I have been making my way through a book on burnout–Burnout for Experts: Prevention in the Context of Living and Working–a compilation edited by S. Bahrer-Kohler. A hefty tome which is taking me some time to move through. Here at the first of the year–a new year, and (depending on who you ask) a new decade I thought it would be fitting to do a few posts on the phenomenon of burnout. What it is, how it manifests, and what we can do about it. I myself have been visited by the burnout bug. It’s one of the reasons I decided to make some changes in my work/life balance, but more about that later. Burnout is a classic consequence of unregulated stress.
In my work I talk regularly with individuals who are experiencing burnout. Many people are caught off guard by symptoms of burnout. I know I was, after all I am supposed to have all my stuff together right? Burnout can affect anyone and it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for it. Framing burnout as a consequence of unregulated stress helps people to better understand what they are dealing with.
What is Burnout?
According to Mirriam-Webster, one definition of burnout is “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” You can find the full definition here. I also consider burnout a consequence of unregulated stress.
In chapter 4 of Burnout for Experts–Burnout Symptoms and Cycles of Burnout– the author reviews burnout. Burnout in terms of work involves three basic components–
- Emotional exhaustion
- Lack of Professional Competence
Emotional exhaustion can sap the life out of anyone. It’s that sense that no matter how hard you work you’ll never get ahead. Recognition for work is a piece of it, but also the match between you and your co-workers. If you are a generation X worker surrounded by baby boomers (or vice versa) there may be a mismatch in the way you and your coworkers approach work that can increase your chances of burnout.
Cynicism can also wreak havoc on your life in general including your work life. Again according to our friends at Merriam-Webster Cynicism is: “1. The doctrine of the Cynics and 2. Cynical attitude or quality.” Anyone in the dark? That leads us to look up Cynic which–drum roll please– is “a faultfinding captious critic.” Captious is “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections.” Well enough said, this kind of attitude is likely not to make you any friends on the job, but when you start to notice cynicism in yourself or others, it may be a sign of BURNOUT.
Lack of Professional Competence
Lack of professional competence is a difficult one. Because the author did not tease out her intended meaning. I see this as both a potential symptom of being a new on the job and of burnout. These of course can overlap and the author does suggest that young people are more prone to burnout because of not having a lot of experience and expertise on the job. We older workers have likely seen a number cycles of the job and tend to be less influenced by the ebb and flow of these cycles. Competence to my mind is another matter and can increase or decrease based on your stress levels. You’ve probably had an experience at least once in your life when you had prepared for some event or challenge and then came up blank. That can happen more often when we experience unchecked stress.
What causes Burnout?
Any overly stressful situation or conglomeration of situations can cause burnout, but the author also notes that burnout is influenced by the following:
- Lack of control over decisions
- Insufficient reward
- Undermining of Teamwork
- Lack of fairness
- Conflict between core personal values and job.
Workload is not just about the amount of work, but also about the amount of time allotted to do that work. Business continues to press workers to “do more with less” and grind out the product. Whether that product is a thing or a service being pressed to do more in the same amount of time is a recipe for burnout.
Long hours can cause issues as well. I also believe that the advent of smart phones and internet have increased burnout because many workers are in essence “always available.” These devices have blurred the lines of what it means to be at work. I have counseled many people on being available after hours and working to set limits on work where possible. Setting limits with managers who want to regularly contact you after work hours can be difficult because we want to show that we are ready and able to take on the work. But being over zealous in this can lead to a cycle of never having down time which of course can then lead to burnout.
Lack of Control over Decisions
This is a big one. It’s one of the biggest factors I think that leads to burnout. The sense of being stuck in the middle with no power. Few of us want to be in this position. Often it is not the stress of the work that leads to burnout, but the situation of having little to no autonomy as to when various parts of the job get carried out and how. We can’t all be the decision makers at work, but if we can find some part of our work that we control this can be protective against burnout. Also having the confidence that you can change jobs if you wanted to. Feeling stuck is never a good feeling and can push us to burnout if not addressed.
Working for an institution that does not value teamwork can be stressful. I’ve had managers that seemed to actively work at squashing teams. Teams that work well together can really crank out work which can leave others looking bad by comparison. Feeling undermined can push workers toward burnout which then tends to show up as missed work days. Sometimes because of illness and sometimes because of just plain feeling fed up. All of this can be avoided if managers value teams and encourage them to flourish.
Lack of Fairness
Lack of fairness affects workers at every level of business. From factory workers to physicians each sees when he/she is not being treated fairly. While we often can’t control this as workers, we may be able to control where we work. On an organizational level businesses can ferret out where fairness is an issue by looking at where turnover is high. Departments that have difficulties retaining workers are often areas where a lack of fairness is high.
Conflict Between Personal Values and Job
The conflict that can arise between one’s personal values and how you must perform on the job can push workers toward burnout. Finding a job that better represents your values can go a long way to avoiding this.
Other issues that can influence burnout are the state of your personal relationships, how you are sleeping, and how well you are caring for yourself away from work. Look at previous posts on sleep, eating, and relationships. We will continue to look at various aspects of these in coming weeks.
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