Jenna Filipkowski is an industrial-organizational psychologist who first popped up on my radar based on reading some of her excellent white papers and insights ranging from onboarding to coaching and everything in between.
This episode is important to me because we engaged in a long-overdue conversation related to burnout. Jenna provides some tremendous insights and she was such a good thought partner to talk with.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry.
KEVRA: The Culture Company is specifically designed and optimized for leaders who are experiencing turnover, low employee morale, and seek to move the needle further with their initiatives. Our organizational culture and inclusion strategies are a leading consulting service that helps you gain increased retention, increased productivity, and a reputation as an inclusive organization, and unlike competitors, our services are underpinned with unique research and experience in the field of toxic organizational culture and how to create inclusive environments that stick.
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Why Do You Need To Pay Attention To Burnout? An Interview With Jenna Filipkowski, Ph.D.
This episode is with Jenna Filipkowski. She’s an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist who first popped up on my radar based on reading some of her excellent white papers and insights ranging from onboarding to coaching and everything in between. This episode is important to me because we engage in a longer overdue conversation related to burnout.
Jenna provides some tremendous insights and she was such a good thought partner to talk with. I’m sure she will give managers and non-managers alike something to think about.
We have Jenna Filipkowski to discuss with us the importance of burnout and how it impacts individuals. Before we get into that, how are you?
I’m good. I’m not feeling 100% burnout. I feel good. Everyone should know that the views expressed here are my own and not that up with my employer.
I’m so happy to have you because burnout is one of my favorite topics to talk about. As you probably read on the internet, LinkedIn and Harvard Business Review, people talk about burnout all the time. It’s about time we address it on this show. Thank you for being here. Before we jump into that, I’d love to give you space to share with readers a little bit about yourself.
I am an Organizational Psychologist, an IO Psychologist. I get the pleasure each day to study people, work, organizations and leadership. I also consult and strategize with business leaders about how to create a culture that achieves their strategic objectives. That’s what I get to do each day and it’s super fun. In terms of my skills, I’m into survey design, analysis, anything HR analytics and how do we make better evidence-based decisions around our workforce.
Whether it’s planning for the future, like strategic workforce planning or deciding who we hire. I’m very focused on how do we use data to make those decisions. I am a working mom. I have a child who graduated from pre-K. It goes so fast. That is part of me. In terms of what I’d like to do, I love working out and managing my stress through exercise and all of that. I live in Northern New Jersey, close to New York City.
When you’re contributing your life to a company, they couldn’t care less about how you’re feeling and that could cause depression symptoms.
You’ve already dropped the nugget in your bio. You already managed your stress. I invite you to this show so you know exactly what we’re talking about. Talk to me about your experience with toxic leadership whether that’s as a researcher, in your coaching or practitioner. What’s your foray into that area?
I have a background in coaching as well and supporting individuals who are having challenges of work. Most of those challenges are related to their managers and how they’re leading them. In terms of my personal experience, I don’t think I could ever and I feel fortunate in that way to say, I can’t point to someone who is toxic or intentionally out to get me but I noticed flavors of toxicity in the workforce, particularly around the egocentric behaviors and people are more self-interested in their self-interests than the good of the whole and the mission of the organization.
I’ve personally experienced that and it feels disengaging. It feels like, “If this is all about you then why am I here?” type of feeling. I can’t point to one person like that was a toxic situation but there’s flavored and we’re all human. We’re going to not be 100% perfect all the time. I’m sure I’ve practiced egocentric behaviors before at work, too. I feel like that’s the most common one that I noticed, the self-interested approach to things versus what’s good for the group and the organization.
I want to dig into that as you brought it up. When you think about those egocentric behaviors, if someone came to you as a client and you’re coaching them, they’re like, “This is what I’m experiencing. What can I do to mitigate that or debuffer that impact on me?” What would you recommend for them?
You can’t change the other person but you can mirror or gift it back to what you’ve been noticing about them. Hopefully, it’s a place where it’s safe to do so and you feel comfortable doing so. Let’s say the leader made a decision based on self-interest and you are noticing the downstream effects of that decision. You can say, “Because of this decision, this happened. What might you have done differently?”
I know that’s a hard thing to do to the leader may be who’s senior to you but if you’re comfortable using mirroring and feedback to share, like, “This is impacting the whole team in this way and here’s the evidence to show that.” That may work and that would be the advice I give. I don’t always do that. It depends on who the leader is. That’s one way to combat that ego behavior.
