“Burnt” employees: is there a way out?

    You work in good company. Around you are cool professionals, you get a decent salary, every day you do important and necessary things. Elon Musk launches satellites, Sergey Semenovich improves the already best city on Earth. The weather is excellent, the sun is shining, the trees are blooming - live and rejoice!

    But in your team there is Sad Ignat. Ignat is always gloomy, cynical and tired. He is an excellent specialist, has been working for a long time in the company and knows how everything works. Ignat everyone wants to help. Especially you, because you are his manager. But, after talking with Ignat, you yourself begin to feel how much injustice is around. And also you start to feel sad. But it’s especially scary if the sad Ignat is you.

    What to do? How to work with Ignat? Welcome to cat!

    My name is Ilya Ageev, I have been working at Badoo for almost eight years, I head a large department of quality control. Almost 80 people are in my submission. And today I want to discuss with you a problem that almost everyone sooner or later faces in the IT field.

    Burnout is often called by different names: emotional burnout, professional burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc. In my article, I will talk only about our professional activities, that is, about professional burnout. This article is a transcript of my talk with me at Badoo Techleads Meetup # 4 .

    By the way, the image of Ignat is collective. As they say, any coincidence with real people is random.

    Burnout - what is it?

    This is what a burned out person usually looks like. We have all observed this many times, and we don’t really need to explain who those burned out are. Nevertheless, I will linger a little on determination.

    If you try to summarize thoughts about what burnout is, you get the following list:

    • it is persistent fatigue; 
    • it is emotional exhaustion; 
    • it is rejection of work, procrastination; 
    • this is increased irritability, cynicism, negativism; 
    • this is a decrease in enthusiasm and activity, a lack of faith in the best; 
    • it is black and white thinking and one big FIG.

    To date, the ICD (International Classification of Diseases) defines the definition of occupational burnout as part of a broader category - overwork. In 2022, WHO plans to switch to the new edition of the ICD, 11th, and in it professional burnout is defined more clearly. According to ICD-11, occupational burnout is a syndrome recognized as a result of chronic stress at work, stress that has not been successfully overcome.

    It should be especially noted that this is not a disease, but a medical condition that can lead to illness. And this condition is characterized by three signs:

    1. feeling of exhaustion of energy or exhaustion;
    2. increasing negative attitude to work, distance from it;
    3. decrease in labor efficiency.

    Before moving on, we clarify the concept of the norm. In fact, constantly smiling and being positive is also not normal. Laughter for no reason, as you know, is a sign of foolishness. Sad from time to time is normal. This becomes a problem when it lasts a long time.

    What usually causes burnout? It is clear that this is a lack of rest, constant “fires” and their “extinguishing” in an emergency mode. But it is also important to understand that even measured work in conditions when it is not clear how to evaluate the results, what is the goal, where we are moving, also contributes to professional burnout.

    It should also be remembered that negativity is contagious. It happens that entire departments and even entire companies become infected with the professional burnout virus and gradually die.

    And the dangerous consequences of professional burnout are not only a drop in productivity and a worsening atmosphere in the team, but also real health problems. It can lead to mental and psychosomatic disorders. 

    The main danger is that working with your head is energy intensive. The more and more often we use something, the greater the likelihood that in this place problems will arise in the future. Professional athletes experience problems with joints and muscles, and brainworkers experience headaches.

    What happens in the head of burned out 

    To understand how the human brain works, you need to look far into history and see how it has developed in terms of evolution. 

    The brain looks like something like cabbage or puff pastry: new layers seem to grow on older ones. Three large sections of the human brain can be distinguished: the reptilian brain, which is responsible for basic instincts such as “fight or flight” (fight or flight in English literature); midbrain, or animal brain, responsible for emotions; and the neocortex - the latest parts of the brain that are responsible for rational thinking and make us human.

    More ancient parts of the brain arose so long ago that they managed to go through evolutionary “polishing”. The reptile brain arose 100 million years ago. The brain of mammals - 50 million years ago. Neocortex began to develop only 1.5-2 million years ago. And the mind of homo sapiens is generally no more than 100 thousand years old.

