Burnout as a Relational Problem

Burnout is a state of long stress that leads to energy loss, demotivation and sometimes health decline. Common solutions are therapy or coaching, mindfulness practices like breathwork and meditation, and searching for your own meaning, energy or motivation.
However, individual signs of burnout, especially when they are common in a company, are usually symptoms of a deeper issue. And the actual problem is unhealthy relationships in the company.

The Relational Organizational Gestalt approach views a person not only as an independent human being but also as a part of a broader context and relationships with other people. We cannot solve a problem of an employee or a manager without analyzing their interactions with others.

This article focuses on analyzing burnout in a company. It is an essential first step in working on the issue because it helps to understand the reasons for burnout.

A company can take matters in its own hands or hire an external consultant who will identify burnout. Both decisions have their pros and cons. For example, external consultants may be more trustworthy because of their expertise but their services are expensive.
Internal team knows the company’s background and the details of the work environment. But getting an outside perspective can be difficult in this case.

Analyzing a Problem, Not a Symptom
How do employees interact in the company?
Comprehensive analysis of burnout in a company includes answering the following questions.
How can people identify their own burnout? What do their managers notice?
What type of communication causes stress and when?
What happens when someone asks for support? How does the company react?
At what point do employees face unbearable challenges and start to need support?
In other words, it is important to spot a moment when relationships become dysfunctional and employees face unbearable stress, and the moment when the company begins to turn a blind eye to that.

A lot of surveys help understand the problem, and they usually indicate specific behaviors that are already implied in the surveys.

Quantitative studies help understand the scale of the problem but they are generally unsuitable for solving it because they do not address the real issue and do not reflect hidden and unspoken dynamics in companies.

Analyzing dysfunctional dynamics within a company is like looking at an iceberg. There is a visible part and a hidden underwater part. The visible part is what people realize and talk about. And the hidden part is something they do not realize or discuss but it can be sensed.

That is why I prefer to work with people and groups first and explore their burnout or other communication problems "from scratch". And then I narrow it down with surveys if necessary.

The visible part includes client requests, expectations from a coaching group, and everything people say during sessions and discuss with their coworkers.

The hidden part is much harder to identify. For example, I notice how my client builds a relationship with me as a contractor. I can sense unspoken expectations before sessions and observe how my client’s team members behave, not just what they say. Consultants aim to conduct a rational analysis and to trust their feelings and pay attention to the invisible as well. I will provide an example.

Relationship with a Consultant

In my opinion, any communication with a company can show the moment when interactions become dysfunctional. We notice it when we talk to that certain "toxic manager" or when we provide services to the company.

My initial goal is to observe how my client interacts with me. After that I analyze the situation through the eyes of employees.

I had a case where I worked on burnout in a company. After I sent the commercial proposal my client reduced the scope of services citing budget cutting and time constraints. We started to work and the company hired another consultant to work on the same issue at the same time. I was not informed. I found out about another consultant by chance. The client explained that they wanted to try different approaches and to compare effectiveness.

That situation can represent a pattern of interaction within the company. They treated me as an "approach", not as a person, and deliberately created a competitive environment for two providers while concealing some information.
My motivation to work with that company drastically decreased right from the start. In consulting an approach is not as important as partnership.
I discussed the situation and expressed my feelings in a confidential conversation with my client. Together we concluded that was a common pattern in the company: having no time to clarify tasks, wanting results faster but refusing to take responsibility in completing those tasks.
Thus, consultants serve as a mirror for companies and help reveal dysfunctional aspects.
Analyzing Burnout Through the Experience of People Struggling with It: a Phenomenological Inquiry
In support groups dedicated to burnout I ask people to describe their state using metaphors.
Here are some of the metaphors.
— "Burnout feels like invisibility and objectification."
— "I feel like a faucet handle. People twist it and turn on the water when they need it."
— "Complete numbness, as if my body becomes less perceptive."
— "It's like sleep paralysis."
— "I used to be a shining star that exchanged energy with others. Then something happened, and the star started to shrink furiously. First it became a small angry dwarf, then a black hole consuming the space around."
— "Intense irritation that comes to the surface. I pour all my anger on my family at home."
— "Constantly running somewhere and wanting to stop time, even for a moment."
In specialized literature three primary stress responses are described as fight, flight and freeze. All of them can be traced in those metaphors. "Fight" is aggression, including auto-aggression. "Flight" is withdrawal and distancing from communication. "Freeze" is feeling numb.

Those are reactions to different forms of stress, both to a strong stress episode and to chronic stress that becomes unbearable in the long term.

Metaphors and describing experiences without labels give more information and context, and help go beyond the confines of an individualistic model.
Ask about sensations
Step 1.

Step 2.

The next task is to identify what exactly causes stress and loss of safety and autonomy for employees. We can ask about people and situations that trigger those feelings.
These questions help identify a figure or a context that causes tension. The important thing here is to avoid playing the blame game. Our goal is to explore how both sides contribute to the problem.
If you want to know more about how internal relationships in the workplace get tense and why employees do not talk about their problems, read my article on complex psychological climates.
Understand the context and interactions where those feelings arise
Co-Diagnosing with Company Managers
As a rule, middle management and top-level executives have a holistic view on situations. That is why we can analyze problems together, individually or in groups. We usually have several meetings and discuss the following questions.
  • What does burnout look like in their team?
  • In what context does it happen?
  • How do they adapt to the situation?
  • What management style do they choose to solve the problem?
When working with managers it is important to remember that a management style depends both on a person and a context. We meet to solve a problem together, not to place blame.
Where to Start?
Spot the problem and take responsibility.
Most likely, we can not get rid of burnout by training employees to deal with it. Burnout needs to be addressed comprehensively.
This is the first step in any change. Unfortunately, people often refuse to take this step. It takes a lot of honest communication to see how all employees contribute to the problem. This communication is impossible in some types of workplace culture.
Maintain a support system in the company.
Work on systemic issues.
Develop management skills.
Create forms of supportive communication: training programs, group or individual coaching, communities, etc.
It is important to identify inherent conflicts. For example, in modern companies with matrix structures there are many potential conflicts of interest. It can result in overworking and overloading certain functions. Companies need to think about policies and tools that will create a culture of caring communication.
All managers have their own qualities, management style and adaptation patterns. They bring them all to companies. Managers should learn to notice the deteriorating psychological climate in their team and react to that. They should know how to solve problems with certain employees and with their team in general.