Neerja Birla is the founder and chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust.
M, a business development manager at a global firm, was promoted to a senior role with more responsibilities a while ago. Initially, she felt lucky to have got such an opportunity but as the pandemic wore on, she began to feel a building anxiety about failing at this new role. She was working longer hours to manage her workload, and her days started to blur into endless to-dos and video conferences. Not focusing on her life outside work seemed like a worthwhile trade-off for a while, but over the next few months, she noticed that her productivity had started to slow down. She also started to struggle with tasks that once seemed easy for her. This spiralled out into anxiety about her self-worth and left with her a feeling of helplessness. Her work, which at one point she loved, now became something that she could not muster up the will to care about at all. And she couldn’t figure out when exactly it was that things got so bad.
Like M, many people in the past couple of years have either reached this point or are going to soon. Corporate burnout has become a significant threat to individuals and organisations, especially following the pandemic. A recent study shows that at 29 percent, India has the second-highest number of employees dealing with corporate burnout. Nearly one-third of employees in India have experienced symptoms of burnout. They say fatigue is the exhaustion of the body and burnout is the exhaustion of the soul. Burnout starts out with physical symptoms like feeling drained, changes in sleep or appetite and even frequent illness. On the emotional side, one could feel things such as increasing anxiety, self-doubt, loss of motivation, feelings of being trapped or alone, and an overarching sense of dissatisfaction. This often extends into behavioural patterns where one feels like giving up, isolating from others or procrastinating, or even turning to food, alcohol or other substances to find some sense of the joy that has been lost from one’s life.
Burnout is one of the most significant mental health risks today because it can happen to everyone, and it takes between one and three years for an individual to recover from burnout, at best. That is a loss that India Inc. simply cannot afford. The pandemic has forced companies to evolve overnight, and now, we must assess and mitigate the toll of these drastic changes on employees’ overall wellness and productivity. Though individuals and organisations have a greater awareness of mental health post the pandemic, burnout is a condition that may go unnoticed until it’s too late.
Is it all about stress then, one wonders? I believe it takes a combination of multiple factors to trigger the onset of burnout. On the work front, inciting factors include constant stress, having unclear or overly demanding expectations, having to solve crisis after crisis with no rest, being in high-pressure environments without a break, and especially, not having any recognition or reward for all the efforts one puts in. In one’s personal life, not having a support system, not having time to socialise or rest, and unhealthy eating or sleeping habits can be crucial contributors. One has also observed that certain personality traits such as being too much of a perfectionist, reluctance to delegate, losing one’s positive outlook can also be factors that add to the risk of a burnout.
So how can corporates in India reduce or prevent instances of burnout? I believe that there isn’t a formulaic, one-size-fits-all approach for this. Companies are made up of people who deal with specific situations and have specific needs and challenges. As someone who believes that the people in one’s team are the most valuable asset, I think it comes down to finding ways to make sure that those individuals feel nurtured, safe, valued and rewarded. While initiatives such as monitoring workloads and encouraging employees to take breaks and vacation days can help, I believe that the burnout epidemic requires a deeper approach. Going into the new year, organisations could engage in a mental wellness audit to identify the stressors, practices and policies in their workplace that could be pushing employees towards burnout. This would give a real-time understanding of the interventions that are required and can truly be effective.
Most importantly, people need a safe space to reach out for help, and I think having an employee assistance programme for mental health can make a significant difference in the prevention and care for burnout. A study by LifeWorks shows that every dollar invested into such programmes provides more than eight times return on investment in terms of improved productivity and reduced absenteeism and attrition.
Preventing burnout is not something organisations can do on their own. As individuals, one must also prioritise one’s mental wellness and keep an eye out for the abovementioned signs of burnout. Above all, listen to your body and your mind. When you start to feel overwhelmed, tired all the time, or not as motivated as you once were, maybe it’s time to take a step back and figure out what you need in order to return to a state of wellness again. As author Anne Lamott once shared, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you.”
The author is founder and chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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