Research Paper By Sahra Benseghir
(Career Coach, SWITZERLAND)
The idea of burnout at work has been with us for decades. In the early 2000s, the Burn-out syndrome has been identified as the 4th most dangerous health threats. Since then, numbers of researches have proven that people exposed to risks of Burnout could prevent the syndrome by applying many strategies of copying (e.g facing realities, taking actions, etc…).
After sometimes, the concept of Bore-out appears, which is by definition, “the fact to get so fewer tasks to do” that the worker/ person doesn’t fill fulfilled with enough tasks which lead to a feeling of getting bored, and inevitably ending to the feeling of being useless. This syndrome can be resolved with an approach of multi-tasking or having something new like lifelong learning or physical activity.
More recently, a sort of sibling emerged: the Brown-out. The Brown-out is characterized by the fact of not seeing any sense, any purpose in what we work for. This syndrome is typically present in workplaces and staff affected by brownout become disengaged, demotivated, and lose interest in their jobs.
And no matter if they work more or less, if they have a good life balance, this doesn’t change or cure this “brown vision”. And without vision, there is no meaning to what we do, no energy added to commitment, no commitment to actions, no actions with fulfillment, no fire anymore… no… purpose. And then, comes “this feeling of waking up every morning… but what for?” Where is this fire that we used to have at the early ages of our career? Or even when was the last time we felt excited about doing our job? When is the last time we’ve felt satisfaction, energized? Fire lights the darkness,
In parallel, coaching is more and more emerging as a short term efficient solution for people wanting a change.
What is the Brown-Out?
Where does the phrase “Brown-out’ come from, you may ask?
It is more commonly used in the field of electricity, to refer to a voluntary or involuntary drop of voltage, the purpose of which is to avoid overheating. In the corporate world, brown-out similarly refers to a drop in motivation and lack of interest as a consequence of employees’ inability to find meaning in their job. Most people have either experienced or heard of the term “burnout” at least once during their working life, but in recent years, the Brown-out seems to be THE actual work-related stress which has been recognized by coaches and business psychologists alike.
It often starts when the co-worker’s values are offended/ transgressed or when they are not valued as they feel they should.
Brown-out is a syndrome that affects many co-workers. According to a study published by Corporate Balance Concepts, 40% of American managers were found to be suffering from Brown-out. Furthermore, Deloitte conducted a study in December 2017(1), which revealed that in France, more than one in two employees (55%) believe that, over time, less meaning is to be found at work.
Brown-out is not to be confused with bore-out, which is the product of boredom at work as the result of an insufficient workload. Brown-out, on the other hand, refers to the feeling that your work is devoid of meaning, and leads the sufferer to express their dissatisfaction in the form of weariness and insolence. The victim produces work with no concern for quality, having checked out mentally. According to American anthropologist David Graeber, those affected the most tend to be upper management, CEOs, and business attorneys.
Which population is at most risk? What solutions do exist already? How efficient they are? What coaching can do? How coaching can prevent and cure Brownout?
How does Brown-out manifest?
Brown-out manifests through certain behaviors and feelings:
- The sufferer’s work is not stimulating them mentally. They find their tasks pointless.
- They feel like their workload is ever-increasing.
- The subject has ceased to make important decisions for themselves and has stopped paying attention to their career.
- In meetings, the risk of speaking up will outweigh the perceived benefits, and their contributions will be minimal.
- They check their emails as soon as they wake up and before going to bed and have trouble disconnecting from work.
- They are suffering mentally. They have trouble sleeping, eat very little, and get little to no exercise.
- They have lost their sense of humor, and have become aggressive and bitter.
- They have become closed off from their family and friends.
Why is brownout problematic for employers?
Even though brownout is not considered as serious as burnout, it is much more prevalent in the workplace. In a survey conducted by the U.S. coaching firm Corporate Balance Concepts, an estimated 5 percent of 1,000 executives suffered from burnout, while 40 percent suffered from brownout (2).
