Written by Vivi Friedgut

Founder & CEO

While I have, of course, long been conscious of anxiety and stress among the Blackbullion team, especially in the early days and weeks of the pandemic, ‘burnout’ was more foreign to me. 

It’s a topic that Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor at Wonkhe and Former Director at the National Union of Students, touched on in our first webinar of this academic year in relation to university staff. And it got me thinking; do we know how to spot burnout in ourselves, and in our teams, and do we feel confident to address it? More importantly, how do we mitigate it?

I wanted to better understand it so I did some reading and I hope this short piece helps you address some of these questions.

What is burnout?

Defined by the World Health Organization, burnout is a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Why’s burnout on the rise in the sector?

Since the start of the pandemic, staff across the education sector have been working long and hard to support students and their mental health. They’ve worked swiftly and tirelessly to move teaching and learning, as well as student support, online. 

But what about the staff themselves? 

While burnout is an ever present challenge, it has certainly been exacerbated by pandemic-related stressors and the need to juggle conflicting home/work responsibilities.

It’s hard to keep supporting others when you, yourself, are feeling low, anxious or overworked. That’s something that became clear for the Blackbullion team this week with the reality of a winter lockdown. We’re all struggling with covid-fatigue.

Free resource: pocket-sized tips to avoid burnout

We put together some wellbeing suggestions for our own team; something to pop on the fridge and dip into when we are feeling low. We thought you might like a copy too – download the PDF version here.

avoiding burnout

Early signs

To tackle burnout (and mitigate it), we – as both individuals and managers – need to be able to spot it. Spotting burnout isn’t always easy though, and it’s even harder for line managers to recognise burnout in their direct reports when so many employees are still working from home.

Some of the key signs of burnout include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Growing mental distance from your job, or feeling increasingly negative or cynical towards it – this can also apply to personal hobbies
  • Reduced personal and professional efficiency or productivity

Combating burnout

Burnout isn’t an event, it’s a process. And the earlier it’s spotted, the easier it will be to combat. 

A key way for line managers to spot burnout is, unsurprisingly, down to communication. Yet this require planning amidst the pandemic, as serendipitous coffees and conversations over the water cooler are far harder to engineer.

Luckily the questions to kick off such a conversation are intuitive and natural. Therapists recommend initiating a conversation with something like the following: 

  • How is everything going today? Tell me about last week?
  • Do you have too much on your plate? Can anything be shepherded out to someone else or cancelled altogether?
  • What’s on your plate right now that’s overwhelming you?
  • Where are you feeling the most stress?

Mitigating burnout

By proactively preventing burnout as a line manager, you’ll be supporting your employees’ mental and physical health, as well as improving job satisfaction and reducing the risk of accidents or mistakes as employees stay engaged with their work. 

The most important thing is to create a culture that allows staff to ask for help when they need it. This can prevent burnout returning. 

Some suggestions include:

  • Make team building a daily habit – could you have a regular ‘tea time’ or coffee and chat? Although this won’t help if people are buried under their workload, so is there anything you can take off their plate?
  • Provide access to relevant resources
  • If you are able, offer more flexible work schedules 
  • Make sure your direct reports are well taken care of and supported
  • Evaluate how your organisation communicates 
  • Clarifying employee expectations and how their role is measured

It’s an uncertain and hectic time for everyone at the moment, but together we can take steps to look out for ourselves and one another and try to avoid burning out. 

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact us or tweet Vivi directly. Vivi is a regular guest speaker and writer for a range of edtech organisations and publications and her second book, Stay Financially Healthy, will be released in Spring 2021. In the meantime, check out Vivi’s leadership lessons from lockdown.

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