During International Coaching Week 2022, the ICF South Africa Charter Chapter hosted a panel of Professional Certified Credentialed (PCC) coaches to share their learnings from working with coaching clients and organisations around the topic of stress and burning out. Much of what they offered can be applied by HR practitioners, leaders and managers, and internal coaches.
Panel Chair Joy-Marie Lawrence (ICF-PCC) opened with a story known to many – the fable of the frog failing to notice the increasing temperature and slowly being boiled alive. If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out. However, if the same frog is put into tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not notice the danger it is in. It will not attempt to save itself.
What are the implications?
Workplaces can be relentless in their demands of people’s time and meeting deliverables. The hybrid workplace – some days at the office and some days at home – has added additional mental and physical strain. Organisations depend on high performance from their employees and seem slow to respond to signs of burning out. “Workplace stress then is the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands. In general, the combination of high demands in a job and a low amount of control over the situation can lead to stress” (CCOH, undated).
Burning out can be a deeply traumatic experience for employees as well as their leaders and team members. Organisations cannot afford to ignore burn out and its costs, to the individual, team and the organisation Organisations need to ask: “Is the systemic environment – the water – contributing to employees’ ease or dis(ease)? How conducive is it to those supporting employees – leaders, managers, HR practitioners, and internal coaches?
Panellist Delphine Oliver (ICF-PCC) reflected: “As humans on this planet earth, we are all embedded in a natural system. This natural system can experience stress and repair itself. However, if the stress on the system exceeds its innate capacity to repair itself, the functioning of the system is compromised.” An easy way to remember this principal is wear–repair or tear. Stress is normal. Repair – the system has capacity to repair itself. When repair is not allowed / supported, there will be tear. Stress on a system can be at a low grade but relentless over a long period of time. Or it can be in the form of a sudden traumatic event, or a combination of both. As every system is a holon of a bigger system this wear-repair or tear process has far reaching effects. The burnout syndrome is the body saying “no more” to meeting demands.
Debra Thurtell (ICF PCC) shared: “My passion for the caregivers in organisations, especially HR managers stems from my own personal experience with burnout, which I call drain-out! It is like trying to keep running on an empty tank. Knowing it is preventable, HR specialists are in a privileged position to make a difference in trying to prevent burn out in themselves and the people they serve. When coaching clients in and recovering from burnout, I have heard the word “responsibility” often spoken. High responsibility is a wonderful quality in an employee however when coupled with high performance, achievement, and expectations it is a potential recipe for burnout! Employees who have these qualities are at risk as high stress is increased with the added weight added of new roles and responsibilities as well as unexpected conflicts and complications in their professional and personal lives. We begin to carry too many additional, unplanned responsibilities for too long, without structural support. When the demands of the job outstrip a person’s ability to cope and repair, burning out happens.
Key tips for HR personnel
- Notice individual performance in high performing teams and consider who may be picking up the slack?
- Observe employee behaviour and consider whether their behaviour, especially unacceptable behaviour, fits with the person’s character?
- Listen to the quiet signs of “I need help”. Reliable high performers who are struggling most, may be the employees who do not ask for help and yet are struggling the most.
- How may you take care of yourself, the HR specialist in your organisation, so that you can support others?
In our HR positions we have the responsibility to ensure employee, team and organisational wellbeing. We have to weigh up the risks that ignoring chronic stress fatigue may have on the organisation. Key employees may say “I don’t care anymore” and decide to stay, but underperform or they may be so burnt out that they are laid off medically or they resign. Either way, there is no positive result, and the organisation loses key high performing employees.
