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Organizational Resilience: Understanding burnout

By Fatima Zaidi
March 16, 2021
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Burnout-related turnover is a complex, systemic problem that is highly disruptive to organizational functioning. Preventing and managing burnout may contribute to an organization’s success and efficacy. This post discusses how to recognize and understand burnout as behavior.  

Defining Burnout

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) released by the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome due to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Its characterized by three dimensions: 

  • Feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Measurement

It may be important to measure workplace morale and satisfaction to assess the need for intervention. An organization may choose to use a survey to evaluate staff workplace satisfaction (important aspects of survey development may be found here and here). 

Some organizations may find the use of surveys practical to their organizational settings. Others may want to use surveys in conjunction with directly observable, measurable behaviors related to professional efficacy (pinpointing performance) to see burnout in the context of their organizational goals.

From Highly Effective to Burnt Out

A highly effective staff that may have once approached their work responsibilities with vigor and a keen sense of purpose, may begin to lose sight of that purpose and become increasingly focused on the negative aspects of work. This could lead to an increase in their reluctance to perform work duties or stop it all together, resulting in a decision to leave the organization. 

Meaningful Perspectives: A Circumstantial View of Behavior

As stated above, a once highly effective staff who has stopped performing workplace duties makes organizational leaders ask, “what happened?”

Let us establish a meaningful perspective: start by viewing “performing workplace duties” as behavior. Once we shift our perspective, consider the following environmental relationship: 

Behavior is determined by its consequences

Consequences are anything that happens after the behavior of interest. When the consequence is something the staff likes or wants, given a similar context, the behavior is more likely to occur again. This process is called reinforcement. Conversely, when reinforcement is withheld or discontinued, the behavior drops out or stops. 

It may be that the once highly effective staff is not accessing an appropriate amount of reinforcement for their previous levels of performance and therefore, their behavior naturally reduced or stopped.

The matter then becomes understanding how to introduce or reinstate reinforcers. To increase workplace performance, an organizational leader needs to understand what reinforcers they have in their back pocket already and what reinforcers are worth investing in. Keep an eye out for future posts, in which I will discuss how to create a positive workplace culture. 

Sources: 

https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

Keywords: Burnout, turnover, Workplace culture, behavior, staff resilience 

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