    Therefore, the ancient parts of the brain are "dumber" in terms of logic, but much faster and stronger than our neocortex. I really like the analogy of Maxim Dorofeev about the train that travels from Moscow to Vladivostok. Imagine that this train is traveling, it is full of demobilization and gypsies. And somewhere near Khabarovsk a bespectacled intellectual comes in and tries to reason the whole crowd. Presented? Heavy? This is how the rational part of the brain often cannot invoke an emotional reaction to order. The latter is simply stronger.

    So, we have an ancient part of the brain, which is fast, but not always smart, and the newest part, which is smart, can abstractly think and build logical chains, but it is very slow and requires a lot of energy. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and founder of cognitive psychology, called these two parts System 1 and System 2. According to Kahneman, our thinking works like this: information first goes to System 1, faster, it gives a solution, if it exists, or passes this information on to System 2, if there is no solution. 

    There are several ways to demonstrate the operation of these systems. Take a look at this picture of a smiling girl.  

    A cursory glance at her is enough for us to understand that she is smiling: we do not analyze each part of her face individually, we don’t think that the corners of her lips are raised, the corners of her eyes are down, etc. We immediately understand that the girl is smiling. This is the work of System 1.

    3255 * 100 =?

    Or, here, a simple mathematical example, which we can also solve on the machine, using the mental rule "take two zeros from a hundred and add them to the first number." You don’t even need to count - the result is immediately clear. This is also the work of System 1.

    3255 * 7 =?

    And here, despite the fact that the number 7 is much less than the number 100, we will not be able to give a quick answer. It must be considered. And everyone will do it their own way: someone in a column, someone multiplies 3255 by 10, then by 3 and subtracts the second from the first result, someone immediately gives up and takes out a calculator. This is the work of System 2. 

    Kahneman described this experiment with another interesting detail: if you go with a comrade and on the go offer to solve this example, then it is very likely that he will stop to make calculations. This is because the work of System 2 is VERY energy-consuming, and the brain cannot even execute a program for your movement in space at this moment.

    What follows from this? And the fact that this is a very powerful mechanism by which training works is the acquisition of automatism. This is how we learn to type on the keyboard, drive a car and play musical instruments. First, we ponder each step, each movement with the help of System 2, and then gradually displace the acquired skills in the zone of responsibility of System 1 for cost-effectiveness and faster response. These are the advantages of our thinking.

    But there are also disadvantages. Due to the automatism and the desire to act according to System 1, we often act rashly. This complex system also has bugs. They are called cognitive biases. It can be cute oddities that do not particularly interfere with life, or there may be obvious implementation bugs.

    Generalization of special cases.This is when we draw large-scale conclusions based on insignificant facts. We noticed that chopped cookies were brought to the office - we conclude that the company is no longer a cake and is falling apart.

    The Baader phenomenon is Meinhof, or the illusion of frequency. The phenomenon is that after the occurrence of an event, if we meet this again, it is perceived as unusually frequent. For example, you bought a blue car and began to notice with surprise that there are a lot of blue cars around. Or they saw a couple of times that the product managers were wrong - and afterwards you see only that they are wrong.

    Confirmation biaswhen we pay attention only to the information that confirms our own views, and do not take into account the facts that are contrary to these views. For example, with negative thoughts in our head we pay attention only to bad events, and we simply do not notice positive changes in the company.

    Fundamental attribution error : all Gascons, and I am d'Artagnan. This is when the mistakes of others, we tend to explain them with personal qualities, and achievements - with luck, and in the case of ourselves - vice versa. Example: a colleague who put production is not a good person, and if I put it, it means "no luck, it happens."

    The phenomenon of a just peace is when we believe that there is a certain higher justice, in the name of which everyone should act.

    Do you notice anything? “Yes, this is typical thinking of a burnt out one!” You say. And I will tell you more: this is the typical thinking of each of us.

    You can illustrate the work of cognitive distortion in this way: look at this picture. We see a smiling girl. We even recognize actress Jennifer Aniston. All this tells us System 1, no need to think. 

    But if you flip the picture, we see something very scary, System 1 refuses to understand this. 

    Nevertheless, we reached far-reaching conclusions by looking at the first picture.

