Ep. 136: David Shar - Managing Burnout

David Shar, founder of Illuminate PMC and creator of the FTF Burnout-Proof Culture Model, joins Count Me In to talk about business culture and how to manage burnout. David has decades of leadership experience coupled with advanced degrees and research experience in Industrial / Organizational Psychology (Business Psychology) and is a keynote speaker, consultant, and trainer specializing in helping organizations improve their leadership and culture, combat burnout, and design meaningful work. In this episode, he helps define burnout, discusses how the global pandemic impacted business culture and individuals in the workplace, and offers insight into how everyone can manage burnout.
Continue the conversation with David!

Mitch (00:05):
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong and this is episode 136 of our series. Many would describe the global business environment over the last year and a half as rather turbulent. From accelerated growth due to technology, followed by the effects of COVID-19, burnout has become a very common theme in the workplace. David Shar, business psychology expert, and founder of Illuminate PMC joins us to talk about what businesses and people can do to avoid burnout and find real meaning in their work. Keep listening as we head over to the conversation now.

Adam (00:49):
So David, thanks so much for coming on. Burnout is a word that I've been hearing a lot lately, especially with people coming on the other side of the pandemic and coming out of their homes a little bit more, but so many people have been stuck in front of computer screens in their homes for so long. Can you just kind of talk about what is burnout?

David (01:07):
Yeah. First of all, thank you so much for having me Adam. So burnout is definitely becoming a little bit more of a popular topic. Fortunate for me, unfortunate for everyone, I guess. And it is, becoming more and more universal, especially with what everyone has gone through and were not done, like you said, as we are now leaving our homes and going back to work and, many of us will be teleworking and be on fully virtual teams, but whatever that means going on to that, and I know it's a horrible term because it's used so much, but to that new normal, we're not out of the weeds yet. This is when, we're all going to have to start to really cope with what we've gone through and burnout by definition is typically defined as having three pieces to it. The first one is this emotional exhaustion and emotional exhaustion is often misunderstood. It's not physical exhaustion, it's not mental exhaustion, but it does lead to those things and even lead to physical ailment, but it starts as emotional exhaustion. The second piece is a general cynicism of work and, that's where we start really putting up barriers between ourselves and our coworkers and our clients and if we have employees between ourselves and our employees, we have this general sense of cynicism and we separate ourselves from our work as much as possible, mentally. And then the final piece of, burnout would be a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. And what that is, is that we feel like we're turning our wheels twice as fast and getting half as much done, or we feel like we're putting in the effort, but not getting the reward and maybe that means the compensation, dollars and cents compensation, or maybe it just means the recognition or the positive feelings or whatever it is we're putting X in and we expect to get Y out and there's an imbalance there, which is either real or just perceived, but either way it will take you to the brink of burnout.

Adam (03:48):
So as you described all of those three things, I know that I've been there, I'm sure you've been there, I'm sure many of our listeners have been there. What can business leaders do to prevent that burnout?

David (04:01):
Yeah. Another great question. So, right. We've all sort of been there, especially over the past year and a half. You know, who hasn't felt extremely cynical, who hasn't felt emotionally exhausted as they're trying to learn to do their job, in a new reality and, you know, within accounting, a lot of your work could be done virtually and a lot of you may have been already working primarily virtually, but even those individuals didn't necessarily have their children at home trying to homeschool their kids, you know, at the same time, that's incredibly difficult. There are, there were incredible barriers that we made work harder. And, so there's a lot that can be done from a leadership perspective, as well as the individual's perspective. But the biggest thing that I would say from the very beginning is we need to reconnect with what it is that we do, right? Like, we need to reconnect with our proverbial why, like what is our firm all about, what is our business all about? We need to be able to reconnect with that because that's what we've gotten away from. We get so lost in the weeds and so overwhelmed and distracted that we lose sight of maybe it's the client interactions, maybe it's the mission of the organization, maybe it's a difference that we're making and suddenly instead of all of those things, it's just spreadsheets on the computer and it becomes very easy to lose sight of those other things and so we need to take away the noise and create the sense of why again, and we need to be able to do it in a way that, brings people, brings people back mentally and also gives them a sense of control in their lives again. Work during the pandemic, could have been part of the problem, or it could have been an escape from the problem, depending on how much control employees felt when they went to work or virtually signed into work. If they felt in control of their work, then when their entire lives felt out of control work was the haven where they were still in control. But if that wasn't the case, then work was just part of the problem.

