How mindful managers reduce burnout

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

16 Feb 2016

16 Feb 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

Trust is based on persistence

When our (unconscious) elephant experiences persistently, positive emotional connections with others we are not only more productive we are also more emotionally and physically resilient.

I have already argued that trust in the workplace is based on persistent, positive emotional connections with your manager and your colleagues. The very large workplace surveys run by the Great Places to Work Institute (providing the data for the Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list) connect high productivity to trusting your boss. The equally large Gallup Company surveys on employee engagement demonstrate how this happens. 

Gallup shows that employees whose bosses clearly communicate two things: (1) what’s expected of them at work and (2) that they care about them are engaged, more productive and more emotionally resilient. In market downturns, they don't lose hope they work harder so their company can recover faster when markets turn around. For instance, Gallup reported that organisations with higher levels of employee engagement grew their earnings per share much more quickly than competitors as the economy began to rebound in 2009. 

Motivation is an emotion that is freed up in situations where we trust. Without the fear of uncertainty and any threat to our self-esteem to contend with, our elephant pushes our (conscious) rider mind to focus fully on the work and on goals that are larger than our selves – like saving the firm. It also builds our physical resilience.

Trust and workplace wellness

Gallup reviews a huge 2012 meta-analysis of engagement involving nearly 1.4 million employees. They found that engaged employees saved their companies money through fewer production errors, accidents and lower rates of turnover and absenteeism. The reduced rates of absenteeism confirm an engagement and burnout study my consulting team carried out with the staff of a large regional hospital. 

In this study, most front-line employees reported that their jobs were stressful, high demand situations over which they had little control. They had real reasons to report themselves as stressed, even to the point of burnout, but many of them didn't. Units doing essentially the same work reported very different levels of burnout depending on their average engagement scores. Managers who connected and created trust made the difference.

Front line staff and nurses who had the highest engagement scores had the lowest burnout scores and took an average of 2.64 days off above the contractually allowed holidays. Those who had the lowest engagement scores reported threateningly high burnout scores and the highest absenteeism rates - up to 13 days more than the contractual limits. 

The low connection, low-trust managers also created an additional negative effect reflected by a key dimension of the Great Places to Work’s model of trust: the need for camaraderie.

In departments where engagement scores were low, employees were more likely to rate their colleagues as being less committed to doing quality work and always rated their managers as ineffective because they did nothing to sanction poor performers. 

Using your minds in unison

Where this constant demand for your attention and you can't control the flow of the work your elephant is in a state of constant uncertainty. It responds by calling for repeated surges of the stress hormones - adrenalin and cortisol – the fight-fight hormones - to get you through.  Over time this reaction undermines your immune system. To make things worse, your ability to use your (conscious) rider mind to consciously regulate your elephant’s emotional responses is undermined by fatigue and the distraction of negative relationships with your co-workers. The result is that you get sick more often. 

Engagement seemed to buffer the employees against the extremes of persistent stress. This buffering showed up in our scale measuring burnout as a combination or fatigue and hopelessness. It not only gauged how tired the staff felt but also their loss of interest in their work and in their personal relationships. Engaged employees presented themselves as fatigued but still hopeful. A trusting and emotionally positive relationship with their manager not only strengthened their ability to calm themselves in the face of constant stress but also sustained their connections in vital life relationships outside of work. 

Moreover, the trust they generated permitted managers to remind their staff of their profession’s “higher calling” – their mission to help others - from a position of shared commitment rather than critical judgment. People felt better about each other’s efforts and the elephant’s need to connect by “fitting in” created a local culture of hopeful collaboration.  People helped each other get through.