Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why teams are the key to beating burnout

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'Always on'? Image: Unsplash/Robert Bye

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Mental Health

  • Burnout has become a major issue for employers and employees, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Taking inspiration from her own burnout story, Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, explains how businesses can tackle the issue.
  • Davis explains to Wharton Professor, Brett LoGiurato about the importance of teams in combatting burnout.

Burnout has become one of the most talked about workplace topics, and its impact is far-reaching. The 24/7 pace of work and scant resources often put busy professionals on a path to burnout, a cycle that has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burnout affects the health and well-being of the entire organization, yet most attempts to help focus on quick-fix strategies aimed at individuals.

Have you read?

In Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience, Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, explores a new solution to the burnout problem at work: a comprehensive approach focused on building the resilience of teams of all sizes. Davis argues that teams, and their leaders, are uniquely positioned to create the type of cultures that are needed to prevent burnout.

Brett LoGiurato, senior editor at Wharton School Press, sat down with Davis to talk about her book, her own burnout story, and how to start on the path to resilience and thriving.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Brett LoGiurato: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Beating Burnout at Work. I wanted to first ask, what made you want to write it?

Paula Davis: I’m really excited about it. This has been a long time in the making, and I wanted to write it ever since I burned out during what became the last year of my law practice…. [That] really impacted me in a lot of different ways. And so I wanted to help busy professionals recognize the warning signs and not go down the same path that I did.

Brett LoGiurato: A big part of the book is your own experience with burnout as a lawyer as you just discussed, but I was wondering if you could take us through that burnout a bit more, and also how it helped inspire you to help others manage stress and resilience.

Davis: Yes. There were three big warning signs that I missed when I was going through this process. The first one was that I was chronically, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Because I didn’t know what was happening at the time, I really didn’t know what to look for. But this was definitely a big one.

No matter what I did on the weekends to try and recover, nothing seemed to work. I absolutely hated Sunday nights, because I would stare at the clock on the wall thinking, if I could just freeze time I won’t have to go in to work and become more exhausted this week, because I’m not even recovered from last week and the week before. That was a big one.

The second big warning sign that I missed was that I was chronically cynical. People just started to really bug me, and that’s not my usual personality. And I noticed that especially with my clients, outwardly I was very professional in all of my dealings with them, but inwardly there was a lot of eye-rolling going on. I would think to myself, do we really have to talk about this issue? Can you solve this on your own? It was really not a good way to think, because my job as a lawyer was to help real estate clients solve really complex challenges with their deals.

Lastly, I started to notice that I was becoming more ineffective. Not in my ability to be a good lawyer, but really starting to lose my confidence in terms of seeing a path forward for myself in the profession. That led to a lot of, why bother, who cares? Why am I doing this? Am I really making an impact? Again, with my clients, it was: You’re not going to listen to my advice, so why bother, who cares?

What’s interesting is that once I finally got out of my law practice and started to research burnout, those three warning signs that I missed are actually the three main symptoms of burnout. As soon as I realized that, I understood more about what was going on. And then I just really felt called to help other busy professionals in some way not have to go through the same process. My burnout lasted almost a year, and it progressed to a really bad place. I was getting panic attacks on almost a daily basis, and I was in the emergency room twice because I had stomach aches from the stress that were so bad that I couldn’t actually stand up.

I realized at that point that some big changes had to happen. I don’t want people to get anywhere near that point. [I want] to be able to help people understand a little bit more about what burnout is, and give them some tools to help. And then also start talking to leaders and organizations so that we can look at what cultural factors at work are causing this problem. That’s another part as well.

LoGiurato: What you just talked about brings up the unique method you have for dealing with burnout at work, starting with the culture and teams. Why do you think it’s so important to focus on teams as the key antidote?

Davis: What was interesting to me when I first started down this path was that I placed a lot of blame on myself. I thought to myself, wow, I [must have] missed some sort of stress management strategy. There was something about my wiring, or something must have been missing with my personality that caused me to burn out. I really started looking at the issue through very much an individual lens.

As I dug into the research, and as I continued to talk to more and more people who had experienced burnout, I started to understand that it’s really a systemic issue. Yes, there are ways that individuals can get better at managing their stress and that can move the needle a little bit, but it’s really more of a complex issue that also involves how you interact with your leaders, and the style of leadership that leaders in your organization bring.

Also, globally, on an organizational level, different factors are going on that can make burnout more likely.

Where can we focus in this workplace continuum to help move the needle forward? That’s how I identify teams. Teams are really little mini systems. They’re little mini cultures that exist within the larger workplace organization, and they’re much more malleable. There are a lot of tools and techniques that I can teach to leaders and to teams and individuals who make up teams to help them create the kind of culture that really either prevents or slows down burnout.

That made me really excited to start digging into that intersection, and realizing that it was really an untapped area of review when it came to burnout. With COVID happening, we’re all working from home, and so I think the future of work is going to be some version of a blended virtual and physical-space work environment. Teams are going to be critical to helping organizations manage all of the complexity that’s going to be happening at work going forward.

