Firebrand or Burnout?

Leah Steele, founder of Searching for Serenity asks whether dealing with that troublemaker could land you in hot water.

Firebrand or Burnout?

Leah Steele, founder of Searching for Serenity asks whether dealing with that troublemaker could land you in hot water.

There’s one in every office it seems.  Loud, unwieldy, resistant to management attempts to curb their vocal frustrations or worries.  Most likely to roll their eyes at team building or corporate culture events, the people who would have been thrown out on their ear long ago but for their high productive or brilliant business development sense or for the fact that they always, just about, stay on the right side of the line.

These people cause headaches for management and HR departments because their obvious discontent and disillusionment isn’t limited to their own behaviour.  Studies show that unhappiness and discontent is even more contagious than the common cold in the weeks before Christmas and if the unhappy individual is a black hole then their co-workers within a 5 metre radius are the stars and planets rapidly pulled in to their gravity field.  

This employee is the iceberg to your company’s Titanic and whilst you can see that you are on a collision course and there will be no survivors, you are helpless to stop it.

Their behaviour is poor but not so bad as to warrant a disciplinary. Their productivity has fallen but it is still on the good to excellent end of the spectrum.
Worse still, you all like them.  They were a straight up and down brilliant employee until fairly recently, when it seems like they have been infected by a virulent strain of Kevin the teenager.

You know exactly who I’m talking about.  Maybe you’re even visualising them right now.

The loss of a brilliant employee who becomes a walking, talking demonstration of everything you don’t want your staff to be; negative, openly critical of the company, impervious to being taken to one side and informal chats, unmotivated and lacking in empathy, is devastating for any employer.  It isn’t just the loss of the individual but the net effect of their presence in any office, but particularly an open plan office.

Other staff members may be on edge or nervous of their worsening temper, buying in to their disillusionment about the work, the company or the industry.  There is often some discussion about how they get away with murder and no-one else could behave that poorly.

They are called a firebrand.

They sow discontent and resentment everywhere they go. They are the focal point of every issue. The tempers around them are frayed and the productivity and morale of the team as a whole seems to be taking a nosedive.

However, there could be another explanation (and a way to successfully recover the staff member and the team as a whole!).

Take a look at the new definition of burnout from the World Health Organization and see if your view of this troubling, troublesome staff member changes.

Burnout is recognised as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ that arises from chronic stress that is unsuccessfully managed.  Sounds like most of us these days.

There are three critical parts to burnout that I’ve already set out in the overview above.  They are:

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3. Reduced professional efficacy
Scroll back up and have a read through the example I laid out.

A former A-grade worker whose productivity has taken a nosedive.  Someone who becomes a focal point for discontent and disillusionment around the job, the company or the industry.  Have they been taking extra sick days or seemed tired, withdrawn or unable to focus in the run up to this behaviour.

Congratulations, you have an employee who is burned out, not a firebrand.

When I go in to a business to talk to the HR team or groups of employees, I summarise burnout as ‘someone who cares deeply about their work, who has worked too hard for too long and struggles as a result’.

When you have a burned out (or on the burnout path) employee, all is far from lost.  Underneath the frustration and the anger is someone who feels let down, exhausted, lost and alone.  The negativity and cynicism isn’t who they are, it’s a part of the syndrome they are experiencing.

Why negativity?  Think back to my example above; an employee was previously a stand-out and whose productivity has dropped, but still falls in the good to excellent range.  I have yet to meet someone struggling with burnout who isn’t a hopeless overachiever, who hasn’t gone above and beyond time and again.  These people have given far more than they have received in return; that doesn’t mean that employers should bargain or offer bribes, but just like any relationship, when one party gives more than they receive there is a disconnect.

The beauty of spotting employee burnout before they implode, explode, quit the job or the industry is that it is an opportunity for all concerned.  Here you have a formerly brilliant employee who absolutely can go back to peak performance with a little time, training and support.  Over the past four years I have specialised in working with individuals (and more recently employers and industry support groups) to identify, manage and reverse burnout.  With clients spanning the medical, legal, education, marketing and management industries (and plenty more besides), this is no longer a problem that employers or employees can ignore.

However, for anyone who thinks it’s not worth the time, energy or money to engage with training and support to rehabilitate their former employee, a word of caution.

Whilst the World Health Organization’s definition only comes in to effect with the ICD-11 manual due to published in 2022, the early release of the definition in May 2019 together with the extensive media coverage it has received has only opened a potential issue for all employers.

The WHO are very clear, burnout is purely an occupational phenomenon and is not to be considered in any other context but work.  Think back to the definition; burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as arising from chronic stress which has not been successfully managed.

Whose responsibility is it to manage that stress?  Well, whilst the WHO is silent on that point, we are all familiar with the responsibility of employers to act upon stress once it is raised and to take in to account what is reasonably foreseeable as giving rise to an issue for employees.

It’s still early days for burnout; the phrase was coined in the 1970’s with Freudenberger’s study of occupational burnout and whilst the WHO has announced more research in to proven and effective methods for managing and reversing burnout, these studies are still years off.

However, in an increasingly stressed workforce where productivity fails to increase in line with working hours and technological accessibility making it ever more difficult to switch off, this is only the beginning.

To learn more about the WHO definition and guidance for employers, click here to access Time to Engage, the white paper produced by Searching for Serenity in May 2019: Click Here

Leah is a mentor and trainer who provides services to both individuals and companies in an effort to improve working life and help hard-working professionals love their careers and lives again.  She can be contacted at

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