Burnout prevention: deceleration through belonging
Work-related stress and exhaustion symptoms increase: from 2014 to 2018, the number of cases of incapacity to work due to burnout rose by more than 10% (Statista, 2019). Many employees would like to see a slowdown in the world of work. But what has led to the increase in burnout?
Working time and work intensity as work demands
According to the German Federal Statistical Office (w.d.), full-time workers worked an average of 41 hours a week in 2018. In 1991 it was 41.4 hours. The pure working time has therefore not increased.
The intensity of work does not seem to have increased either, as the results of the employment surveys by the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2018) from 2006, 2012 and 2018 have shown. In these surveys, work intensity was measured by five conditions, such as “deadline or performance pressure” or “working fast”. With the exception of one condition (“simultaneous supervision of different tasks”), the perceived work intensity has even decreased. At the same time, the proportion of employees in Germany who feel burdened by a high work intensity has increased. In 2006, 43% of employees stated that they felt burdened by working very quickly. In 2018, this share rose to 51%. But where does the increasing feeling of strain come from?
Work resources as protective factors against burnout
In industrial psychology research, work resources are examined in addition to work demands. Work resources are understood to be aspects of work that can contribute to the motivation and willingness to learn and thus to the personal growth of individuals (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001). Additionally, work resources have a buffer effect: negative health effects of work demands can also be mitigated (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). One of the most frequently confirmed work resources is social support (e.g. Gorgievski, Halbesleben & Bakker, 2011). Many studies have shown that people who feel supported by their colleagues and superiors and who generally rate cooperation and working atmosphere positively have lower burnout levels (e.g. Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). To feel socially supported you need a sense of belonging – to an organisation, a team and a superior.
Belonging in an agile working environment
In times when there are more and more people living alone, separated, divorced or moving to a new city for work, the workplace may once again be the place where people come into contact with each other, build binding relationships and feel belonging. Factors such as globalization and digitalization have changed the world of work and its requirements. Social interactions at work increasingly take place virtually and across national borders. Employees in “agile” organizations should work in regularly changing, interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams, flexibly and constantly adapting to changing requirements (Gloger & Margetich, 2018).
The question is whether a sense of belonging can still arise with this degree of agility that the world of work requires. But what does belonging mean?
The psychoanalysis of belonging
According to Freud, one’s own expectations, desires and emotions that are related to previous relationship experiences appear in all human relationships (Freud, 1910). This so-called “transference” also occurs in the workplace, with superiors and colleagues. In intersubjective concepts it is assumed that individual transferences can be embedded in a so-called “intersubjective matrix”. The psychoanalyst Daniel Stern (2004) defines this as an “area of feelings, thoughts and knowledge that two (or more) people share regarding their current relationship”. Thus, when two or more individuals meet, they create an intersubjective matrix in which their own feelings and thoughts meet and common, relationship-relevant aspects are anchored. According to Stern, the formation of such an intersubjective matrix strengthens the cohesion within an (externally formed) group and regulates the psychological sense of belonging. But what function does this sense of belonging fulfil for us humans? As infants we develop a sense of self-coherence through interaction with primary caregivers. To maintain this feeling, however, we rely on interactive support throughout our lives: even in adulthood we need the other person and belonging to a group in order to shape ourselves and experience ourselves as coherent. According to Stolorow and Atwood (1992) this means that “our self-esteem, our personal sense of identity” depends on “specific supportive relationships with the human environment”. Our colleagues, with whom we are in daily contact, with whom we share the work environment and the feelings and thoughts associated with it, are important for our self-esteem and identity and thus protect us from stress and exhaustion. This can be done through small contacts between colleagues and also superiors, such as a few reassuring words from a colleague after a negative feedback from the superior or an encouragement from the supervisor before an important customer meeting. All these little interactions with caregivers in the workplace strengthen our self-esteem and give us a sense of belonging and therefore also identity. If employees do not feel that they belong and are held by their team, this can lead to a feeling of alienation: those affected feel alienated from themselves and from their social environment at work. This often leads to stress symptoms. In burnout syndrome, alienation can be assigned to the criterion of depersonalization (Maslach, 1982).
What can you do as a manager?
The changing working conditions also require managers to rethink. Employees must be protected from increasing stress and exhaustion symptoms. Work resources, such as social support, play a decisive role in this. Frequently changing team and role constellations can lead to a loss of a sense of belonging – and thus the stress-buffering effect of social support. An important measure here can be the promotion of cohesion in the core team through joint events or regular exchange platforms. As a manager, it is also very important to stay in contact with each and every employee and to be available as a contact person and feedback provider.
If you are a manager looking for support in an agile work environment, please contact us. We also coach (currently) in video contact and on the phone.
Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Leonie Derwahl
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Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (BAuA): „Zeitdruck und Co – Wird Arbeiten immer intensiver und belastender?“, unter: https://www.baua.de/DE/Angebote/Publikationen/Fakten/BIBB-BAuA-26.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=7 (abgerufen am 23.04.2020).
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Statistisches Bundesamt (o.D.): „Wöchentliche Arbeitszeit“, unter: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Arbeit/Arbeitsmarkt/Qualitaet-Arbeit/Dimension-3/woechentliche-arbeitszeitl.html (abgerufen am 22.04.2020).
Statista (2019): „Arbeitsunfähigkeitsfälle aufgrund von Burn-out-Erkrankungen in Deutschland in den Jahren 2004 bis 2018“, unter: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/239872/umfrage/arbeitsunfaehigkeitsfaelle-aufgrund-von-burn-out-erkrankungen/ (abgerufen am 22.04.2020).
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