Unlike burnout, which is a sudden state of temporary exhaustion, a brownout can have long-term lasting effects on a person’s professional and personal life. The main reason why brownout is so problematic is that workers afflicted by it are not in an “obvious crisis,” meaning that it is not always noticeable to the naked eye that your employees are in this overwhelmed and disengaged state. As a consequence, many employers are shocked when their top performers abruptly resign and jump ship to a new employer.
However, brownout does not solely affect employees. Leaders who are suffering from brownout can be incredibly toxic for the work environment, often negatively infiltrating the company culture by ignoring new ideas, not supporting new talent, or by generally becoming withdrawn from their role. Many companies are taking action to improve well-being at work, for instance, through the appointment of a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer), the possibility of bringing your pet to work, many after-work drinks, and/or professional seminars. However, these actions, on their own, are not sufficient to boost employee commitment. How can coaching prevent brownout and retain their top talent?
How to prevent Brown-out?
HR managers and professionals must open a line of communication with the person suffering from brown-out, as soon as they notice the warning signs. The dialogue must be motivational, and those intervening must never belittle the employee.
The latter must feel listened to, and the aim is to work towards a solution together.
Possible solutions designed to imbue the employee with newfound energy can be to give them new projects, invite them to take a few days off, to take on a new position at the company, or to lighten their workload. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, if they have truly lost all motivation and sense of purpose, they will tend to decline your offers and tender their resignation shortly after, having lost their will to work for your company.
This is why anticipation is key, as are proactive forms of management encouraging active listening and openness to discussion. Performance reviews not only facilitate open dialogue, they are a management tool capable of detecting discrepancies between employee expectations and the reality of their job.
Flat battery, insomnia problems, inability to “switch off” from work in the evening or on weekends: burn-out. Watch the time go by, make coffee breaks last, browse the Internet without any specific purpose, etc. bore-out. Looking for meaning, the absurdity of certain daily tasks, misunderstanding of corporate culture: brown-out.
It is very much in the company’s interest to listen to its team and quickly identify these signs of unhappiness. Why not ask them for regular feedback on the general company atmosphere?
Cultivating a culture of belonging: To establish this sense of belonging in the employee and to make them feel proud to work within the company, SMART goals must be defined over time. Even if it is primarily the responsibility of Senior Management, corporate culture is influenced by the entire management structure, which is responsible for implementing the actions carried out to foster a feeling of belonging.
Displaying recognition for a job well done is also a valuable tool to help employees maintain their motivation. The manager must, therefore, value the efforts and investment of any employee.
Emphasize independence but establish a framework: To maximize their performance, employees need benchmarks, a pre-established framework that clarifies the company’s values. These rules can take the form of internal rules, an internal newsletter, or a guide to good practice.
While the agency can be a factor of well-being and growth for many, for others it can quickly become a cause of stress and discomfort. Autonomy, therefore, depends on the degree of each person’s maturity in their profession and their ability to withstand pressure.
It is therefore essential for managers to identify and adapt to the needs of each of their employees, as to anticipate any signs of boredom (bore-out) or overwork (burn-out).
How coaching can prevent Brown-Out?
Individual support through coaching and assessments (e.g Strengths Finders or VIA Character) must be put in place to create the ideal combination between employees’ aspirations, personality, job, and corporate culture. Each individual aspires to his or her quest for meaning: one will believe that altruism is an essential value in corporate culture, whilst another will focus more on a results culture.
Ultimately, what needs to be addressed is to find a purpose again and recharge the battery with powerful energy. For this, this is important in coaching to explore the client’s visions and to confront them with their reality. As coaches, we should first question and point out the signs of unhappiness and initiate an exploration through “how the client feels and lives the situation?” and “who is the client in this situation”. In a nutshell, reconnecting the clients with their authentic selves is the meaning given to all the actions they might undertake in the workplace. This is what makes employees want to get up in the morning and customers’ trust in the company.
The clients must get aware that they own every part of what happened and what will happen in their career. In the end, they are responsible for their fate and have always had a choice. Not making a choice is also a choice!
All the studies lead to the same conclusion: workers are changing and want to give meaning to their work. To meet this challenge, the best solution remains the most obvious: helping the clients in detecting initial symptoms of anxiety and help them taking ownership to live and decide their careers!