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Managing Worker Burnout with Personality

April 20, 2020
Low levels of resilience not only predispose individuals to burnout; they also point to serious potential safety concerns

Burnout has been the subject of much discussion lately because of the widespread and profound impacts it’s having on employees globally. 

By examining characteristics of over 2,000 employees across industries, we found that certain types of individuals are more prone to burnout than others.

We uncovered six personas when we categorized people based on their resilience and agility levels, and found that two—the Soulful Sufferers and the Strivers—are more prone to burnout than the rest. What these two personas share is that they have low levels of resilience, which is the ability to rebound productively in challenging situations.

The six personas are:

Soulful Sufferers. These are among the most fragile employees – caring people who are struggling to be adaptive, and worrying about relationships and work. Their low resilience and agility causes them to be frequently absent (13 sick days a year). Seventy percent of Soulful Sufferers report a high sense of pressure and they face a 49% risk of depression and anxiety.

Checked OutThese workers are just going through the motions in life and work. 88% report having no empathy and 60% have low problem-solving skills. Checked Out respondents are highly stressed about work and money and 23% of them are managers.

Status Quos. This group doesn’t extend a great deal of effort to learn, adapt to new people or improve wellbeing. They like it the way things are, and have no desire to change. 63% report a low connection to work and 94% do not enjoy finding and solving everyday challenges. 

Strivers. This group has high agility but low resilience, which puts them at the highest risk for burnout. Strivers have a growth mindset, which means they are brimming with untapped potential but their low resilience gives them a 27% increased risk of depression and a 54% increased risk of anxiety. 66% reported experiencing more negative than positive emotions. 

Stretched Superstars. These employees possess positivity, self-confidence, focus, problem-solving skills, and empathy, which make them feel like they can do it all. However, the vast majority of Stretched Superstars report time and work conflicts, which drag on their full potential. 

Change Masters possess a combination of high adaptivity and strong resilience skills, which help prevent burnout. They have the cool, calm and collected attitude to manage stress and challenges, while still embracing innovation and delivering high performance. 75% of Change Masters see purpose in their work and 91% report strong problem-solving skills.

Low levels of resilience not only predispose individuals to burnout; they also point to serious potential safety concerns, due to elevated levels of stress and increased sleep problems in low-resilience individuals.

In meQuilibriums’s database, which includes more than 30,000 manufacturing employees, half or more indicate that they experience high levels of stress related to work, family, finances, family and health. These individuals are also more likely to have low resilience levels, which keep them from managing their stress more effectively.

High levels of stress can cause narrowing of attention and reduce working memory capacity, which can reduce performance accuracy. Work stressors have been linked to unsafe behaviors, accidents and injuries.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of a workplace accident by 70%. The effects of fatigue have often been compared to the effects of alcohol, resulting in impaired judgment and poor performance.

Burnout, stress, and sleep are closely entangled issues, all impacting performance, safety, health, and turnover.

How do the personas help us understand burnout risk?

Understanding how different people manage stress can help leaders to think about how to prevent and potentially reverse burnout.

1. Learn from the best: The personas in our study who are least at risk for burnout are the Change Masters and the Stretched Superstars, who are highly resilient.

  • Stretched Superstars have learned self-confidence, problem solving, focus, and positivity. These skills support their resilience. They can move quickly from a reactive stress state to one that is more rational and productive. Less time spent being stressed out means lower likelihood of burning out.
  • Change Masters have developed strong problem-solving skills, good social networks, and have a sense of purpose. These attributes support them to manage stress effectively and forge ahead through tough times without crumbling.

 2. Support those at risk:  Strivers and Soulful Sufferers are at high risk for burnout because they do not have the skill to rebound from disruptions.

  • Soulful Sufferers are highly caring people who play important roles in our organizations, but need some support to gain fortitude. When they learn to manage emotions and recognize their own thinking errors they have the potential to become great leaders.  
  •  Strivers seek advancement and are willing to work hard, but lack the skill to manage through difficulties effectively. Their ambition is coupled with anxiety and they don’t manage stress well. They will benefit from learning to recognize and manage their emotions, to focus, and to increase their positivity. 

Steps to support all employees:

  • Train for key skills: The good news is that resilience, coping skills, confidence, and problem solving can be learned. We can train our minds to be more resilient and strengthen the pathways between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex enabling faster, more efficient movement out of stress and into productive rational problem-solving thought. These skills improve with practice.
  • Create a sleep-positive culture by keeping schedules as consistent as possible and encouraging employees to check out of work during non-work hours. This behavior should be modeled by leaders. 

Gaining resilience, and thus reducing stress, improving sleep, and boosting focus and problem-solving skills, are fundamental to improving productivity and safety and preventing burnout. When employers support employees to improve their resilience, they safeguard both the business and employees’ well being.

Lucy English, Ph.D., is vice president of research of meQuilibrium. Lucy has 15 years’ experience helping major employers create people strategies to meet business goals and become employers of choice. She conducts research on how to best support employees to be successful at work and in life outside of work. She serves as an advisor on human capital management strategy across industries with major national and multi-national employers.        

About the Author

Lucy English

Lucy English, Ph.D., is vice president of research of meQuilibrium. Lucy has 15 years’ experience helping major employers create people strategies to meet business goals and become employers of choice. She conducts research on how to best support employees to be successful at work and in life outside of work. She serves as an advisor on human capital management strategy across industries with major national and multi-national employers.    

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