LoGiurato: I want to talk about your PRIMED model for team success. Can you quickly walk us through each component of that model and explain why it’s so important in the fight against burnout?

Davis: The PRIMED model is really the result of my looking at dozens of research studies. If we’re going to talk about helping teams build the positive cultures that they need to slow down burnout, what are the ingredients that they really have to focus on in order to make that happen — to build resilience, to thrive, to build this sense of wellbeing and a positive culture that we know can either slow down or reverse burnout.

And so PRIMED is the acronym that I created from reviewing that research, and just talking with all of the teams that I’ve worked with. The P is psychological safety and psychological needs. The P is really the foundation of building resilient and thriving teams. Teams have to be able to develop trust, so that’s the psychological safety, trust at the team level.

Psychological needs are autonomy, belonging, and competence. We all need to feel as though we have some sort of say or control over our day and over our work. We need to feel like we are part of a team or part of a group that matters to us, that we feel like we belong, and that we feel like we’re supported.

Competence is just simply feeling like we’re progressing toward goals that are important to us, and that we feel like we are becoming successful and the type of professional that we want to be. There’s just loads of research that shows when you have these two components present, you see more motivation: higher levels of wellbeing, higher levels of resilience, lower levels of attrition, higher morale, and a whole host of outcomes that are really important to whether burnout happens.

Burnout working from home stress mental health wellbeing
Paula Davis discusses how TNTs (Tiny Noticeable Things) like thanking co-workers can help to reduce stress at work. Image: World Economic Forum

The R in the PRIMED model is relationships. It is really hard to get to a sense of resilience and engagement and wellbeing if you don’t have good relationships and a good support network. The I is about impact. Do you feel like you are making an impact in your work; do you feel like you’re influencing the greater good or the world around you; and do you derive a sense of meaning and satisfaction from your work?

The M is about mental strength, or mindset. This is often very much an overlooked factor when it comes to creating high-performing and resilient teams in these positive cultures. And we have to really take a step back and think both individually at a leadership level, and then collectively as a team, about how are we thinking about obstacles and stressors and challenges and change. There’s a lot of great techniques to help us increase our individual and collective mental strength.

The E is about energy. This is how you just deal with stress within the team. Do you talk about stress, do you create a sense of positive energy? I know when I talk to teams, this is one of the biggest areas of [concern] in that we’re oftentimes so busy with our own work that we don’t pay attention to or recognize signs of overload with our team members. We have to start paying attention to that.

The D is one of my favorites. This is design. This is the area where if you as a team realize, wow there’s some tweaks that we need to make, or there are some changes that we want to make within the culture of our team, we can actually do that. We can design it, there are different ways, different strategies that teams can use to redesign how their little cultures and their little systems function. Collectively, this model really paints a wonderful picture and a pathway, multiple pathways, to help teams build these positive cultures and resilience.

LoGiurato: One of my favorite concepts from the book is what you called TNTs, or Tiny Noticeable Things. Can you explain the concept and how they help prevent burnout?

Davis: I loved the acronym TNT, Tiny Noticeable Things. One of the things that I realized early on, if I was going to be talking to leaders or teams or anybody within an organization — just given how busy everybody is, and the complexity, and the globalization, and just the fast-paced-ness of work these days — I had to make the techniques and the tools really user friendly.

I think of them as TNTs, or Tiny Noticeable Things, meaning that they’re really small, you might even think of them as like, “Wow, this is super simple. I didn’t realize it would have such a tremendous outcome.” These are small strategies that individuals, leaders, and teams themselves can start to deploy that really lead to big downstream outcomes when it comes to building wellbeing and positive cultures and resilience.

One very basic example is just saying “thank you” more. When we are thanked, it’s not just about gratitude; we feel really supported. It actually helps to build psychological safety in some of these other capacities in ways that we might not think about. So, thinking in terms of these Tiny Noticeable Things can help frame for people that making these little changes doesn’t have to be hard, and they’re really easy to do.

LoGiurato: The book covers burnout issues in a lot of different teams from law to tech to military, different industries. Two of your examples from the book come from the Mayo Clinic and the US Army. Can you talk about their different ways to take a comprehensive approach to stress and wellbeing?

Davis: When you start to hear holistic or comprehensive approach, it can seem rather daunting. That’s one of the reasons why organizations sometimes pause and just revert back to some of their individual focused programs, because they’re just easy to roll out and they’re easy to deal with. I wanted to provide folks two examples of really big organizations who have taken some very specific steps in that sort of systemic or holistic way to address wellbeing and burnout and resilience in different ways.

The Mayo Clinic has been focused on this for a number of years, and developing a very specific model that helps to educate leaders, that really gives frontline workers, leaders, and teams the tools that they need. And it measures progress with some of the strategies that they’ve implemented to lower burnout rates within Mayo.

“When we can start to look at the problem in this holistic way, we can all open our eyes and figure out and implement specific strategies that will help.”

