The 3 components of burnout, and why they are heightened now

Hosted by Neil Amato

As humans, "we are wired to see change as a warning sign of danger," says Britt Andreatta, Ph.D. Andreatta is the author of Wired to Resist and other books, and she is a speaker and consultant to a wide variety of organizations. She was a featured speaker at the Future of Finance Summit, a meeting of finance executives, in December.

With all the change and uncertainty people have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are, to use another Andreatta description, "crispy." In this podcast episode, she explains why change is difficult and why now is the time for leaders to spend even more time focusing on employee well-being.

Also, get caught up on news related to these topics recently covered in the Journal of Accountancy:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Why organizations must make sure they're using the right tools to create behavior changes.
  • The reasons Andreatta says "we haven't solved remote work."
  • The data that showed burnout was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Why some of us may be feeling a decreased sense of accomplishment regarding work.
  • A key takeaway of Andreatta's from a recent meeting of finance executives and why she's "hopeful."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


Neil Amato: Now joining the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Dr. Britt Andreatta. She's an author of several books on leadership and change management, and someone I had the pleasure of meeting in person recently at the Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tennessee.

Britt and I are going to discuss a few of the messages that apply to the accounting profession, but also to any organization.

I'm paraphrasing here, but on a LinkedIn live with my colleague Tom Hood, you said, essentially, learning can look nice, can be dressed up by bells and whistles, but not always pass on skills development. How can organizations make sure they're truly passing on learning and not just dressing it up?

Britt Andreatta: It's a great question. Ultimately, learning is about behavior change. You have to get really clear like what behavior you're trying to change and what you want people to do, what does success look like?

I always start with the end point in mind, and then I look at where people are now, and then I look at the best journey to get them from point A to point B. I think what happens in learning sometimes is that people offer workshops, but they don't really diagnose the real problem that they're trying to solve, or they don't really assess the audience they're going to be giving that learning, too. There's a mismatch. I also think learning has a ton of amazing opportunities with it. Now there's so many platforms, there are so many forms of learning — synchronous, asynchronous, blended, instructor-led, self-paced, all of it.

I think it's really important, though, to pick the right tool for the right job. Artificial intelligence/virtual reality is incredible. It actually codes in the brain as a lived memory. But, you don't throw that at a learning problem that can be solved with a PDF.

Sometimes a PDF is the perfect tool. It's really about knowing your toolkit, really doing a good job assessing, and then picking the right form to move that needle. Then, ultimately, you have to track your results. It's not just about learner's satisfaction; it's also about did the learning transfer to the job? Did you see the behavior change you are going after? Did that move the needle on the metric you are measuring? Ultimately, did that create a great return on investment?

Amato: Another quote of yours that I'd like to seize upon, you use the word "solve" in your first answer. You also said, "We haven't solved remote work." Tell me some of the aspects that remain unsolved.

Andreatta: Yeah. Before the pandemic and now as we start to reemerge, ultimately, when you have a workforce that some are in-person and some are remote, you have unequal access. There's things that happened in the meeting, but then there's all those spontaneous conversations on the way into the conference room and the way out, and the conversations that happen at the water cooler. During the pandemic, that all went away because everyone was at home and no one had access to those in-person moments. That created its own problems, right. We went into way more meetings and a lot more planned communication.

But as we go back to or we start to create a hybrid workplace where you're sometimes in person and sometimes remote, we have to solve that access issue, which means rethinking our workday. If you're going to try to create a three-two schedule, then when people are in the office, you use that in-person time really strategically. And you use it for important things like problem-solving or innovation, building trust and psychological safety. Then when we're all remote, we use these brand-new and really amazing tools for synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration, but if you go back to someone sitting in the office, but they're on a Zoom meeting, that's going to be weird. It creates a sense of exclusion. It doesn't leverage all of the biological parts of our body that are designed to help us communicate better.

We want to get real strategic about what type of work are we doing and what's the best format to do it in. We definitely need to be doing a lot fewer meetings. Our workday has actually increased three hours, from 9 hours to 12 hours during the pandemic. I think these statistics are shocking. Our meeting time is up by 25% in the pandemic, and over the course of a 45-year career, we will spend 22 years of that in meetings, and seven years of that is in unproductive meetings. Like seven years of your life wasted and meetings you didn't need to be in.

I really think that this point in time is a great opportunity for us to really rethink and redefine what work is and how it happens, and then really leveraging in-person connection for the right kinds of strengthening the team, not getting things done that can easily be done asynchronously.

Amato: Obviously, plenty of changes still need to be thought about, but managers can't really just take the approach of, "Well, I'm going to announce change and expect my staff to be gung-ho about it." But it seems like that happens sometimes. What can be done about that?

Andreatta: I go into depth on this in my book Wired to Resist, and I was shocked when I started studying the neuroscience of change. What I learned about us biologically, but as a species, we are wired to see change as a warning sign of danger. All of our senses are constantly scanning our environment, and they touch the amygdala, which kicks off our fight-flight response. Really, smelling fire smoke or hearing a loud explosion is, some change in your environment is actually the first sign of danger. Our body treats it that way, and that's why we have this relationship to change, like, "Oh change? Uh-oh, what could go wrong about that?"

We're biologically wired to look for all the things that could go wrong, what we could lose, and we can spin out on that for a little while. Leaders, the way they design or announce change, can make that worse. Instead of helping frame change in a way of what we can gain, what problem we're solving, expecting some of those emotions is just part of our wiring. People are not being difficult; they're being human. Oftentimes, leaders don't then provide the right support for change. They haven't put in place the right structures or scaffolding to help people go through the change easily.

