Commentary: Always tired and worried about under-performing — when extreme meritocracy drives burn-out
Organisations must treat employees as the soul of their company, rather than as resources to be expended at their disposal, says IMH’s Sara-Ann Lee.
SINGAPORE: Dave*, 28, came to see us as he found himself unable to cope with his work demands.
As a white-collar worker, he habitually spent a lot of time slaving away at his desk, poring over the never-ending items on his to-do list.
He was now a manager after having been promoted twice, yet he was always told to “contribute more”. It reached a point where most of his waking hours were spent on work-related activities, but it never seemed enough – even when he practically lived in the office and was available online 24/7.
He fell sick frequently and noticed that his concentration was no longer the same as before – he was soon dragging his feet to work every day.
Confining himself to his desk from 7am to 10pm did little to improve his work performance. Yet, he still felt an immense pressure to do more after coming to the conclusion that his colleagues were all doing well and he was the odd one out.
He became increasingly worried that he would be laid off due to his poor performance. He went from being wide-eyed and eager to weary and worn. Dave was burnt out.
TIRED, DRAINED AND LOST ENTHUSIASM
University of California Berkeley professor emerita and American social psychologist Christina Maslach’s research on burn-out defines it as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors. It manifests in a few key aspects, through physical and emotional exhaustion, socially dysfunctional behaviour and psychological impairment, and fuels organisational inefficiency.
Like Dave, those who are burnt-out typically report feeling perpetually tired, drained and lacking in enthusiasm. Mood difficulties are common within this population, with studies reporting that up to nine in 10 of burnt-out workers meet diagnostic criteria for depression.
Many of them gradually withdraw from social activities and become increasingly isolated. Often, burnt-out workers spend more time on work but yet find that their output and morale are worse than their less-stressed colleagues.
Society has upheld the belief that “doing well in school and work equates to doing well in life”. This drive to excel, or extreme meritocracy, appears to be one of the many factors feeding a burn-out phenomenon in Singapore, but also apparent worldwide.
In 2013, one in four Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 18 to 69 reported high stress levels, an increase from one in five in 2012 based on results from the Health Behaviour Surveillance of Singapore (HBSS) by the Health Promotion Board.
AN INSIDIOUS PRESSURE TO DO MORE
The survey also highlighted a growing concern – younger members of the workforce were significantly more stressed than older workers.
The Willis Towers Watson’s 2016 Benefits Trends Survey showed 56 per cent of employers in Singapore with 70,000 full-time employees on their payroll cited stress as the top health issue for their employees.
In the same survey done in 2017, this figure grew to approximately two in three employees who reported above average to high levels of stress.
The relentless pursuit of excellence in the hope of securing success has led to the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life, such that work is now seen as the centre of many people’s life. Work-life integration is the new work-life balance.
Employees are encouraged to hustle and work relentlessly to strive for “more”, but this is a tantalising fiction; once reached, one inevitably finds that there is “even more” to work towards.
This insidious pressure to achieve is balanced against an employment market that hangs a looming threat over many workers’ heads: Should you not be able to produce results, someone better could always be found to replace you.
New York Times journalist Erin Griffith recently described the artificially glorified state of ambition in our society as having mutated from being a means to an end into a lifestyle. Mantras such as “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done” also bolster assumptions that employees are only valuable insofar as they are productive.
In summary, burn-out operates on a vicious cycle in our society perpetuated by factors including poor organisational culture, unrealistic expectations of workers’ productivity, role ambiguity and lack of recognition and management. This leads to a feeling of a lack of control over one’s situation that, over the long term, drives workers towards burn-out.
We have to start recognising burn-out earlier so that we can take steps to help those who have found themselves in those doldrums.
Physical signs often include exhaustion or fatigue and somatic problems (e.g. neckaches, backpain). Those who suffer from it also have a lack of motivation, experience more negative emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, irritation) and have cognitive difficulties.
READ: Exhaustion, withdrawal and low performance, why diagnosing burn-out is an urgent task, a commentary
They may also have increased conflict with others and engage in unhealthy habits (e.g. increased smoking, drinking, or binge-eating). These symptoms often cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Individuals can take action to tackle burn-out.
1. First, acknowledge the warning signs and don’t downplay symptoms.
Individuals may take it as a sign of personal failure if they are unable to meet the constant demands of work. These lead to negative thoughts that start to get automatically activated (e.g. “I’m lousy, useless”). It is important to acknowledge the signs that it may be time to slow down before one heads into the danger zone.
2. Second, take a step back to return to basics.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that basic needs (e.g. food, water, rest, safety) should be fulfilled prior to psychological needs (e.g. relationships, accomplishments) and self-fulfilment (e.g. self-actualisation, fulfilling one’s potential).
Following on from this, we need to ensure that even when the demands of work are high, we maintain good habits in these areas. Sleep, proper nutrition and hydration are pivotal to helping the body and our nervous system recalibrate.
3. Third, take control and prioritise.
The numerous tasks that our jobs necessitate often obscure our vision regarding core values that are important and meaningful to us.
Prioritising involves making decisions regarding time management and tasks. It may seem that everything on our to-do list needs to be done now and with the highest urgency, leading us to push ourselves ever harder in pursuit of clearing our entire list today.
A better approach could be to evaluate tasks and prioritise those more pressing, using colour-coding systems to help with visualising this.
4. Fourth, allocate time for self-care.
We are more resilient and better equipped to handle stressors when we are feeling our best both physically and emotionally. Take short breaks during the day and get involved in activities outside of work that energise you. Recognise the importance of self-care and the need to decompress and unwind.
5. Fifth, communicate and engage.
Rather than isolating yourself, research has highlighted the importance of feeling supported. Sharing what and how you feel with fellow colleagues or friends is an important step in creating a supportive environment for yourself.
Developing strong relationships and having people you can rely on is crucial in preventing burn-out.
WHAT ORGANISATIONS CAN DO TO PREVENT BURN-OUT
Although individuals can make certain habit changes to prevent burn-out, the onus is on organisations to recognise the importance of workplace health and build workplace cultures conducive to their employees’ physical and mental health.
With eight in 10 Singaporeans aged between 25 to 64 forming our workforce, effective workplace health and mental wellness promotion programmes may reduce modifiable risk factors towards this illness.
The Workplace Mental Health Investment Guide from the Health Promotion Board contains resources on how organisations can implement accessible and effective programmes.
In fact, the National Workplace Safety and Health Research Agenda for Singapore (2018-2020) published by the Workplace Safety and Health Institute revealed that organisational politics, workload and lack of support were the top three factors contributing to workplace stress.
Ultimately, organisations should not lose sight of the largest piece in the puzzle – engagement. Indeed, organisations should tread cautiously and strive to achieve a balance between increasing productivity and deleteriously endorsing a hustle culture.
Organisations should see their employees as the soul of their company, rather than resources to be expended at their disposal.
For Dave, the good news is he was able to recognise that his behaviours were veering into unhealthy patterns and sought help early. Through his psychotherapy sessions, Dave was able to see how his unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours perpetuated a vicious cycle.
Dave now sets daily alarms and reminders to leave work at a designated time to begin re-engaging with hobbies he previously enjoyed (e.g. catching a movie, going for a jog) or catching up with his friends outside of work.
He has learnt how to prioritise the tasks that are assigned to him, complete them within the given timeframe and communicate effectively with his superiors if he is unable to do so.
He shared that all these helped him to “feel alive again”.
Sara-Ann Lee is a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).