Adam (06:37):
So let's dig into that, finding your why a little bit more, you know, sometimes people have very mundane jobs, when you're first starting out in accounting, you know, sometimes you just, you know, kind of crunching numbers. How are people supposed to find meaning in that work and connect with that why, if they're so far down?

David (06:55):
Yeah, it's really interesting. So my first job, my first real job was, I was a kennel worker. I wanted to be a veterinarian and, turned out that, to be a bio major pre-veterinary you needed chemistry and physics. So I'm like, nope. And ironically, I switched to the business college and the very first class I took, I'm like yes, I'm getting away from all the math and the very first class I took was accounting I. So you gotta be kidding me, but suddenly when you took moles off the end of a number and you put a dollar sign in front of it made a lot more sense to me. But yeah, so my very first job was working in these kennels and I was pre-veterinary, I wanted to be a vet and I remember one day as a young man, I was literally pooper scooping, like picking up poop from the floor of a kennel. And I was doing this, I was working on alongside a coworker and I remember looking over and seeing her face and realizing that the two of us were doing completely different jobs, the same exact tasks, but completely different things. She was picking up poop. I was, I was creating a cleaner and safer environment for these sick animals. You know, I was caring for animals while she was cleaning up poop, you know, and it was just in the mindset. It was in how we saw our jobs and when you're in accounting or any profession, you have a choice in how you see the actual why of what you do, how much you connect with that. And we typically find careers where we have some sort of role model that we look to somebody that we see that we're like, yeah that's what I want from my career. And there's usually not that much of a separation between our career and life outside of our career. We look for significance in our lives, we look for significance in our career, and that might mean something different to each of us. Maybe want to make a difference with the organizational mission. Maybe you want to be able to, you know, afford to travel around the world and work from wherever, whatever it is, you're looking for something from your work. Burnout occurs when you suddenly don't find that anymore. When you realize, oh my God, there's so much bureaucracy and interpersonal conflict, which by the way, over the pandemic working virtually it's like, how often are we distracted by the amount of commas that our coworker uses their emails, trying to figure out if they're angry or just crazy, you know, like we get into these things that distract us. So just because elements of our work are mundane, does not mean that they are trivial, right? Just because something is mundane does not make it trivial. It is only trivial if we can't connect the dots to how this ultimately affects the final user, the client, how are we helping our client in the end? Because while you may be just crunching numbers in Excel or working your way through QuickBooks or whatever you accountants do, right? To me as my accountant you're not doing that, you're helping me and my family survive and thrive through and through helping me manage by my budget and my taxes and my business. I need that. And if you can connect with that and understand the difference you're making in my life and what that advisory role means to me as your client, that's very different than just picking up poop. It's very different than just putting numbers in a spreadsheet.

Adam (11:07):
That's so true. So if we take a wider look, you know, from a leadership perspective. What signs should leaders be looking for to see, you know, are my employees going through a burnout problem?

David (11:20):
One of the leading signs of burnout would be turnover intention. There are a lot of reports coming out on turnover intention right now. Microsoft, I believe just came out with a study, a global study that suggests that 41% of employees are looking to leave their employer within the next year globally, 41%. That is an incredibly scary number. Most of the time when leaders look at intent to turnover or turnover intention numbers, they think that's a scary number because that's going to be an indicator of how many people leave. I would argue that the people who intend to turnover and then leave, those people are the least of your worries. It's the people who intend to turn over and stay that you should be really worried about. Because we know that turnover intention is related to burnout and related to both of those, is this decrease in productivity and efficiency. This increase in toxicity, right? We know that burnout is incredibly contagious and so when you see people are trying to leave the organization, but they're handcuffed to the organization maybe you're paying more than any of the competitors and you think that's a great thing because you're holding on to people, but is it a great thing if people that want to leave can't afford to leave. So we need to look at things like turnover intention. We need to look at things like increases in conflict, like people taking much longer to get back to you, you know, via email or whatever messaging services that you use to communicate with your people. Absenteeism, presenteeism, people who start not showing up, taking more sick days and also people who show up, but in body only. There's a lot of warning signs. The number one thing leaders need to do is to listen. They need to actively listen and when we go through crises, oftentimes our reaction to that, we think that we have to take action, right? And we have to do, but again part of that burnout recipe is this loss of control. It's this learned helplessness, which is also a leading precursor to depression, right? And so what that means is that our actions don't seem to have the reactions from the universe that we expect. And so we feel helpless, it's learned helplessness. So what leaders should be doing is empowering their people and listening to their people, as opposed to trying to do all the talking and the doing, you know, they really need to be taking the calls of their people right now.

