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Thought Leadership

Avoid Burnout By Building Resilient Talent

A businesswoman giving a presentation to seated businesspeople.

Burnout. It is so common that the World Health Organization (WHO) identified it as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. Although not classified as an actual medical condition, WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

What’s the key to avoiding burnout? Build your own personal resilience, says Robert Goldberg, an affiliate faculty member of UNC Executive Development. He emphasizes the need to deepen your employees’ understanding of burnout and its characteristics.

Three dimensions characterize burnout, according to WHO:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from your job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

At UNC, we have seen a dramatic uptick in clients who are looking to foster resilience among their employees in the age of “always on” and “always available.” Goldberg works with several of our Executive Development clients to explore “energy zones” people need to be aware of and manage to avoid burnout.

Adapted from “The Power of Full Engagement” (Loehr & Schwartz, 2003), Goldberg shares the zones and their characteristics:

  • Performance Zone: Passionate, enthusiastic, engaged, optimistic, alive, challenged and absorbed
  • Survival Zone: Anxious, impatient, angry, irritable, defensive, fearful and frustrated
  • Burnout Zone: Hopeless, exhausted, sad, discouraged, lost, empty, worried and depleted
  • Recovery Zone: Calm, peaceful, grateful, relaxed, receptive, relieved, rested and renewed

The key to staying in the Performance Zone, according to Goldberg, is to move into the Recovery Zone before you enter the Burnout Zone.

Goldberg says you can recover every day, even a little bit, by managing four types of energy:

  • Physical: Take a break or a short walk every 90 minutes to avoid burnout. Mike Christian, a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School who researches resilience, even suggests doing a “walking meeting” with colleagues when possible.
  • Mental: Focus on the most important tasks and define when and how they get done.
  • Emotional: Feel valued and appreciated for your contributions. As a manager, make sure to communicate your appreciation to your own team members.
  • Spiritual: Do work that connects you to a higher purpose or mission.

Goldberg defines resilience as the ability to become strong, healthy and successful after something bad happens. By helping employees build greater personal resilience, organizations are better able to maintain peak performance among their talent. He shares five factors employees can consider when building resiliency for themselves and their team members:

  1. Perspective: Step back and accept the negative aspects of a situation while finding opportunity. Recognize what can be changed and what can’t.
  2. Emotional intelligence: Become aware of your emotions and name them. Give yourself permission to have those feelings without guilt or shame, and allow space and time to process them. It’s about managing your emotions – and impulsivity.
  3. Purpose, values and strengths: Have a clear sense of the purpose of your work and a clear sense of your values and moral compass to stay centered when there is disruption.
  4. Connections: Connect with your network of friends and colleagues for support. Gain strength by supporting others.
  5. Managing physical energy: Keep physically fit, eat well and don’t use food as a crutch. Find time away from work to engage in activities that you enjoy.

From the resilience work we do with our clients, we often hear a majority of executives use physical energy to build resilience, but research shows it is important to build capabilities across all five factors. By understanding and honing your individual resilience capabilities, you can be more intentional at adapting to stressful situations, recovering quickly from adverse experiences, and reacting positively to change – all positive steps in avoiding burnout and keeping your top talent in the Performance Zone.