At some point, everyone faces the burdens of stress. Whether it’s caused by an increased workload or personal struggles, the potential for stress to become habitual poses risks of its own. This stress can become part of a pattern, and this is when burnout begins.  

Tellers, mortgage loan officers, CFOs, personal bankers, and every position in between have all likely dealt with burnout at some point in their career. Catching it early and mitigating its impact is ideal, but knowing how to treat it as it occurs and understanding the complexity of it can be equally as important.  

“I think too many people have this idea that the solution to burnout is variety,” said Rachel Sheerin, CPBA. “When we think about burnout at its core, burnout happens when joy begins to leave your work. It used to be that burnout happened as a result of doing too much of one thing, but that was in a different kind of world. When joy leaves your work, it becomes easier for joy to leave your life. And that is the real danger of it.” 

Managing Burnout Before It Happens 

The most impactful time to manage burnout is as soon as the symptoms begin to show. Just a few of the common signs noted were irritability, frustration, and anxiety, but Candy Allard, AVP/HR specialist at Badger Bank, Fort Atkinson, noted that signs might be less obvious, like calling in sick more frequently or being a bit more quiet than usual. 

“Always encourage employees to ask for help,” said Allard. “Make sure you’re paying attention and see if there are any noteworthy signs that an employee is acting a little abnormal. Most of them aren’t going to immediately tell you what they’re going through. Many of them choose to just work through it.” 

For those who decide to ignore their stress, HR and executive leadership are in positions to be observant and help employees facing these challenges. Kelly Heroux, president of Peshtigo National Bank, stated that a key indicator someone might be dealing with this stress is that they’re making reactive decisions rather than taking a proactive approach. As a result, these individuals will begin to lose focus on their long-term goals.  

“Aside from employees outwardly telling us, what I’ve noticed is short-term thinking rather than long-term vision,” said Heroux. “This past year has been all about thinking of the day-to-day, and now we are reaching that point where we have to reprogram our thought process and get back to thinking of that long term.” 

Heroux added that those in leadership positions play major roles in this type of rethinking, and one of the best ways they can assure overall success is by staying honest and inviting open communication. An article published in The Wall Street Journal cited a study conducted by Harvard Medical School faculty that found 96% of senior leaders claimed to have dealt with burnout at some point in their career. Few of the CEOs, however, ever admitted to anyone that they were facing this level of stress.  

“Everyone can talk about failure after the fact, but no one does until failure is in the rearview mirror,” Sheerin said. “They feel comfortable because they’ve already worked through it. We need to address our failures while we’re going through them because success doesn’t work like the American Dream. Part of progressive executive leadership today is about identifying when you’ve burned out and sharing stories about it.”  

When someone at the top acts as though everything is fine, Sheerin noted that this trickles down and that discussing the negatives while working toward the positives comes with benefits. Sharing these challenges and explaining how to best handle the situation only reminds staff that everyone is in the scenario together, everyone is human, and everyone is striving for the best possible outcome.  

“I’m sure I speak for every bank when I say we have a very open-door policy,” said Heroux. “I think communication is key and it’s important to make yourself available when someone needs to talk about these concerns and to be honest when they do. If our employees are comfortable enough to discuss it, that’s a major portion of the solution right there.”  

Identifying the Source of Burnout  

In an ideal world, the elements of stress could be spotted and resolved before they ever begin to have an actual effect. In the real world, however, dealing with burnout means finding the source of your stress.    

“You can really see personalities change from [burnout], and I’ve noticed that it tends to be those that have kids at home,” said Allard. “They’re going back and forth with whether they’re in person or virtual and if something gets shut down then it becomes a matter of this class being virtual while their other kids are in school, and it’s tough to watch the parents go through this challenge of being teachers and workers and so much more.” 

Allard noted that although she sees many parents experiencing burnout, high levels of stress affect everyone for a variety of reasons. Because of this, some of the biggest stressors might not be coming from work at all, but from the unpaid jobs that are being done outside of the office.  

“Unpaid work is something we don’t talk about nearly as much, and I think it’s one of the easier ways to burnout,” said Sheerin. “You love your family, and your kids, and your significant other, and you want what’s best for them, so you’re always willing to go that extra mile.” 

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding burnout is that you can only experience the symptoms by taking part in monotonous routines. Sheerin noted that it’s much more complex and nuanced than many believe and that people can burn out from just about anything. Heroux added that with all the tasks we take on as workers, she isn’t surprised that sources of stress are coming from more unexpected places.  

“There are a lot of distractions in everyone’s life,” said Heroux. “I don’t think we pay enough attention to how much those distractions take away from our well-being and our focus. It’s important to determine what those distractions are on an individual level, because there’s a good chance that will bring you a great amount of calm. Life can be a lot when you let it happen all at one time.”  

For Sheerin, burnout can happen in the simplest of ways, but it can have lasting effects. Since stress is often likened to difficult, constant, or tedious work that an individual is not interested in doing, I asked whether it might be possible to burn out while working on something someone truly enjoys. 

“I think that’s the only way you can burn out,” Sheerin stated. “If you're not passionate about what you’re doing, you can’t burn out. No one has ever gotten too stressed from passively working their way through life. People in these positions are either passionate about their work, their job, their team, or something that leads to an eventual burning out.”  

Other Tips to Tackle Stress 

There is no single correct way to beat burnout. The important part is that you understand when it’s happening and identify the source of it. Treating it properly will vary between individuals and could require something as small as an afternoon off or something larger like the reconsideration of a project.  

“We try to be flexible in our scheduling, which is what you have to do when school becomes virtual and parents suddenly can’t work in the same capacity that they’ve been doing,” said Allard. “This kind of flexibility is going to be crucial as we look at our work moving forward.” 

Along with checking in with employees, Allard has found success in encouraging mental health by advertising an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to staff. This voluntary, work-based program offers resources such as short-term counseling, free and confidential assessments, and follow-up services for employees facing work-related or personal problems. Reminding employees of similar resources can be an enormous benefit when considering the uncertainty of the pandemic people continue to navigate. 

“Burnout has been around for a very long time,” said Heroux, “but this past year has accelerated the cause and heightened the effects.”  

With so many factors outside of any one person’s control, Heroux finds it helpful to step back from the world for a bit and self-assess. Her method of managing stress includes unplugging from social media, limiting distractions, and determining a good length of time to recharge. This could be an hour, an afternoon, or a full day, and truly depends on the source of burnout. If nothing else, Heroux joins the minority of leaders who find relief in simply talking about their stress. 

“When you’re in the thick of a job, it can be impossible to see outside of what you’re doing,” said Sheerin. “I think the fact that more people, especially those in executive leadership positions, are willing to talk about this issue is a sign that we’re moving in the right direction.” 

Sheerin will be presenting "Burning at Both Ends - Healing and Managing Burnout in Your Work/Life" at WBA's Empowering Women in Banking virtual series, click here to register.

Disclaimer: This content refers to burnout in a broad sense and is not intended to substitute medical advice. For serious health concerns, please seek the advice of a qualified medical professional.