Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increasing number of clients who’re on an express train to burnout.
Most are women who are trying to pursue the conventional yet unsustainable definition of success: attempting to ‘have it all’ by wearing all the hats and trying to meet all the perceived expectations and demands of family, friends and colleagues.
Whilst some of this stems from systemic gender inequality, the burnout epidemic we’re witnessing is also a by-product of our increasing global connectedness. Undeniably beneficial, but for the global workforce, an increasing challenge. In our globally connected world, there’s an expectation of being available 24/7. There’s a greater porosity of boundaries with personal/family time under constant negotiation.
What’s curious about this picture however is that in this caffeine dependent, 24/7 working environment, there’s a ridiculous paradox.
Overworking is bad for business. As the number of working hours increases, overall productivity decreases whether it be a decline in the quality of service or products, increased absenteeism and employee turnover or plummeting morale.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK found that work related stress can be attributed to 35% of work related ill health and 43% of sick days.
Even though there’s a growing understanding of the impact that rapid change and longer working hours is having on the global workforce, burnout is still on the rise.
That’s all well and good you say, but what exactly IS burnout?
Good question …with a not so simple answer.
Burnout can manifest in a range of different ways (depending on the specific context as well as one’s personality). At its simplest, burnout is essentially a state of chronic stress. A state in which your body releases stress hormones (hello cortisol and adrenalin!) on a continuous basis. The longer the steady supply of stress hormones, the higher the likelihood of burnout.
Herbert Freudenberger (what a name!) first used the term ‘burnout’ to describe the psychological state of workers who were experiencing exhaustion, disillusionment and withdrawal1. Back in the mid 70s, when Freudenberger was doing his initial research, the term was used primarily in the human services industries context (doctors, teachers, lawyers). Jump forward 40 years however, and you’ll find a much broader application which encompasses a wider range of sectors.
Christina Maslach built on Freudenberger’s initial conceptual framework, defining burnout as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment and depersonalisation2. The symptoms are unsurprisingly interrelated. However for some people, they manifest sequentially (emotional exhaustion followed by reduced personal accomplishment, then depersonalisation)3. From what I’ve seen over the last few years, some of these symptoms are more prevalent for certain people, than for others (once again, highly context and personality dependent).
Emotional exhaustion occurs when excessive stress exhausts your emotional energy or psychological resources, resulting in:
– Chronic indecisiveness;
– Inability to concentrate; and/or
– Low energy.
Lack of personal accomplishment
A number of people deal with emotional exhaustion by distancing themselves cognitively and psychologically from their work which often results in a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, including feeling:
– Helpless; and/or
– A sense of failure.
Depersonalisation reflects an increasing indifference about work, with common attitudes and behaviour including:
– Cynicism; and/or
– Detachment and Disengagement.
Burnout is multifaceted and affects people in different ways. Indecisiveness and a lack of motivation may be the first warning signs for one person. Or it could be deep cynicism and negativity for another. The emotional and behavioural manifestations of burnout are always accompanied (at some stage) by physical symptoms including:
– Lowered immunity
– Cardiovascular issues
– Gastrointestinal disorders
What causes burnout?
There’s a multiplicity of things which cause chronic stress and, if unaddressed, burnout. All depend on the specific working environment, lifestyle and personality of the person involved.
Some of the more prevalent causes include:
• Hostile or toxic work environments and organizational cultures
• High pressure working environments
• Unhealthy or dysfunctional working relationships
• Workplace bullying
• Heavy workload
• Long hours
• Constant change
• Poor job fit
• Little control over work
• Absence of recognition and/or reward for excellent performance
Who’s most affected?
There are several groups of people who are particularly at risk of burnout including:
Human Services Professionals
Human Services Professionals (social workers, nurses, doctors, lawyers) are generally at higher risk of burnout than those in other professions4. The cause of burnout in these situations arises from the emotionally demanding work which often involves crisis management. In the case of emergency departments, nurses and doctors face the high risk of patient death constantly. For aid workers and military personnel, it’s ongoing exposure to suffering and trauma coupled with sometimes volatile, war-torn environments.
Those frequently exposed to death and trauma are not the only human services professionals who may be vulnerable to burnout. Lawyers also face a high risk of burnout. Long working hours combined with uncertain career pathways and an unrelenting flow of high stakes matters creates a high stress environment that, unless mediated by adequate organisational support and management, can lead to significant burnout.
Type A Personality
Personality is another factor which can cause higher susceptibility to burnout. The most obvious personality type prone to job burnout are people with a Type A personality.