It’s always easier to give advice than do it yourself. I know that personally as well. How would you explain what mirroring is to readers?
To share a play-by-play of what happened in that conversation, let’s say, Susie said X then you said Y and then we did Z and piloting like it’s a reflection of what happened. It’s the truth and this is the impact of that truth and we’re all experiencing that. I wouldn’t recommend mirroring, that was an egotistical behavior back to the leader but shared what happened.
That’s why I wanted to ask. I want to make sure everybody knew what you were saying because I don’t want somebody to say, “Dr. Filipkowski told me to be egotistic to my boss and now I don’t have a job. What happened?” I want to make sure. The example that you gave related to that egocentric boss or egocentric behaviors that would manifest in a workplace setting could be an antecedent or lead to somebody having burnout. Let’s jump into our topic. What is burnout? As we think about that concept and people hear it and I know plenty of people feel it, maybe not even know it. What is burnout?
In a previous role, I was a researcher and I was so intrigued and maybe a little bit horrified at what was happening to us all in March 2020. I thought that I was doing a research study on employee engagement. This is a time that we also need to study the reverse of engagement, which is burnout. Burnout as a construct has been around for decades. It’s not a new thing but we can all agree that it’s been talked about much more frequently this 2020.
In early 2020, I conducted a study of HR professionals and how they were experiencing burnout in their workforce and what they were doing to alleviate or mitigate it. In 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in its classifications of diseases, not as a medical condition but as something that happens out of work. It’s a syndrome that results in workplace stress and it’s characterized by three dimensions. It’s feeling exhausted. It’s having mental distance from one’s job so you’re feeling negative or cynical when you talk about your job. It’s also reduced productivity.
You’re not doing your best work. You’re not feeling creative. You’re not bringing all you can. You think about what engagement is. It’s the reverse of all of that. It’s showing up, in a way, increased capacity. It’s showing up in a way where you’re proud of your work, feeling connected to your work and doing your best work. A lot of the literature looks at is burnout, the opposite of engagement and there’s disagreement and agreement and all that but we won’t get into the best theoretical conversation now.
Burnout is characterized by those three things. The study I mentioned with HR professionals, was very interesting to how HR and organizations recognize burnout in their workforce. The majority of interviews for that research study, there was a lot of variation to we’re seeing it and we’re providing mental health services to our employees, too. We don’t even acknowledge that employees have emotions.
It was varied in terms of how people thought about it. That was before, I wonder if there has been change. The other thing I noticed in my study about what is burnout is, there are a lot of generational differences that I observed in my interviews. The younger generations, like myself included, they’re freer to use the word burnout to describe their condition at work, while older generations did not want to because they felt like they’re acknowledging that they were unable to keep up with demands.
Focus on getting positive outcomes and don’t push yourself too hard.
Rather than saying like, “I’m struggling with this,” it was like, “I don’t want to admit that I’m struggling because it looks bad on me.” The conversation on burnout, even though it’s more frequent but it’s not new, is good because it brings the conversation of employees’ emotions into the conversation that we have about the employee experience and this whole mental well-being and caring about the experience at work, which is feelings-based, is a bit elevated this past 2020.
I appreciate hearing your thoughts around that because burnout, it’s something that’s near and dear to me. One of the things that irks me a lot is we’ve operated with burnout from a standpoint of, “Employee, here is breathing techniques. Here is yoga,” and all that kind of stuff. A lot of organizations seldom look at the organizational capacity or the levers for change that the company has or should have. We’re pointing the finger at the person like it’s the person’s fault they’re burned out.
If you’re not sleeping at all and you’re going through the week, you’re going to feel exhausted. There are two sides. When you address burnout, you need to provide those support and resources, including employee assistance programs or meditation apps and reminders to take time off and giving increased time off away from work. Help, encourage and create a culture where you encourage your employees to make use of those resources.
Otherwise, if you’re afraid to take time off then what’s the point? You need to look at the system and the structure of how you’re designing work and the expectations you’ve set up around work if that’s contributing to burnout. If everyone has to be on camera all the time for nine hours to make sure that you’re working, for sure, it’s going to contribute to burnout.
That’s the grander elephant in the room that’s rearing its head when we talk about a return to work from COVID and all of that kind of stuff is our definition of productivity. It’s not shifting. It’s like, “This is what we need. This is what we have to do and all that kind of stuff.” That leads to burnout too. We’re seeing it operate right in front of our eyes now.