Jenny Tinmouth (ICF PCC) reflected: “My interest in burnout began when I noticed motivated and effective colleagues fizzling out. They became more and more cynical, started to lack personal accomplishment, and became emotionally and physically exhausted. Burnout is a loosely used word to refer to stress, exhaustion, disaffection. It means different things to different people. The World Health Organisation (WHO’s) has categorised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, not as a medical condition (WHO, 2019). This alerts us that whilst burnout is a response to chronic stress, we cannot separate the person from the occupation. As HR practitioners, leaders, managers and coaches are not therapists nor medical practitioners, we must respond while staying within our lanes. We can do this by holding the client in a safe space, meeting them where they are at and focusing on the HOW. My approach is a co-created journey around the how’s that enable tailored self-care, as well as coping and prevention strategies, all underpinned by lashings of compassion.” Support is a critical element and needs to be customised to the individual and their environment. We can all benefit from practices that help reduce the level of stress and allow for more clarity in the moment, such as a breathing practice or slowing things down. Slowing things down is not necessarily about working slower but includes less multi-tasking, and better discernment around deliverables and timelines.
Melissa Williams-Platt (ICF PCC) shared: “In healthcare coaching, one comes across burnout due to compassion fatigue, also referred to as empathic strain. Traditionally the key difference between burnout and compassion fatigue was seen as burnout being largely resolved if you changed jobs. However, some occupations/roles inherently involve caring and hence increases the risk of burnout due to the cost of caring. Which roles in your organization carry this cost of caring? Thurrott (2021) provides key warning signs of compassion fatigue that wokplaces should be paying attention to.
Melissa offered her very personal experience of the impact and cost that cost of caring can create. For her, burnout is acutely linked to the loss of a child. Her son Sam never went outside, and he never came home from 15 months in neonatal ICU. Her lived experience was that not that the employees didn’t care, but that they just cannot sustain caring when organizational structures and factors making caring a recipe for burning out. After studying palliative medicine she realised that burnout, compassion fatigue and moral injury creates high risk environments for all. Through her work as a healthcare coach, she endeavors to support health professionals and senior management in corporates to understand the moment to moment embodied sense of what they are experiencing, and to reflect and reframe their experiences, so that they can continue working, while also caring for themselves and others.
The workplace of the future requires employees to be adaptable, to be able to learn, unlearn and relearn new ways of working and living. Looking for a resource? Visit – https://thoughtleadership.org/with-hybrid-work-community-remains-key/
Attuning employees to practise self-observation methods can support them in noticing the signs of burnout, in themselves and fellow employees. Erin Hanson’s poem “The girl who didn’t stop” urges us to notice when employees are so busy human doing, human moving and human seeing and asks of us to support them to relearn how be a human being. “To recharge ourselves, we need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviours and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances we’re facing” (Schwartz and McCarthy, 2007).
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (undated) Workplace stress fact sheet. https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/stress.html
- Hanson, Erin (2018) The girl who didn’t stop. https://www.facebook.com/e.h.thepoeticunderground/photos/a.1887095274895820/2032209993717680/?type=3
- Schwartz, T and McCarthy, C (2007) Manage your energy, not your time. Harvard Business Review.
- Thurrott, S (2021) Watch for these key warning signs of compassion fatigue.
- Wikipedia – The Boiling frog – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog
- World Health Organisation (2019) Burn-out an occupational phenomenon: International classification of diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
All panellists/authors are ICF -PCC credential holders resident in South Africa.
- Joy-Marie Lawrence Chartered Director (SA) ICF (PCC) Executive MBA(with distinction), Masters of Law, LLB, BA Board Coach. https://www.linkedin.com/in/joymarielawrence/
- Delphine Oliver ICF (PCC) MPhil. sports physiotherapy (UCT), MSc. Med (ex.sci.), Dip.IPCP
- Integral Coach – https://www.linkedin.com/in/delphineoliver/
- Debra Thurtell is an ICF (PCC) Certified Solutions Focus Coach –https://www.linkedin.com/in/debra-ann-thurtell-a7458911/
- Melissa Williams-Platt BA Industrial sociology, PGDip in Palliative Medicine, Trauma Counselling, ICF (PCC), 5 Lens Practitioner, Palliative Coach – https://www.linkedin.com/in/melissawilliamsplatt/
- Jenny Tinmouth NBC-HWC; BA Health Science and Social Services, ICF (PCC), Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Certified Integral Coach – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenny-tinmouth/
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