Typically described as “competitive, aggressive, impatient” and as having an orientation toward success, Type As often have ‘over-achiever angst’5. They are likely to experience more stress due to their “susceptibility to emotional exhaustion”, natural tendency to be ‘control freaks’ and propensity to take on too many responsibilities resulting in unmanageable volumes of work6. Lack of control coupled with an ever increasing workload can lead to a sense of overwhelm, emotional exhaustion, and in the worst case, full blown professional burnout.
Often closely associated with Type A personality types, workaholics are another group of professionals at high risk of burnout. It’s not just a question of excessively long working hours (evenings and weekends) but a compulsion to work and often a sense of guilt if one is doing something that’s not necessarily ‘productive’ or contributing to career advancement. Switching off from work (and the stresses and often intractable issues it may bring) is extremely challenging for workaholics. When there is little balance (or down time), the risk of burnout is unquestionably high.
So how can you make sure you or your loved ones aren’t on the burnout train? Like all good things, preventing burnout requires a systemic approach (encompassing mindset, embodiment and connection).
An understanding of why you do the work you do and the extent to which it engages you and enables you to learn and grow is super important here. All roles and companies bring their own unique stressors, but being anchored in why you’re doing (and actively choosing) to do the work you do is an imperative. That driving sense of ‘purpose’ is not always easily found, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the role and/or organisation you’re currently in will not be the ideal environment to learn and discover what is.
Taking the long view is a way to consider perspective. Stepping back and appraising your current working style and behavior and asking yourself whether it’s sustainable over the long term can be challenging to do when you’re riding waves of deadlines, quotas or other demands. But this ability to draw back focus from time to time will help to frame your thinking and possibly lead to some healthy shifts that ensure greater career longevity.
Leaving on time and saying ‘no’ can be very hard but is often necessary to ensure your long term career sustainability. There’s ample evidence to show that working longer hours or being on call 24/7 does not necessarily equate to the delivery of strong (and sustainable) performance.
Be aware also of the distractions that eat away at your ability to really focus on what’s important. There are costs associated with all opportunities (be it time, headspace or energy). Your ability to filter the ‘non-trivial few’ from the ‘trivial many’ is essential.
Aware of your body
One of the easiest ways to manage day to day stress (and to avoid burnout) is by tuning into your present state (getting into your body!). Noticing where you’re holding tension in your body (shoulders, stomach, psoas muscle). Understanding how stress manifests in your body and learning how to release the tension. An awareness of the times and circumstances when you ‘override’ the physical, when you ignore signs from the body (hunger, exhaustion) in order to get through back to back meetings or finalise a deliverable.
Your social network, personally and professionally plays a significant role in preventing you from burning out.
At a client company I worked for a few years ago, some of the junior lawyers (who were working long hours and most weekends) said they hadn’t seen many of their friends and families for months. “I feel like such a bad daughter/sister/partner/friend, but I literally have no time. I leave the office at the end of the day, I get home and sleep and then come back to work again. Weekends are the same, there’s always a backlog of cases to work on”.
In the background the junior associates’ family and friends were no doubt asking the inevitable: ‘are you OK?’. Supportive yet concerned. Wanting their loved one to excel in their career whilst wondering ‘at what cost’?
It can be very easy to ignore these expressions of concern. To balance them with what you see as the reality of what’s expected in your current role. Take note and consider whether they do indeed have a point.
Your work relationships also help to buffer you from potential burnout. It’s often those relationships that you develop in the trenches that contribute significantly to your sense of wellbeing at work. It’s no surprise that people often stay at not so ideal jobs primarily because of the people they work alongside (these bonds can be incredibly important).
Preventing burnout and finding balance in a connected world is challenging but not impossible. Listening to your body, setting boundaries, being anchored by a sense of purpose and making time to relax and connect will help you build resilience and ensure you’re not on the express train to burnout.
- Freudenberger, H. J. (1974), Staff Burn-Out. Journal of Social Issues, 30: 159–165 ↩
- Maslach, C. (1993). Burnout: A multidimensional perspective. In W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis ↩
- Maslach, C et al (2001), Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52: 397-422; Kalbers, L. P. and T. J. Fogarty. (2005). Antecedents to Internal Auditor Burnout. Journal of Managerial Issues.1: 101-118 ↩
- Schaufeli, W. B., & Salanova, M. (in press). Work engagement: An emerging psychological concept and its implications for organizations. In S. W. Gilliland, D. D. Steiner, & D. P. Skarlicki (Eds.),Research in social issues in management: Vol. 5. Managing social and ethical issues in organizations. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers ↩
- Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. H. (1974). Type a Behaviour and Your Heart. New YORK: Knopf ↩
- Froggatt, K. L., & Cotton, J. L. (1987). The Impact of Type a Behaviour Pattern on Role Overload-induced Stress and Performance Attributions. Journal of Management, 13, 87-90 ↩