I see those studies of people are putting their commute time, instead of commuting to work, they’re working three more hours a day. If it’s knowledge-based work, even physical-based work, adding three hours to your day is a lot. That’s 1/3 of the time. It’s a very large increase in what you’re usually spending. I agree with you. You need to look at the system to how people are spending time, what do the workloads look like and where do we meet and communicate look like.
The research that I did in 2020, maybe we could cite it. It has a burnout risk assessment as a tool in it to think about, “Are we doing these behaviors or what are things do our people perceive our managers being supportive or not or do we put unrealistic workloads on people.” You can think through all of the factors that might contribute to burnout at an individual level and then address that at a systematic level.
Doing more of how you said it, it’s both and it’s individual and systemic. How can we address that? If I’m going to be open and honest, I believe a lot of people focus on the individual things and the employee stuff because they don’t want to shift the system. They want to go back to “normal” where a lot of people are showing that normal didn’t even work when it was normal. If I’m reading this and I’m HR or CEO of a business, why should I care about burnout?
You’ll see the outcomes of burnout that happened before maybe you can recognize it. You’re going to see turnover and decreased engagement. Decreased engagement is connected to performance and productivity. You’re also going to see physical effects. A lot of the burnout that literature talks about things that happen to your body because you’re feeling burnt out and that causes health issues and concerns.
You’ll see job dissatisfaction and that cynical thinking of like, “It’s another day.” You’ll hear it, people talk about it. That erodes cultures. It takes people away from their core mission of why throughout work. If you’re constantly feeling burnout, you’re going to question like, “Is this the norm? Does my organization even care about me at all as a person?” That feels terrible as a person. You’re contributing part of your life to this company and they could care less about how you’re feeling.
That could cause depression symptoms. It could do a lot of things negative to your people. If your culture is where people are at the heart of what you’re doing and you want to serve your customers but you also want to do right for your employees then you would have conversations about burnout. The reverse of that though, if you’re already focused a lot on the employee experience and meeting your employee’s needs, you’re almost like you’re there. You’re listening and being responsive.
You’re considering the context of where your employees are operating in so it shouldn’t be a surprise that came out of nowhere because you’re already doing the right things. In the research that I did in 2020, the organizations that were more focused on engagement did report less stress, like an antidote, self-reported less stress based on their workforce. It should have an alleviation effect if you’re already focused on the employee experience.
That’s a lot of positive outcomes. Focusing on the employee experience by default and not waiting for a COVID to have to manifest for us to think about the wellbeing of our employee health, mental and physical wellbeing. One of the lessons learned that I want to lift up is, A) Focus on both the system and individuals. That’s what I’m hearing. B) Be proactive. Make that a part of your fabric of the organization because it sounds like you had said something that made me think about it. I was thinking like, “You could normalize cynicism.” That becomes the culture if you’re not careful.
If you have all the support and resources in place, an individual is, by nature, cynical. It’s hard to come back from burnout truthfully. Once you’re there, you can’t do it. It takes a lot to get someone out and I questioned if it’s even possible if they need that reset or to take a sabbatical, a very long vacation or something because that disconnect, that healing needs to happen. If you don’t have space to heal, you’re not going to heal.
We’re talking about something a little deeper than disengagement or I’m dissatisfied or I’m upset about some project outcome. This is deeper. Burnout is more longer term. Probably one of the things you mentioned about by the time somebody is using the word burnout, you’re probably too late.
Even though some people like to use it, like, “I’m so burnt out.” People casually use it to describe a demanding work week but they’re not exhibiting a consistent exhaustion or consistent American system low productivity. It varies.
I’m glad you called that out because some people use those words very cavalier. What are some red flags or some warning signs if I were a manager or even a person themselves. What would be some things you’d want to look or watch out for this?
We’re human. We’re not going to be a hundred percent perfect all the time.
If you’re serving at the organizational level, include some questions around engagement or how people feel connected at work or even like, do they feel overwhelmed or constantly stressed, include questions like that in your surveys. What you can look out for is how people speak about work and how they show up. If you’re a manager and you’re noticing someone who has a change in behavior, usually they’re outgoing or talking a lot in meetings. For a few weeks they’ve been silent and bid you off.
