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Managing Burnout Through Regaining a Sense of Control


Workplace burnout has become an epidemic in modern organizations. With increasing demands, longer hours, and less predictable schedules, employees at all levels are feeling more stressed, overwhelmed, and depleted. However, burnout does not have to be an inevitable consequence of a demanding job. Research shows that having a strong sense of control over one's work can help mitigate burnout and its negative effects.


Today we will explore how leaders can help employees regain a sense of control to recover from and prevent burnout.


Understanding Burnout


Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress, especially relating to one's job (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). The key aspects of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from one's work, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment (Maslach et al., 2001). Burnout develops gradually and often surfaces as decreased productivity, increased absenteeism or sick days used, and higher turnover intentions (Shirom, 2005). Left unaddressed, burnout can seriously impair an employee's wellbeing, work performance, engagement, and retention.


Research points to several common causes of burnout. Heavy workloads, long work hours without sufficient recovery time, and role conflict or ambiguity contribute to feeling overwhelmed at work (Maslach et al., 2001; Shirom, 2005). Emotional demands, such as dealing with difficult people or trauma on the job, also increase burnout risk (Maslach et al., 2001). Having little autonomy, few rewards, and lack of social support in the workplace exacerbate stress levels as well (Maslach et al., 2001; Shirom, 2005). When employees perceive their work environments as demanding and uncontrollable, they become more vulnerable to burnout over time.


The Role of Control in Mitigating Burnout


A strong consensus exists among burnout researchers that having control over one's work can help buffer against burnout (Maslach et al., 2001; Shirom, 2005; Krause & Storch, 2019). Specifically, research finds that greater perceptions of control are related to lower levels of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced feelings of ineffectiveness (Maslach et al., 2001; Krause & Storch, 2019). Several studies highlight the importance of control in moderating the relationship between job demands and burnout (Van Beek et al., 2019; Baker et al., 2021).


Control impacts burnout through both physiological and psychological mechanisms (Van Beek et al., 2019). Physiologically, having control engages the brain's reward system, reducing stress hormones. Psychologically, control fulfills basic human needs for autonomy and competence, shielding self-efficacy and motivation even in demanding situations (Van Beek et al., 2019). When employees feel in control of their tasks, schedules, and work processes, they can better cope with workload pressures through active problem-solving rather than passive stress responses (Shirom, 2005; Van Beek et al., 2019). Giving employees more control reallocates their mental energy from worrying to productive efforts. Thus, cultivating a sense of control appears central to preventing and recovering from burnout in organizations.


Strategies for Building Control


The following practical strategies can help leaders proactively foster control and mitigate burnout for their teams:


Allow for Flexibility and Autonomy


  • Give employees more autonomy over how to structure their daily tasks and workflow. Allow for flexible scheduling or remote work when possible.

  • Involve employees in decision-making. Ask for input on projects, targets, or processes. Make participation in meetings optional, not mandatory.


Provide Skill Development Opportunities


  • Offer training programs to increase skills and confidence. Continued learning boosts perceptions of control through competence.

  • Rotate roles or responsibilities periodically. Job rotation enhances versatility and prevents boredom or stagnation.


Ensure Clear Expectations and Feedback


  • Set specific and measurable goals collaboratively. Joint goal-setting enhances buy-in and perceptions of control over outcomes.

  • Provide regular performance feedback. Timely coaching and recognition help employees feel in control of their career progression.


Foster Social Support Networks


  • Promote bonding among coworkers. Social interaction buffers stress through shared experienced and empathy.

  • Consider online communities. Remote employees can connect through internal messaging groups or collaboration tools.


Industry Examples


Technology companies have adopted strategies emphasizing control to combat burnout. At Anthropic, researchers are given full autonomy to self-direct projects. Flexible schedules allow deep focus without distractions. GitHub provides 4-day workweeks so engineers feel in control of work-life blending. At Automattic (WordPress), "roleswapping" policies foster learning through exposure to different functions every 6-12 months.


In healthcare, Mayo Clinic encourages short breaks during long shifts. Units distribute decision-making to clinicians, shifting perceptions of control upwards. At Thedacare, managers hold regular open discussions to understand challenges faced by staff. They then problem-solve together, empowering employees in improvement efforts.


For knowledge workers at Booz Allen Hamilton, a "work from anywhere" policy enhances flexibility. Employees receive mentorship and are involved in leadership projects to develop new skills. StaffAssist programs instantly connect remote workers facing issues to boosted sense of control.


Conclusion


Organizations must recognize burnout as more than an individual problem - it arises from systemic issues with lack of control. Research shows enhancing perceptions of control through autonomy, competence, and relatedness is key to both preventing and recovering from burnout. Leaders play an active role through strategies fostering flexibility, learning, clear expectations, feedback, and social support. Industry examples demonstrate success in mitigating burnout by giving employees more control over their work environment, tasks, and career development. Reducing exhaustion and cynicism in this manner also strengthens engagement, performance, well-being, and retention. Viewing burnout through a lens of control empowers both leaders and employees to make proactive, sustainable changes addressing its root causes.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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