    There is another example that illustrates a false perception of reality at a time when we are focused on one thing. So, imagine two teams: white and black. White players throw the ball only white, black - only black. Participants in the experiment were asked to calculate the number of passes made by white players. In the end they were asked how many passes there were and asked a second question: did they see a man in a gorilla costume? It turned out that in the middle of the game a man in a gorilla costume came to the court and even performed a small dance. But most of the participants in the experiment did not see him, because she was busy counting passes.

    Similarly, a person who is focused on the negative sees only the negative around him and does not notice positive things. 

    There are a lot of cognitive distortions, their existence is confirmed by the results of experiments. And they were discovered by the scientific method: when a hypothesis is formed and an experiment is conducted, during which it is confirmed or refuted. 

    The situation is greatly aggravated by the fact that the life of a modern person is fundamentally different from the life of our ancestors, but the structure of the brain is not. Each of us has a smartphone. Every free minute we check what happened in the virtual world: who uploaded something on Instagram, what’s interesting on Facebook. We have access to all libraries in the world: there is so much information that we can not only digest it, but even absorb it. Human life is not enough to master and assimilate all this. 

    As a result - overheating of the cuckoo. 

    So, a burned out person is a person who is constantly in a depressed state. Negative thoughts spin in his head, and cognitive distortions prevent him from getting out of this vicious circle of negativity:

    • the brain of a burned-out employee in every possible way hints to him that it is necessary to change the usual way of life - hence procrastination and rejection of one's duties;
    • such a person hears you well, but does not understand, because he has different values, he perceives the world through a different prism; 
    • it is useless for him to say: “Smile, the sun is shining!” All the same, what are you doing! ”- such a conversation, on the contrary, can plunge him deeper into the negative, because everything is in order with logic and he remembers that the sun and everything else pleased him before, but now they don’t;
    • it is believed that such people have a more sober view of things, since they do not have pink glasses, they perfectly notice the whole negative around you. While people who are focused on the positive, such things may simply not be noticed.

    There is such a wonderful joke. A man rides in a new car past a mental hospital, and her wheel falls off. There is a spare wheel, but the trouble is that together with the wheel, bolts and bolts flew away into the ditch. A man stands and does not know what to do. Several patients are sitting on the fence. They say to him: “And you take a bolt from the remaining three wheels and fasten the spare wheel. Not fast, but still you will reach the nearest service. ” A man says: “Yes, it’s brilliant! What are you all doing here if you know how to think so well? ” And they answer him: “Dude, we are crazy, not morons! Everything is in order with logic. ” So, our burnt-out guys with logic are also in order, do not forget about it. 

    It should be especially noted that the word “depression”, which has become popular today, is another. Depressive personality disorder is quite a medical diagnosis that only a doctor can make. And when you are sad, but after an ice cream and a bath with candles and foam everything went away - this is not depression. Depression is when you are lying on a sofa, you understand that you haven’t eaten anything for three days now, something is burning in the next room, but you don’t care. If you observe something similar in yourself, consult a doctor immediately!

    How to build a work with burned out 

    How to support the workflow and at the same time raise the motivation of a burnt employee from the bottom? Let's get it right.

    First you need to understand for ourselves that we are not professional psychologists and it’s impossible to educate an adult - he’s already raised. The main work to exit the burnout should be done by the employee. We should concentrate on helping him. 

    To get started, just listen to him. Remember, we talked about the fact that negative thoughts make a person focus on the negative? So, a burned out employee is a valuable source of information about what is not optimal in your company or department. The priorities for you and the employee may be different, as well as ways to improve the situation. But the fact that a person can bring you all the flaws on a silver platter that you can and should work on is a fact. So listen to such an employee carefully.

    Consider a change of scenery. This is not always and not always possible, but a brief respite and a reserve of time can be achieved by transferring a burnt employee to another type of activity. This may be a transfer to another department. Or even to another company, this also happens, and this is normal. It should be borne in mind that this, by the way, is the easiest way, but not always effective, because in most cases it is only an apparent change. If, for example, a person made websites on Joomla, and in the new company he will create websites on WordPress, practically nothing will change in his life. As a result, he will do about the same, the novelty effect will quickly disappear and burnout will occur again.

    Now let's talk about what to do with the daily tasks of a burned out employee.

