Beating burnout at work

In her new book published by Wharton School Press, a burnout expert explores why teams hold the secret to well-being and resilience.

picture of author and book cover
Author Paula Davis provides a new framework to prevent employee burnout in her book, “Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience,” published by Wharton School Press. (Image: Wharton School Press)

Author Paula Davis provides a new framework to prevent employee burnout in her book, “Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience,” published by Wharton School Press.

Burnout has become one of the most talked about workplace topics that has only accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Davis—founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute—explores in her book a new solution to the burnout problem at work: a comprehensive approach focused on building the resilience of teams of all sizes. Davis argues that teams, and their leaders, are uniquely positioned to create the type of cultures that are needed to prevent burnout.

In “Beating Burnout at Work,” Davis shares stories about how she navigated her own burnout as a lawyer, and how that led her to study burnout and launch a business with the aim of helping organizations and their employees become more resilient.

She also discusses how teams and leaders can utilize science-backed strategies to create cultures that promote resilience and well-being and reduce burnout, and how organizations dealing with high-stress challenges can work to increase resilience in a systemic way.

What inspired you to write a book about burnout at work?

I really wanted to write it ever since I burned out during what became the last year of my law practice. It was really an event that happened that I didn’t know what it was, and really impacted me in a lot of different ways. My goal is to help busy professionals recognize the warning signs and be better equipped to understand the difference between stress and burnout. There were three big warning signs that I missed when I was going through this process.

The first one was that I was chronically physically and emotionally exhausted. And because I didn’t know what was happening at the time, I really didn’t know what to look for, but this was definitely a big one. No matter what I did on the weekends to try and recover, nothing seemed to work. I absolutely hated Sunday nights because I would stare at the clock on the wall thinking if I could just freeze time, I won’t have to go into work and become more exhausted this week because I’m not even recovered from last week and the week before.

The second big warning sign that I missed is that I was chronically cynical. People just started to really annoy me and that’s not my usual personality. I noticed that outwardly I was very professional in my interactions with others, but inwardly, there was a lot of eye-rolling going on, especially with my clients.

Lastly, I started to notice I was becoming more ineffective. I was not worried about my ability to lawyer well, but I started to lose confidence in terms of seeing a path forward for myself in the profession. Then, that led to a lot of, ‘Why bother, who cares? Why am I doing this? Am I really making an impact?’

What’s interesting is that once I finally got out of my law practice and started to research burnout, those three big warning signs that I missed are actually the three main symptoms of burnout. As soon as I realized that, I really felt compelled to help other busy professionals.

Why are teams the antidote to burnout?

As I dug into the research and continued to talk to more and more people who had experienced burnout, I started to understand that it’s really a systemic issue. It’s a complex issue that also involves how you interact with your leaders and the style of leadership that leaders in your organization bring.

Teams are little mini systems. They’re little mini cultures that exist within the larger workplace organization and they’re much more malleable. There are a lot of tools and techniques that I can teach to leaders, teams, and individuals to help them create the kind of culture that either prevents or slows down burnout. That made me really excited to start digging into that, that intersection, and realizing that it was an untapped area of review in the burnout prevention conversation.

Obviously with COVID happening, we’re all working from home, so I think the future of work is going to be some version of a blended virtual environment and a physical space work environment. Teams are going to be critical to helping organizations really manage the complexity that’s going to be happening at work going forward.

In your book, you talk about the ingredients that teams really have to focus on in order to build resilience, to build the sense of wellbeing and positive culture that can either slow down or reverse burnout.

PRIMED is the acronym that I created from reviewing research and just talking with all of the teams that I’ve worked with.

The ‘P’ is psychological safety and psychological needs. Psychological needs are autonomy, belonging, and competence. We all need to feel as though we have some sort of flexibility about our day and over our work. We need to feel like we are part of a team or part of a group that matters to us, and we feel like we belong, and we feel like we’re supported. And then competence is feeling like we’re progressing toward goals that are important to us and developing as professionals.

The ‘R’ in the PRIMED model is relationships. It is really hard to develop resilience, engagement, and wellbeing if you don’t have good relationships and a good support network.

The ‘I’ is about impact. Do you feel you are making an impact in your work? Do you feel you’re influencing the greater good or the world around you? And do you derive a sense of meaning and satisfaction from your work?

The ‘M’ is about mental strength or mindset. This is often very much an overlooked factor when it comes to creating high-performing and resilient teams and positive cultures. We have to really take a step back and think about how we think, individually, as leaders, and then collectively as teams. How are we thinking about obstacles and stressors and challenges and change? There are many great techniques to help us increase our individual and collective mental strength.

The ‘E’ is about energy. This is how you deal with stress within the team. Do you talk about stress? Do you create a sense of positive energy? When I talk to teams, this is one of the biggest areas of issue because we don’t pay attention to or recognize signs of overload with our team members. So we have to start paying attention to that.

The ‘D’ is one of my favorites. This is design. This is the area where if you, as a team realize, wow, there’s some tweaks that we need to make, or there’s some changes that we want to kind of make within the culture of our team, we can actually do that. We can re-design it. There are different ways, different strategies that teams can use to redesign how their cultures and their systems function. Collectively, this model paints a wonderful picture and multiple pathways to help teams build positive cultures and resilience.

What are the ‘tiny noticeable things’ to help with burnout?

One of the things that I realized early on was, if I was going to be talking to leaders or teams or anybody within an organization—just given how busy everybody is and the complexity, the globalization, and the fast pace of work these days—I had to really make the techniques and the tools user-friendly. I think of them as ‘TNTs’ or tiny noticeable things, meaning that they don’t take a lot of time to implement, and they are often micro-behaviors that just need to be performed more consistently. These are small strategies that individuals, leaders in teams themselves, can start to deploy that really lead to big well-being and resilience gains. One very basic example is just saying thank you more. When we are thanked, we feel really supported. Thank you is another way of saying, ‘I see you.’ It actually helps to build psychological safety or trust, and other resilience capacities in a way that we might not think about.