How Learning and Development Can Identify Burnout and Assist in Recovery

Learning and development leaders are uniquely positioned to engage in conversation about burnout and help guide others toward recovery.

Jamie Hull was in his prime in August 2007, before his life literally came crashing down. A British SAS pilot, Hull was preparing for deployment when, on a routine aviation exercise, his engine caught fire a thousand feet in the air.

While flames snaked their way into his cockpit, Hull carefully navigated his descent. Seeing he could either burn with his plane or take his chances ejecting to earth, he chose the latter. Hull remarkably leveled his plane to an altitude that allowed him to open his canopy, climb onto a wing, jump, and survive.

The hard part, believe it or not, had just begun.

63 percent of Hull’s body was burned; he was placed into a six-month, medically induced coma; he underwent over 62 operations; and when conscious, he wasn’t sure he could go on. A dream of successfully flying high had ended on the ground—the future looked bleak.

If you’ve experienced workplace burnout, you can likely relate to Hull’s story.

You were comin’ in hot for some time, propelled by vigor or determination to prove yourself. Neither of which, however, was enough to keep the plane from being pulled down by overwhelm. Maybe you ignored the symptoms of burnout—chronic stress, cynicism, decreased efficacy—or maybe you were too busy to see them. Either way, the flames grew higher and one day, you crashed. The will to work hard or become successful was up in smoke, leaving you with a searing uncertainty about what was next.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as, “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s a syndrome that’s dominating the wellbeing headlines for organizations and those who study them. Gallup’s CEO, for example, lists “worry, stress,” and “burnout” as critical talking points in his opening statement for the 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report.

Workplace burnout is prevalent; and the increased importance of wellbeing at work means employees are not afraid to talk about this syndrome. As professionals who develop and care for our talent, L&D is uniquely positioned to not only engage in conversation about burnout but help our leaders accurately identify it and guide others toward recovery.

2 Tips for Helping Leaders Identify Burnout

Tip One: Equip your L&D team and company’s management with information about burnout. Burnout can look a lot like stress or depression; it’s critical your team and managers can spot the differences for themselves and others. Ask your team to do their due diligence on the subject. Then, leverage that knowledge to deploy microlearnings which can help managers identify the telltale signs of burnout.

Do you have a smaller L&D team with limited time and resources? Partner with your insurance provider to host a learning session on identifying and avoiding burnout.

Tip Two: Create a safe space for employees to speak with their managers. Once you’ve delivered learning content, ask your managers to broach the topic of burnout in their next one-on-one or smaller team meeting.

Encouraging follow-through creates an opportunity for managers to care for their team in a more intimate setting, where others may feel more comfortable sharing about workplace stress. Furthermore, goals set by an employee to avoid burnout—setting better boundaries or taking time off—are more likely to be completed if they are shared with someone of higher status.

3 Steps to Help with Burnout Recovery

What if coworkers are already burned out and, like Jamie Hull, their next steps are equal parts confusing and painful? What role can L&D play in aiding employees in that desperate state?

Step One: Help your people reconnect with their WHY (i.e., purpose). People who are burning out often have trouble finding meaning or value in their work; they’ve been disconnected from their purpose. Professor and wellbeing expert Victor Strecher has proven that people who know their purpose and learn to live with their WHY will work with more dedicated intention. Additionally, other research has shown that working with greater purpose increases resiliency, allowing for people to recover from burnout.

At our company, we’ve created a practical module on “Discovering your WHY,” which gives our people a chance to slow down, consider what’s meaningful to them, document it, and explore how they can make their work more meaningful. If you’re unable to develop your own content, recommend a course on purpose that could help the burned-out bring their WHY to work.

Step Two: Collaborate with HR to deliver wellbeing resources to your management team. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) often provide counseling or therapy to help people experiencing burnout reach recovery.

Step Three: Ask your managers to get creative with working hours. The post-COVID world allows for more flexibility than ever, so facilitate knowledge sharing sessions or panels where successful managers can discuss what they’re doing well. How are your top leaders balancing productivity and adaptability?

One manager at our company instituted “camera-free Fridays” to help her team relax at the end of the week. Our L&D team intentionally pursues “no-meeting-Fridays,” when we can have more “heads-down” time to complete unfinished projects. Collect ideas that work for your organization and share them with your leaders.

Reigniting Hope

When asked what helped him recover from his life-altering accident, Jamie Hull credited a community of people for his rediscovery of hope. In a moment of triumphant irony, Hull was even selected to be an Olympic torchbearer in 2012. The fire had not consumed him, rather it lit another flame within that would inspire the globe.

As caretakers and developers of talent, we too can surround and support those who feel overcome by stress and burnout. These tips and steps are practical, simple ways we can remind our valuable coworkers they are not alone, linking arms with leadership to reignite hope and the spark within.

John Jordan
John Jordan is a Learning & Development Manager for Sendero Consulting; he has published several articles on human skills for their blog. He has worked in education, consulting, and L&D both in Budapest, Hungary and Dallas, Texas. Having experienced vocational burnout and recovery, John enjoys helping others overcome obstacles to wellbeing so they can flourish in who they are and what they do.