    Here, my favorite situational leadership model from Hersey and Blanchard, which I mentioned in a previous article, will come to our aid . She postulates that there is no single ideal leadership style that managers could apply daily to all employees and all tasks. On the contrary, the management style should be chosen depending on the specific task and the specific executor.

    This model introduces the concept of the level of work maturity. There are four such levels. Depending on two parameters - the professional expertise of the employee for a specific task and his motivation - we determine his level of working maturity. This will be the minimum value from these two parameters. 

    Accordingly, the leadership style depends on the level of working maturity of the employee and can be directive, mentoring, supportive and delegating. 

    1. With a directive style, we give specific instructions, orders and carefully monitor every step of the performer. 
    2. When mentoring, the same thing happens, but we also explain why we should act one way or another, we sell the decisions made.
    3. With a supportive leadership style, we help the employee in making decisions, coaching him.
    4. When delegating - fully delegate the task, showing a minimum of participation.

    It is clear that burnt out employees, even if they are experts in the field of their tasks, cannot work at a level of working maturity higher than the second, because they are not ready to take responsibility. 

    Thus, the responsibility lies with the manager. And you should strive to transfer burned-out employees to higher levels of working maturity as soon as possible, increasing their motivation. We will talk about this further.

    Helping a burnt employee to increase motivation

    Emergency measure number one: reduce requirements. Before you is not that peppy and brave Ignat, who could rewrite the entire project overnight to a new framework and work without rest. You have a chance to return it, but now it’s not him.

    Emergency measure number two: divide the tasks into parts. So that they can be solved "at low thrust." We remove from the definition of tasks “study, find, analyze, convince, find out” and other words that imply an indefinite set of actions that should lead to the completion of the task. We set smaller tasks: “install, launch, call, appoint”, etc. The very fact of completing clearly formulated tasks will motivate Ignat and pull him out of procrastination. It is not necessary to break down the tasks yourself and bring Ignat a ready-made list - depending on his expertise and your relationship with him, tasks can be divided into parts together.

    Emergency measure number three: we indicate clear criteria for completing the task and assessing the quality of work. How do you both realize that the task is complete? How will you evaluate its success? This must be formulated clearly and agreed in advance.

    Emergency measure number four: use the carrot and stick method. Good old Skinner behaviorism. But it must be borne in mind that in the case of a burned out employee, the carrot, and not the whip, should prevail. This is called “positive stimulation," and the method is widely used both in animal training and in raising children. I highly recommend reading Karen Pryor’s book “Don’t growry at a dog!”, It’s about positive stimulation, and the approaches described in it can come in handy in your life more than once.

    Emergency number five: focus on positive. I don’t mean at all that we should approach the sad Ignat more often, clap him on the shoulder and say: “Smile!”. As I mentioned, this will only make it worse. My idea is that often, analyzing completed tasks, we focus on problems. We are all logical and pragmatic, it seems right: we discussed the mistakes, thought about how to avoid them in the future, and parted. As a result, the discussion of successes and accomplishments is often overlooked. We need to shout about them at every corner: advertise them, show everyone how cool we are.

    With emergency measures sorted out, go ahead. 

    What to do to prevent burnout


    1. Clearly articulate long-term and short-term goals.
    2. Stimulate employee time-outs: drive them on vacation, reduce the number of emergency breaks, processings, etc.
    3. Stimulate the professional development of employees. They need a challenge. And in the conditions of measured development, when the processes are built, the challenge seems to be taken from nowhere. Nevertheless, even an employee who visited a regular meeting can bring a breath of fresh air to the team.
    4. Avoid unnecessary competition. Woe to the leader who pushes his subordinates with the foreheads. For example, he says to two that they are both candidates for the position of his deputy. Or to introduce a new framework: whoever shows himself better will get a tidbit. Such practice will not lead to anything other than undercover games.
    5. Give feedback. I do not even mean a one-on-one formal rally at which you, having gathered your thoughts and cleared your throat, are trying to tell the employee what he did well and what did bad. Often, even a simple human thank you is something that is so lacking. Personally, I prefer informal communication in an informal setting and I think that this is much more effective than formal rallies according to the regulations.

