My daughter came out of school the other week carrying a purple bucket. As we walked home together with her younger sister, I had to ask:

Me: What’s that?

Daughter: it’s my bucket.

Me: I can see that. What is the purpose of this bucket?

Daughter: well, it’s about how you feel and how you’re doing.  People can fill your bucket by doing nice things, helping out, complimenting you, giving you feedback and people can empty your bucket by doing things like name calling, bullying, you know, mean stuff.

Me: that’s really cool.  What’s in your bucket?

Daughter: everyone in the class wrote something nice about me for student of the month and filled my bucket.

There she was, proudly holding her purple plastic bucket filled with positive statements from her peers and her teacher, Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) in action. It’s a big theme at our school district. I was a proud mama and glad she was learning these lessons at a young age.

 

Nice story but what does it have to do with my employees?

Last month we hosted a webinar with Dr. Heather Sones on the topic of burnout in healthcare and related professions, how to prevent, identify and address it from the managerial perspective.

When you think about job stress and feeling overwhelmed at work, this isn’t an industry specific issue nor is it absent in some industries (quick: name a job where there is no stress, no employee feeling stressed or overwhelmed…yeah, me neither).  So this isn’t a unique or uncommon experience, it can happen to just about anyone in just about any job of job in any type of industry. There are many reasons and contributing factors why we might feel unhappy, overwhelmed and just plain stressed out at work:

  • Too much to do
  • Unclear expectations
  • Deadlines/time pressure
  • Interpersonal difficulties with colleagues and/or managers
  • Lack of appreciation
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Lack of mastery of job tasks
  • Lack of support
  • Monotony of duties
  • Fear of failure or severe consequences when job not done well
  • Poor manager/supervisor skills

 So what makes we people in the healthcare and caring professions unique? Why is this topic such an important one for us? And why do we have so many terms for this?

 Dr. Sones started off the webinar talking about definitions, getting us all on the same page. Something she said really struck a chord:

Burnout is different than work-related stress.

Work-related stress is the result of TOO MUCH
(too many pressures, too many demands on your time, too many tasks). 

Burnout is about NOT ENOUGH
(feeling empty, no motivation, no hope for change, feeling “dried up”)

In the world of taking care of others, whether it’s healthcare, human services, social services or any job in this general line of work, a bad day at work isn’t a poor presentation or a report submitted late.

A bad day in our world could be that someone dies, a child is abused, a difficult diagnosis is delivered, a spouse returns to an abusive partner, a resident is hospitalized, an addict relapses, and so on.

The helping profession involves giving to others, constantly, every day. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed with your job is different than not having it in you to be able to give to others.  It’s one thing to end a bad work day feeling frustrated and sad, but there is a big difference between also feeling ready and able to make it better tomorrow/next time, or feeling hopeless and certain tomorrow will be the same. Or worse.

Flashback to my daughter, her bright purple, plastic bucket hanging off her arm with her name on the outside, filled with scraps of paper saying nice things about her. Smiling all the way home.

This isn’t that far off on what we’re talking about with employee burnout.  We carry an emotional bucket filled to varying levels based on what’s going on in our personal and professional lives.  Then we come to work and the people we serve, our colleagues, our managers and those we manage all engage in activities that either empty our bucket or help to fill it.

The webinar was attended by hundreds of people (hundreds more registered), all interested in this issue and struggling with it. Here are a sampling of questions and comments we heard on the webinar:

  • This is a problem, we see it, under-recognized condition, impacts workplace, co-workers and people served.
  • We have an EAP but it’s underutilized
  • How do we present this to upper level management without them getting upset?
  • Upper level management doesn’t support this.
  • We don’t have time/money to implement something. How to balance with productivity.

 It’s alarming, sad and not entirely surprising that multiple comments related to the top leadership at an organization not supporting addressing burnout. Or that managers and others at an organization don’t believe they are and are uncertain and worried about broaching the topic.

 

Think globally, act locally

Maybe you can’t change your entire work culture on your own, but you can make some changes.

As a manager, two important questions to ask yourself regularly:

  • What types of bucket filling activities to I engage in every day with my employees?
  • In what way do I empty my employees’ buckets, often unaware I’m doing so?

 We all do both activities.  Do you know when you’re doing them?  Are you able to change how much?

 Like any issue that needs to be tackled but is difficult, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Employee burnout is real and it’s addressable.  There are some great resources and information to help, starting with an assessment tool and going all the way up to developing a comprehensive employee training and development program.

 

Give yourself, your employees and your entire organization a gift as we start a new year, make a resolution to address employee burnout head on. And stick with it all year.