What are the main systemic causes of the increase in burn-out?
Laurent Zermati: An increased need for profitability in a more competitive environment, leading to pressure on employee productivity; the acceleration of time imposing ever shorter deadlines (organisational transformations, which are more frequent, must be carried out as quickly as possible, without sufficient time for prior discussion); digitalisation which, while simplifying processes and interactions, brings its share of dehumanisation and confusion. This is illustrated by e-mail, a method of communication which can sometimes be a source of misunderstanding and disengagement.
The creation of burn-outs is sometimes a deliberate management method to create resignations…
L.Z.: I would rather say that brutal management methods, wrongly justified by an economic context requiring changes, generate burn-outs. This was the case with the France Télécom suicides (1), where the labour inspectorate recognised that managerial methods had had the effect of damaging the physical and mental health of employees. But beware: a burn-out often occurs even though the manager has no malicious intent; he or she is either under pressure and ‘mistreated’, or is insufficiently competent to carry out the difficult responsibilities entrusted to him or her, responsibilities which include paradoxical injunctions such as ‘deliver the expected results on time’ and ‘take care of people’.
We hear about burn-out among nurses, social workers, teachers or farmers. Are some sectors more at risk than others?
Laurent Zermati: No sector is spared. Burn-out is above all a matter of dysfunctional cultural and organisational systems, toxic leaders and managers, and individual profiles that are more at risk than others. What these profiles have in common is that they are professionally committed and combine personal and professional success.
Are there profiles that are more or less at risk?
L.Z.: A self-assured employee with a strong character will stand up to a toxic manager; he or she may be fired, but will question himself or herself less. On the other hand, a less assertive personality may try to meet the demands of the toxic manager and be more likely to burn out. Another profile at risk is that of people who want to achieve their objectives, whatever the context. This is not possible in some dysfunctional organisations, where basic systemic principles are not respected (2). Entrepreneurial profiles are also at risk: starting a business is an obstacle course full of challenges; each person approaches them with their own level of resources and resilience.
Doesn’t admitting this individual factor make the company less responsible (understaffing, bad management, etc.) while depoliticizing the subject?
L.Z.: Not at all, because the company remains fully responsible for putting the right people in the right place and ensuring that everyone is invested in the right way. This is the role of the management team and HR, and it is one of the tasks I have carried out in my previous positions.
What common trait among HEC graduates can lead them to burn-out?
L.Z.: My hypothesis is that many of us have been conditioned to professional success, performance and hard work. We were gifted children in class and often received recognition and consideration from our parents for this. We unconsciously associated success with some form of consideration and expression of love from our loved ones. And we have taken this unconscious conditioning, which is like a pair of glasses, into the world of work. Many of us want to achieve and exceed the expected results for some form of consideration in return. But our leaders and managers are working for the performance of the organisation; they have not been mandated to love us or show us recognition. They may be caring, but they will never take care of us like a parent, and that is normal. Being aware of these conditioning is necessary to become the primary caregiver.
From prevention to treatment, what are the innovations (technological, managerial, organisational) in the fight against burn-out?
L.Z.: The priority is to recruit and promote competent people who also have a heart. On the treatment side, several start-ups are developing in the care sector (Moka, Alan, etc.) and offer individualised psychological assistance, financed by the company.
Any advice for HEC graduates to help them avoid creating burn-outs around them?
L.Z.: To be aware of our conditioning and not to project our own performance model onto our employees. Everyone has a different relationship with work, everyone has their own aspirations and motivations. In order to achieve our objectives while taking care of others, we must take care to surround ourselves with the right people. Keeping people who don’t meet expectations and pressurising them doesn’t work. It’s better to look quickly with them at what their talents are and what their best place would be within the company, or even, if no solution is really found, outside. If their professional development is to be external, then you have to talk to them truthfully and humanely, and offer them an outplacement [editor’s note: an expert in professional transition helps the employee find another job outside the company] and financial compensation for the damage caused.
What influence does a leader have in preventing burn-out?
L.Z.: The leader sets an example; his or her behaviour is often reproduced by the managers in the organisation. He or she must work on himself or herself in order to visit the dark areas within, and thus move from distrust to confidence, from fear to serenity, from greed to generosity, from pride to humility in the service of what is greater than oneself. A leader who wants his teams to feel good will surround himself with a first line of management capable of carrying out this work individually and collectively, as well as an HRD to support them… and capable of speaking truth to power every day!
In most companies, whether listed or not, humanity is rarely the first criterion for selecting leaders.
L.Z.: In the past, shareholders were looking for managers capable of achieving economic results. Nowadays, more and more shareholders are aware of social and environmental issues and are more demanding about how these results are achieved.
Better an artificial intelligence (AI) than a bad manager?
L.Z.: Certainly not! First of all, a bad manager can become a good manager, if he or she is well supported. The manager coordinates the work of the teams and guarantees their performance, but he or she also helps everyone to grow professionally. Improving managerial relationships requires more common sense and humanity. Technology can help, but it is not the main thing.