You should be checking in with your employees all the time. Addressing some of these like, “What’s going on? How are you doing?” What we’ve also seen in on burnout, connection and feeling like you’re part of someone, going through something together, that’s one of the alleviators of burnout. In the research that I mentioned, I included the tools like check-in coaching questions that you can use as a manager has prompts if you’re not comfortable doing that all the time, like, “How are you feeling? How are you doing? On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current workload now?” Some prompts to assess at the individual level but also doing those surveys at the higher level.
I like the varied approach that you have using data, not only looking at regular data that you have but also using anecdotal data through conversations or things that you see in the workplace as potential red flags to it.
There’s a great article from HBR, it’s like everyone’s recovery is unique in terms of burnout. Not what works for one person may not work for another person so it does take the individual basis to understand what’s true for that person and what can help that individual if it’s childcare, the workload or the way you’re collaborating with them. It’s all three. It’s like thinking about what does that one individual need but also providing holistic resources for everyone to use at the level of the system.
That makes sense to me. What that tells me is there’s no magic bullet here. We have to look for what works for individuals. That’s important to think about. How do we stop feelings of burnout? Let’s say somebody who’s going through it, what are some things people can do as they look to cope or mitigate?
We talked about once you’re truly deeply burnt out, I don’t think you can stop it. You have to deal with it, process those feelings, heal and either figure out what’s next for you. That’s where coaching, counseling or whatever you use to assess what’s inside you can be useful. If you’re feeling that temporary burnout or you’re feeling like, “I’m stressed. The workload is high now but I’m not at that level 10 burnout,” if you know yourself, like what are the self-care or connection things that you can use and what are my organization offering me that I also can use to build a tool kit?
What conversations am I having with my manager about the issues that I’m experiencing at work? Not taking a passive approach to it and being like, “It’s been two weeks of pretty bad days at work but what’s in my control now? How could I figure this out for myself? What support and resources do I need to get out of this feeling?” It would be my advice.
I especially like the fact of it’s about finding what works for you because the source of your burnout may not be everything at work also. Find and dive in deep about, asking yourself those questions. How am I feeling? What is that source? What could that source be? Maybe it’s a person, a project or a time of the year.
There could be many different sources or a combination of all of those. How can you put yourself in an environment where you can minimize that impact of whatever those things are? I appreciate your insights and I’m so happy that you have the live research that you can reference and help. We’ll share that with the readers as well. What words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with as we depart?
The burnout as a topic shouldn’t go anywhere. We should always be thinking of our employees in this holistic manner of like, “What are the physical spaces they’re in? What rewards and benefits are we offering them? How are we structuring work? What is their literal perception and experience at work?” It’s like a blessing in disguise that mental wellbeing throughout this has been severely challenging for a lot of people, myself included but it’s opened the door for a better conversation around seeing humans at work as holistic, bigger things, not just like cogs in a wheel.
As a psychologist, I love bringing these feelings and emotions into the conversation around work because for too long, they were ignored. My hope or words of wisdom is, let’s not move on from this conversation. Let’s keep having this conversation especially if you’re an HR or a manager. There are things you can do to address employees as pure humans and not just like cogs in a wheel.
Before we go, I want to give you the opportunity to share how can people reach you and further. What can we expect from you? What are you working on nowadays?
I wish I had a book where I could plug or something like that. That’s a dream goal eventually. Please, connect with me on LinkedIn. I love expanding my network. Don’t just send me an invite, ask me a question or invite me to virtual coffee. I would love to get to know people who care about this topic more and learn from you. I started a new role, I’m busy onboarding and thinking about all of that and particularly focused on listening to our employees, creating a listening strategy. I’m pretty excited about leading that initiative. This has been fun. I appreciate it.
I appreciate hearing your insights. I look forward to continuing to work with you and cross paths with you.
Thank you for reading. Until next time.
About Jenna Filipkowski
Jenna Filipkowski, Ph.D. Employee Experience Researcher & I-O Psychology Consultant who has authored over 65 original research papers on a variety of topics such as strategic workplace planning, employee experience, coaching, leadership development, talent acquisition, and employee engagement. In that role, she owned thought leadership, brand strategy, and the customer experience. She spent several years as a research scientist designing pre-hire assessments and selection systems and implementing them with her clients.
She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Wright State University and her B.S. degree from Ursinus College. Jenna completed an International Coach Federation (ICF) Accredited Coach Training Program at the University of Texas, Dallas, and obtained her Associate Certified Coach credential.
She has presented her work at numerous professional conferences, magazines, and academic publications. Jenna lives in the greater NYC area with her husband, son, and a dog named Lolly.