They may not provide the right kind of training or give people enough time to get used to the change. All change involves habits. We're usually doing something that we've got a neural pathway that's well grooved. We've done it a bunch of times. Now, we're being asked to do something differently. Our default is to go back to that thing that is easy and comfortable and we know what to do.

If we're not helped with training and an opportunity to build up — it takes on average 40–50 repetitions to build a new habit. Oftentimes, we say, "OK, change," and then we leave people out in the woods to figure it out on their own. Change can go much more smoothly and effectively when leaders understand some of these biological components. They can design it better, they can announce it better, and then they can support people in moving through it more quickly. Because, ultimately, we are a resilient species, but we need a little support to be our best and be most adaptive.

Amato: I've not heard this phrase before unless applied to fried food, but you had said that some employees are "crispy." Tell me what "crispy" means related to the workforce in 2022 and beyond.

Andreatta: We have moved into a level of burnout which has never been seen before. Burnout is actually a diagnosable state of exhaustion that comes from when we have been dealing with a long-term stressful situation. We definitely have been pushed into this because of the pandemic, but even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization identified burnout as an occupational disease. It was driving nearly $200 billion in health care costs, just in the U.S. alone, and before the pandemic, about 53% of the workforce was in a state of burnout. In March of this year, we were at 71%, and now as we wrap up 2021, we're at 89% of workers are burned out.

It is the number one reason people are listing for the Great Resignation and for why they're quitting their jobs. Why it's particularly challenging is that burnout has three components to it. One is just exhaustion. We're just literally physically and emotionally exhausted, but what's interesting is that actually creates insomnia. It gives you physical symptoms like heart palpitations, GI pain, headaches. It can make you irritable, and it leads to anxiety and depression. That's one component.

The second component is we have a decreased sense of accomplishment. Picture a gerbil running on a gerbil wheel. You are working as hard as you ever have, but you feel like you're getting nowhere. Parts of your job that used to give you a sense of satisfaction just don't anymore. People are feeling this increased sense of apathy, negativity, pessimism. It starts to feel like, "Oh, it's the job," but really it's burnout.

Then the third component is we deplete our ability to have empathy and compassion. We just have no more of that to give to other people, including ourselves. It's really this syndrome where it's a little bit like the boiled frog, that by the time we realize we're in this state, we don't care enough to actually do the actions that would help us get out of it. People are in bad shape right now. It's driving the Great Resignation, and the only real cure for it is rest.

We have been overworking and under-resting for two full years because we lost access to all the things we used to do to rest, like take vacations, have dinner with friends, get a pedicure. The problem is now people are so in the habit of just overworking, and they've disconnected from their memories of the fun of some of these things that people, even though things are now a little bit safer, they're still staying at home and they're overworking. We all really need to lean into taking care of ourselves, resting, starting to do the things that bring us joy, and then knowing that we're not going to feel much joy for a while because the pandemic has depleted that.

For leaders, I would say really leaning in and helping your workforce recover from burnout should be your number one priority right now because everything else will come from that. We'll just keep seeing people quit their jobs if we don't really address burnout head-on.

Amato: In closing, you attended the Future of Finance Summit, early December in Nashville. Anything you came away with after being around that group of leaders?

Andreatta: Yeah, I really enjoyed meeting with all the CFOs who were in attendance. Some of them are representing the biggest companies in the world, and we were having really thoughtful conversations. The two things I talked to them about were burnout and why it should be priority number one. Burnout is the number one reason people are quitting. The second one is too much organizational change.

I was also sharing with them some of my research on change. The bottom line is, we've hit this state where we really need to support our people, and we need to redefine what work is and how it gets done. I really heard them embracing that, that we're at this unique moment in time. We went through a decade of digital transformation in just a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, and the world is different.

We are not ever going to go back to "before" times, and while that may seem overwhelming, it's also really exciting. We really are on this precipice of redefining and recrafting what work looks like and how we bring more energy and passion and purpose to our workplaces. And what I heard was a bunch of CFOs who really get that. Not only the bottom-line impact that has when you treat your people well and what that means for how they treat the company and the work they do, but also just understanding that, culturally, we are shifting as a society how we view work and how we craft work.

It was really fun to hear the creative energy and the innovation in the room. It made me really hopeful for our future. I think we're headed to better days. Even though it's been rough, I think we're really starting to craft a really neat future for ourselves around the world.

Amato: Thanks again to Dr. Britt Andreatta for being on the podcast.

In other news, the IRS said it will halt some notices to taxpayers, but the AICPA is asking the IRS to do more, specifically to reduce erroneous automated notices and unnecessary taxpayer contact. Paul Bonner has Journal of Accountancy coverage on that topic.

And Ken Tysiac has an article that offers tips for common scenarios related to cryptoasset accounting. Nonauthoritative guidance developed by the Digital Assets Working Group at AICPA & CIMA can steer organizations in the right direction on reporting such assets more consistently in financial statements.

And finally, with cyberfraud still a big concern, a KPMG report is recommending five steps organizations can take to mitigate the risk of losses. Jeff Drew has coverage of the 2022 fraud outlook report in the JofA. That report details a so-called "triple threat" of issues that companies must combat.

On all those news topics, we will link to the articles in the show notes for this episode. That's all for now. Talk to you again later this week. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.