnout apart from the scientific definition? 

Burnout is when a person “keeps on going and going and going, and there’s no reprieve.” It’s a lot more complex than being tired. It dives in and destroys the physical, mental, and emotional health of a person. 

In the study conducted by Dr. Puleo, her participants who experienced burnout have all said things such as, “I gotta get out of the industry,” “I have to leave this employer,” “I can’t stay here,” and “I can’t survive.” These statements are a far cry from the simplistic view of linking burnout with simply being tired or overworked. 

What hits the hardest in the talk is the way she described just how long burnout lasts, “A month? A year? Burnout lasts a very long time.” The vagueness of the statement sets the ominous undertone, while the average recovery time of two years confirms just how beyond exhausting burnout is. The worst part is, while the cause of going down this sinkhole is a stressor that goes on and on with no rest, the result is also a condition that goes on and on. Dr. Puleo describes the plunge to burnout as a lopsided bell curve. A person can fall into the rabbit hole in the blink of an eye but the way out is excruciatingly slow.

What is the cause?

Dr. Puleo takes a jab at how the words “burnout” and “overworked” are often intertwined. In her research, “work overload” falls only at number 7 in the 10 organizational factors that cause burnout. The dominant factors are management issues and an uncaring organizational structure. As much as corporations can preach about professionalism until their throats hurt, at the end of the day, we are all still human and deserve to be treated as such. 

Taking care of your employee’s health may seem like merely providing provision, which it is in a sense, but in the long run it’s an investment. When you experience burnout, as stated in the talk, ”It takes you longer to get things done… When experience burnout, you can do the same cramming, and you’re not going to get the material done.” 

Your employees will become apathetic and the punchline is: It’s usually the star employees who experience burnout, and as much as everyone is replaceable, losing your most valuable assets will take a heavy toll on your company.

What happens next?

As stated from The Guardian’s article that speaks of poor people management, “If employers do not provide job satisfaction, their employees will seek and find their own—even if this is directly opposed to management interests.” To preserve the self, employees will turn apathetic. When employees are treated as mere parts of a machine, motivation is lost because no one cares about the spare parts.

What happens after the burnout? The figure of two years as a bounce back rate is disturbing enough, but how does the speaker end this rather grim talk? She ends it by directly addressing the audience, who are largely employers or future employers, “Remember the humanity of your workforce. So I want you to keep the human in human resources.” 

When people are no longer made to feel human, it’s easy to go on a downward spiral, and when your employees are experiencing burnout, just imagine what that means for your company.



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