We know that burnout is a major problem for both wellness and job performance. Things like overwork, a lack of control, and poor work life balance can lead to burnout. But, did you know that burnout is also contagious and you can catch it from your coworkers? Today, we explore some recent research on burnout contagion and share some ideas on how to buffer against it.
How Do You Catch Burnout?
Humans are social creatures and we need and crave connection. Because of this need, our psychology has evolved to have some pretty interesting behaviors and tendencies. One of these tendencies is emotional contagion. In other words, emotions are contagious! We tend to mimic others’ facial expressions, posture, vocalizations, and movements in our interactions. This mimicry leads us to catch the emotions of those we are mimicking.
Burnout works in much of the same way. It’s considered a form of emotional contagion. So, what are the things that lead to catching burnout? Unfortunately, if your team members, leaders, clients, etc. are experiencing burnout, you can catch it. We explore 3 different aspects of your interactions with colleagues that can impact your odds of burnout below.
Types of Interactions
Each interaction with your colleagues has a purpose. Sometimes, you reach out to your team member to get information on a project you are working on. This is called an instrumental interaction. In other words, the interaction has work-related purpose. Other times, you may reach out to a coworker to get advice about a personal issue. This is called an expressive interaction.
There are some colleagues you go to for both instrumental and expressive interactions. They are the people you go to for both work-related issues and for advice on more personal matters. Unfortunately, those colleagues that are there for you for both have a greater influence over your emotions. In other words, if one of these colleagues is experiencing burnout. you are more likely to catch it.
Frequency of Interactions
Relatedly, colleagues that you interact with more frequently are also the colleagues that have a stronger influence on your emotions. So, if you are constantly working with a team of people that are burnt out, you are likely to feel the same way. Similar to contagious diseases, the more exposure you have to burnout, the more likely you are to catch it.
Interactions in Common
Finally, your network matters! This one gets a bit more complicated. So, let’s use an example. Susie is a peer on your team. She interacts with many of the same people as you. On the other hand, Kirsty is in a different department and you only know a couple of the same people in the company. Susie and Kirsty are both experiencing burnout. Which of these 2 colleagues do you think you’d be more likely to catch burnout from? Unfortunately, the more connections you share the more likely you catch each other’s emotions. Thus, if Susie is burnt out, you are more likely to catch it from her than Kirsty.
In sum, the more exposure to burnout, the more likely you are to catch it. Colleagues that you interact with for a variety of reasons, colleagues that you work with often, and colleagues that you share a network with are more likely to impact your emotions.
Avoiding Contagious Burnout
So, what can you do? When I first read this article, I felt a little worried about my interactions. However, the research isn’t suggesting you avoid all people that may be burnt out. Instead, think about ways to reduce your own and ways to help others reduce theirs as well! We wrote about a great way to reduce team burnout here. In addition, if you notice a colleague is dealing with burnout, share any resources you have to help them, and stay aware of how it’s impacting your emotions. Practice self-care to help lower your odds of catching the burnout around you.
Furthermore, if you are a leader, think about your team and organization broadly. How can you create an environment where people don’t burnout? What can you do to ensure that each team member is ok? Because burnout is contagious, you don’t want it to spread and impact the whole company! Do your best to get a handle on it as soon as you can!