    What is desirable to do:

    1. Become an informal leader. As I said, this is very important, much more important and cooler than formal leadership. Often the informal leader has even more power and methods of influence than the formal one. 
    2. Know your employees: who is fond of what, who has some hobbies and family relationships, when someone has a birthday.
    3. Create a positive environment - this is the key to creative work. Engage in self-promotion, show everyone what cool things you do.
    4. Do not forget that your employees are primarily people with their own strengths and weaknesses.

    Well, the last instruction: talk with your employees. But remember that words must be followed by deeds. One of the most important qualities of a leader is the ability to answer for his words. Be the leader!

    What if sad Ignat is you?

    It so happened that you became a sad Ignat. You yourself began to suspect this, or colleagues and relatives said that you have changed lately. How to live on?

    The easiest and cheapest way is to leave. But the simplest does not always mean the best. After all, you won’t get away from yourself. And the fact that your brain requires changes does not always mean that it is the work that needs to be changed — the lifestyle must be changed. In addition, I know many cases where leaving did only worse. In fairness, I must say that the reverse cases are also known to me.

    If you still decide to leave the company, do it as an adult. Hand over the case. Break up well. There is an opinion that it is easier for companies to part with burned out employees than to somehow work with burnout. It seems to me that this came from the days of the USSR, when burnout was observed mainly in professions whose representatives work with people: doctors, teachers, cashiers, etc. Probably, then it was really easier with this, because there were no irreplaceable ones. But now, when companies are fighting for talented employees and are ready to offer a bunch of benefits, if only they would go to them, losing good specialists is unreasonably expensive. Therefore, I assure you, it is beneficial for a normal company not to leave. And if it’s easier for the employer to part with you, then your fears about the “goodness” of the company are correct and you need to leave it without regrets.

    Decided to try to fight with burnout? I have news for you, both good and bad. The bad news is that your main enemy who drove you into this state is you yourself. But the good thing is that your main friend, who is able to pull you out of this state, is also you yourself. Remember that your brain directly screams that life needs to be changed? So let's do it.

    1. Talk to your supervisor

    An open dialogue is the key to solving any problems. If you do nothing, then nothing will change. And if you show the leader this article, it will be even easier.

    2. Focus on what brings joy

    First of all, in my personal life, outside the office. No one except yourself knows what is good for you and what is bad. Do more things that make you happy, and get rid of things that make you sad. Do not read the news, remove politics from your life. Watch your favorite movies, listen to your favorite music. Go to places you like: to the park, to the theater, to the club. Add to your calendar the task “To do something pleasant for yourself beloved” (for every day!).

    3. Rest

    Go on vacation. Set a reminder on your phone, smartwatch, or computer to take regular breaks throughout the day. Just go to the window and stare at the raven. Give your brain and eyes a break. 

    • Training our abilities - physical or mental - is to do as much as you can and a little more. But then you must definitely rest - the only way progress is possible. Without rest, stress does not train you, but kills you.
    • The rule works very well: left the office - forget about work!

    4. Change your habits

    Take a walk in the fresh air. Walk the last stop to your home and office on foot. Pour over cold water. Stop smoking. Change the habits that you have already formed: your brain wants it!

    5. Get your daily routine

    So it will be easier to control and stimulate change. Get enough sleep: biorhythms are important. Go to bed and get up at the same time (you will be surprised to find that you get enough sleep better than if you play in the clubs until morning, and then go to work).

    6. Go in for sports

    Since childhood we have been familiar with the phrase “in a healthy body - a healthy mind”, which is probably why we do not pay enough attention to this. But this is true: physical health is very much interconnected with mental. Therefore, sports are important and necessary. Start small: spend five minutes in the morning to charge. 

    1. Pull up on the horizontal bar three times, gradually go up to five times. 
    2. Start running for 15 minutes in the morning.
    3. Sign up for yoga or swimming.
    4. Just do not set a goal to run a marathon or become an Olympic champion. You will surely fill it up and leave it. Start small.

    7. Make a to-do list.

    This gives excellent results - starting from the fact that you don’t forget anything, ending with the fact that the feeling that you are tired like a dog, although you don’t seem to have done anything, will disappear.

    • Checkboxing calms on its own. A person in a state of burnout seeks stability. Seeing a to-do list in front of you and gradually marking them as done is very motivating.
    • Just start small again: a list that is too long with too large tasks will make you doubt your own abilities and quit what you started.

