FSG Blog
September 29, 2021

Exploring Futures and Evading Burnout

Peter Kennedy
Managing Principal

Organizations typically embrace scenario planning because they’re worried about the future. And while scenario planning should never just be about managing risk and avoiding problems, even ostensibly “good” scenario worlds can provoke uneasiness and discomfort for workshop participants. Which is why it’s a bit counterintuitive to think about overworked, stress-out workers getting refreshed from a scenario planning experience – especially when the future itself is often a cause of stress.  But that’s just what FSG scenario consultants are discovering.

Talk to HR executives and job coaches and the conversation eventually comes around to the burnout problem. More than half of all employers, in fact, say that burnout is affecting turnover, retention and productivity, according to a recent survey by ComPsych, a behavioral health service provider. Covid has only made it worse. ComPsych’s CEO Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, quoted in Yahoo, says that Covid “has created some of the most trying situations leaders have ever faced and burnout is a serious issue in our new world of work.” It’s not just a US thing.  The World Health Organizations now classifies burnout as a disease.

So, what’s the connection between scenario planning and burnout control?  First, let’s be clear that we’re not talking here of uplifting the health care worker who has been working a string a 12 hour shifts on Covid ICUs. Usually the most meaningful remedies for such extreme levels of stress and fatigue are rest, healthy meals, a bit of exercise, and the comfort of loved ones. 

But for those not working in literally life-and-death situations, burnout is still very real and debilitating, as well as costly to employers. 

Experts say the feeling of loss of control plays a big part in experiences of burnout. It’s possible that the uncertainty that surrounds the future, often sub-conscious, is a major contributor to the loss of control feeling and the resulting anxiety. FSG scenario consultants see evidence of that in our current work with health care and education leaders

How do scenarios help?

Our hypothesis – which is garnering anecdotal evidence during Covid – is that merely thinking about and actively engaging the future can be a therapeutic stress-reducer. And this includes futures that are not particularly rosy, that for example deal with economic distress, technology disruptions, job losses and climate change. By dealing with these sources of anxiety in a neutral, future-focused environment, participants come around to see ways of managing risks, building contingent plans, and seeing upside possibilities present in some of even the bleakest scenario settings. In fact, we’ve often observed that some of the most innovative strategies take root in the harshest scenario worlds. 

There is also an obvious social aspect that comes into play. FSG scenario planning is highly collaborative, from project conception, to scenario world development, to strategy and planning workshops. The workshops bring together diverse teams to “live” in future scenario worlds, wrestle with often novel challenges and opportunities, and draft real solutions. It’s an intense, focused activity, but uniquely stimulating, and a reliable platform for team-building and networking. 

This shared solution pursuit – importantly not bogged down in today’s problems – is personally and professionally invigorating.  It instills in participants the feeling that obstacles are not insurmountable,  that there’s a hopeful path to the future, and that they’re not alone. Ideally, participants take this positivity back to their day jobs. 

It’s true that even the most successful scenario experiences will not stave off burn-out if work conditions don’t change – and even worse, if the rich ideas and insights generated by scenario discussions are not taken seriously by senior leadership. That can in fact exacerbate job frustration, especially if expectations are high that scenario-based insights and prescriptions will be acted upon in some fashion. 

For sure, just getting workers physically away from tense and stressful work settings can itself be therapeutic. It’s hard during Covid, but we’re finding that even virtual versions of scenario planning can provide a refreshing and restorative break. That’s useful to keep in mind as the second winter of Covid approaches. 

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4 thoughts on “Exploring Futures and Evading Burnout”

  1. The thing that rings true here is that feeling powerless and not in control is very undermining to self confidence and saps energy
    Scenario planning enables you to have some agency rather than merely being the victim of events – particularly so now when we are living at a time of “radical uncertainty “ ( to quote mervyn king )

    Reply
    • Thanks, Julian. I definitely agree about the value of feeling agency, provided it is, and is perceived as such, real, and not a mere feel-good exercise to keep the troops happy.

      Reply
  2. This is profound: “…the feeling of loss of control plays a big part in experiences of burnout. It’s possible that the uncertainty that surrounds the future, often sub-conscious, is a major contributor to the loss of control feeling and the resulting anxiety.”

    My own research with the Coast Guard for over 20 years leads me to conclude that “control over one’s destiny” is one of two major causes of turnover. The other has to do with local supervision and peer support.

    Not being able to exert control over one’s personal future results in debilitating frustration, which can be reduced via scenario planning — but only if the organization uses the results to create the future it intends. If it doesn’t, conditions just get worse.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the comment, Steve. It’s reassuring to hear some of the more speculative points presented here as being supported by data and real world experience, including your own at the USCG. As you can see from my reply to the previous comment, I definitely agree that a scenario exercise with no built-in path to change is worse than doing nothing at all. And the change doesn’t necessarily have to be “transformative” per se. Even modest but meaningful change is often good enough.

    Reply

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