Adam (14:31):
Yeah, listening seems to be that key element just for any leader, are you hearing what your people are saying? Because if you're not listening, how can you know what's going on? And how can you be productive? And if you're not listening and burnouts happening, it's ultimately affecting your bottom line, but it's also affecting people. And if the people hurting, then the business will fail.

David (14:54):
Yeah, absolutely.

Adam (14:56):
So after listening, what's the next step you take? Cause you're listening, you're seeing, okay people are burned out. What do you do after that?

David (15:02):
One of the things that you can do, which I highly recommend is to set up boundaries. One of the things that we saw over the past year and a half is that, people are really horrible at setting up their own boundaries, right? You know, I used to talk about work-life balance as something that was a myth that couldn't exist after the invention of the iPhone, right? Because, I mean you take work everywhere with you as long as your iPhone is in your pocket and you take family life and all the other outside elements with you to work as long as your iPhone is in your pocket. And so work-life balance has not been, an actual, you know, attainable thing forever. But especially when you're working from home, if you don't have barriers set up between your home life and your work life, if you don't have boundaries, then it's all going to become intertwined and there's going to be a lot of stress and eventual burnout there. What employers can do, what managers can do is don't trust your people to set up these boundaries on their own and don't trust them to do it just because you suggest that they do it, there's a big difference between, you know, policy and culture. We can tell people what the policies are, that's not what the policies actually are. How are the policies lived? You know, so we can tell people, you need to set up boundaries, but if we don't push that and not just push it, but, live it ourselves, model it by putting our cell phone aside between certain hours, et cetera, our people are not going to do that themselves and we know this because the early data coming out from the past year and a half is that people have been working extraordinarily longer hours since the pandemic started. Since they've been working from home, they've been putting in more hours, not less. And so, and later hours of working into the night. And so we need to protect our people from that. They need that time to psychologically recharge. So that is one of the many things we can do. And then beyond that, we need to show support. We know that both emotional support and also more instrumental support are extremely important. You know, being able to support people by being a sounding board for them, listening to them when they're stressed out, listen to what they have to tell you, giving them advice, but also jumping in there and helping them with their workload if they need it, helping them figure out, you know, how to balance things. All of that is incredibly important and highly correlated with burnout. If people are not getting support, they're much more likely to burnout.

Adam (18:10):
So David, I'd like to just kind of wrap up our conversation and if you could just kind of give your insight of what you think the long terms effects of this whole COVID-19, people working from home and this burnout, what long-term effects will it have on the world of work in general?

David (18:28):
Yeah. So I think that, we're already seeing it and what's being termed the great resignation that we're looking at these 41%, you know, some industries are way over that in terms of turnover intention. People are looking for change and, you know, as somebody who goes into organizations and helps produce change within organizations, I can tell you that it is a rare day that people are looking for change. Usually people will push up against change, but change came and found us and we don't want to go back to the way things used to be. And so people are looking for change in their life because they've been able to reevaluate their lives and their relationship with work over the past year and a half. And so I strongly believe that we are going to see a lot of turnover and a lot of churning with employment. Leaders need to invest in their people now and when I say invest, I mean emotionally invest in their people now. Give them a reason to come back and to be productive and to reengage with work. And what is that reason? It depends on your organizational culture and on the needs and wants of your employees and only they hold that ultimate answer. And so, again, it comes back to listening and understanding that now with so many people going virtual, you're not just competing with the firm down the road, you are competing nationally, if not internationally, because so many other firms have entered your marketplace because now they are looking to build fully virtual teams of people that can work right from your backyard. And so it's incredibly important to be investing in the well-being of our people and to reconnect with the ultimate meaning, that meaningfulness of the work that your organization does.

Closing (20:52):
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.


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Adam Larson
Adam Larson
Producer and co-host of the Count Me In podcast
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