    8. Find a hobby

    Remember what you wanted to try as a child, but did not have time. Engage in drawing, music, wood burning or cross-stitching. Learn to cook. Go hunting or fishing: who knows, maybe these activities will appeal to you.

    9. Work with your hands

    Clean the apartment. Sweep in the porch. Collect trash in the playground. Repair a cabinet door that has been hanging for a long time. Cut firewood to the neighbor's grandmother, dig a garden in the country. Make a flowerbed in the yard. Feel tired, and then get enough sleep: your head will be empty (no negative thoughts!) And you will find that, along with physical fatigue, the psychological one has gone too.

    The stick and carrot method, which I recommended to managers, is called stick and carrot in English literature. The meaning is the same: reward for correct behavior and punishment for wrong. 

    This method has one big drawback: it does not work well when there is no trainer nearby. And in the absence of regular training, all acquired skills gradually disappear. But the beauty is that this method can be applied to oneself. This can be perceived as follows: a reasonable System 2 trains the unreasonable System 1. It really works: reward yourself for doing what was planned.

    For example, when I started going to the gym, I really did not want to get up in the morning and go to carry pieces of iron. I think this is familiar to many. So, I myself set a condition: I’m going to the gym, and then I will allow myself to go to the bathhouse. And I really like the bathhouse. I’m used to it: now it drives me to go to the gym even without a bath.

    If everything that I listed seems to you an impossible task and you don’t have the desire to at least try, then you need to see a doctor immediately. Your condition has probably gone too far. Just keep in mind that the doctor will not give you a magic pill that instantly makes you feel good. Even in this case, you have to work yourself.

    For the future: learn to say no and listen to what others say. Remember that cognitive distortions often prevent us from seeing the real picture of the world, just like everyone else. Forget about your hyperresponsibility and your perfectionism. Remember that you do not owe anything to anyone. But nobody owes you anything either.

    By no means do I urge you to go into all seriousness right now and start making game. The fact is that doing what you want is not the same as doing what you do not want. Just the next time you do something that you don’t like, think: how did you get into this situation? 

    Maybe at some point it was necessary to say no? 

    Maybe you are trying to bring the problem to some ideal solution, which is ideal only for you, in the name of some ideals that you created for yourself? 

    Maybe you do it because you “must” and because everyone does it? In general, beware of the word "must." Who should? Why should? Very often, someone manipulates this word. Go to the animal shelter. You are simply stunned by the realization that someone can simply love you. Not for doing cool projects. Not because you manage to do them on time. And just because you are you.

    Sad Ignat is closer than it sounds

    You may have a question: where did you get all this, such a business?

    I’ll tell you: this is my experience. This is the experience of my colleagues, my subordinates and my leaders. These are mistakes and achievements that I myself have seen. And the solutions that I propose really work and were used in different situations in different proportions.

    Unfortunately, when I encountered such a problem, I did not have such detailed instructions as you have now. Probably, if I had it, I would have made far fewer mistakes. Therefore, I really hope that this instruction helps you not to step on this rake.

    Dear Ignat! 

    We have come to the end of the story, and I want to appeal to you personally. 

    Remember that this is your life. You and only you can improve it. You yourself are the master of your emotional state.

    The next time they tell you: “Smile!” What are you doing? Still good! ”, Do not be upset and do not reproach yourself for the fact that you are not having fun.

    Only you can decide when you are sad, and when - to smile.

    Take care of yourself!

    Books and authors that I mentioned in the article:

    1. Karen Pryor "Do not growl at the dog!". 
    2. Daniel Kahneman "Think slowly ... decide fast."
    3. Maxim Dorofeev "Jedi Techniques."

    More books to read:

    1. V. P. Sheinov “The Art of Persuading”.
    2. D. Goleman "Emotional Intelligence."
    3. P. Lensioni "Three signs of dull work."
    4. E. Schmidt, D. Rosenberg, A. Eagle "How Google Works."
    5. А. Бек, А. Раш, Б. Шо, Г. Эмери «Когнитивная терапия депрессии».
    6. А. Бек, А. Фримен «Когнитивная психотерапия расстройств личности».

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