The burnout rate within health care generally is astronomically high. That obviously has a lot of really important implications for not only providers, but also patients in terms of safety issues and things. So the Mayo Clinic has implemented very specific strategies, and they’ve seen some really great outcomes.

Taking a little bit of a different approach was the United States Army. This was actually a program I had the great privilege to be part of. This was really General [George W.] Casey at the time taking a look at the overall mental health of the troops and saying, “Wow, we really need to up our game and prioritize mental health in the same way that we have always prioritized physical health.”

General Casey called up the folks at the University of Pennsylvania and said, “Hey, could you create a resilience training program for us, not just to educate our senior leaders, our senior non-commissioned officers about this topic, but let’s take it a step further so that they can be trained to actually teach these strategies to their lower ranking soldiers back in their units.” They wanted to really carry that forward.

It wasn’t just educating, it was also [an effort to] teach these people how to teach other people these skills and strategies. So, the program was very successful. Collectively as a training team over about five or six years we trained about 40,000 soldiers in these skills, and the program I think is now housed in a little bit of a different way within the Army, but is still an ongoing training that happens.

I helped to pilot a program to give these skills and tools to spouses of the soldiers, which was a really, really meaningful extension of the program. They’re trying to address these skills from the perspective of kids of the soldiers. There are briefings at the executive level, at the highest of levels so that leaders especially really continue to understand the importance of these strategies and tools. While both of these efforts certainly have taken some time, and you have to be very intentional, they have both seen tremendous success from their efforts.

LoGiurato: You started writing this book in early 2020. The world has changed quite a bit since. How has COVID-19 impacted people’s experiences with burnout, and how will it affect things going forward?

Davis: It’s been quite a unique challenge, and very interesting to be writing a book about burnout in the middle of a pandemic. When I first started writing the book, this was not on our radar, and I don’t think anyone really saw this happening…. I think people really are experiencing not only a lot of stress, but also there’s so much uncertainty and anxiety and ambiguity still around the situation.

I have already seen, just anecdotally, elevated levels of exhaustion with people. This chronic physical and emotional exhaustion is starting to set in.

But I think we have to caution ourselves that there’s also a lot we don’t know in terms of how this is going to manifest with burnout rates. In my book, I include burnout rates for a whole host of different professions, but they were all pre-COVID. So, we have that data going into the pandemic, but I think we’re going to need some good research studies to empirically support some of the anecdotal evidence that we see about increased levels of burnout.

I can say pretty confidently, I don’t think burnout is going to be lower than it was pre-pandemic. I think we’re definitely looking at the same rates, if not higher levels. But we want to make sure that we collect data to support that.

LoGiurato: There are tons of lessons and takeaways in the book, but if you had to pick one lesson that you hope readers take away with them, what would that be?

“We’ve got to get better at looking out for each other, especially in this virtual environment.”

Davis: I think that the big message is the “aha” that I had as I was learning about burnout, and educating myself about what this is. And that just globally, burnout is a systemic issue. I know that so many people put a lot of blame on themselves individually and feel like they can’t say anything about it if they feel like they’re burning out at work, and that it is definitely a system-wide problem with system-wide causes that needs system-wide strategies — again which is why I wanted to focus on teams being these little mini systems within the bigger organizations.

Just recognizing that, yes, your individual wiring and personality traits and things like that do play into the burnout equation, but it’s also a much bigger issue from a leadership and organization standpoint. When we can start to look at the problem in this holistic way, we can all open our eyes and figure out and implement specific strategies that will help.

LoGiurato: Finally, if someone is listening to this and struggling with burnout, what’s one thing you would tell them to do today?

Davis: The biggest thing would be to have them say something. And it depends—burnout exists on a spectrum, on a continuum, so it depends on where you are on the continuum or the spectrum. [It could be] just simply telling a significant other or a friend that you’re feeling this sense of chronic stress and are overwhelmed at work, talking to a mental health professional or your health care provider … or talking to a trusted colleague or a leader at work.

We’ve got to get better at looking out for each other, especially in this virtual environment. We’re all living in a very different way than we’re designed to live as human beings, and it is hitting people differently depending on their unique situations. Just taking five minutes to reach out to a colleague, or everyone on your team, to check in and say, “Hey, how are you doing? This has nothing to do with business, I’m just really interested in hearing how you’re doing and just making sure.” And not doing that once every nine months, but really making that a regular habit — I think is something that is really, really important.

I give a specific strategy in the book to help folks craft that type of conversation if they want to have it. I know I would have appreciated somebody taking an interest back when I was burning out, just checking in with me to see how I was doing. It’s one of the most consistent things I hear either in the workshops that I teach, or with the people who I talk to one-on-one, that they either wished somebody had said something to them, or they feel okay, but they’re concerned about somebody else and they want to have that conversation.

Those conversations sometimes can maybe feel a little uncomfortable, but I think just given the state of the world we have to push through that discomfort a little bit and put ourselves out there and have the conversation. Because I really think especially, again, in this unique time it can have a really profound effect on how somebody is dealing with the world right now.

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