Job Burnout—Part 1

The real causes

June 8, 2004
By: Vicki Bell

If you are employed, you're lucky to have a job. Perhaps you've heard this, thought it, or both. And it's true. With so many people out of work, it seems almost like biting the hand that feeds you to complain about your work conditions and expect your employer to care.

If you're suffering from job burnout—which is not to be confused with a general aversion to hard work—your work performance, health, and personal life suffer. Ultimately, so does the company that employs you.

Both employers and employees need to understand the conditions that lead to burnout, the signs of burnout, and what can be done to prevent and relieve this problem that is becoming even more widespread as companies downsize and remaining employees take on added responsibility.

What Is Job Burnout?

In the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, burnout relative to people is defined as: Physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation(squandering or depleting resources).

In her book Overcoming Job Burnout, Dr. Beverly Potter defines burnout as "a destruction of motivation caused by feelings of powerlessness. Power—the ability to influence and accomplish—is essential for well-being and sustained motivation."

The Truth About Burnoutby Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter defines job burnout as:

The index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will—an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it's hard to recover.

As the word erosionsuggests, burnout is a gradual process of loss during which the mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job grows ever greater. The demands of the workplace shape the individual's experience, while the individual's performance affects the workplace and all the people in it. Thus, the erosion process has something of a chicken-and-egg quality—does it begin with the person or the job?—but popular wisdom usually lays the blame on the individual.

Echoing popular wisdom, a Welding Wiresubscriber responding to a recent question about job burnout said, "Quit whining! I know of very few people who work hard enough to come close to burnout. The real problem is lazy people who think working hard (and long) shouldn't be expected of them. The real reason we lose jobs to low-wage countries is because those people understand hard work. They have been doing it all their lives.

"I suppose growing up on a farm where there was always more work than time colors my opinions, but working 60- to 80-hour weeks has been standard since high school. A 40-hour workweek is more like a vacation.

"I get really tired of hearing the crybabies bawl, when I can't find people who are willing to work hard, do a good job, and put their heart into their work. I have a hundred people who want a job, but none who want to work."

Maslach and Leiter take issue with popular wisdom. Their book examines how organizations cause personal stress. They view the job burnout crisisas "an opportunity for managers and employees to review major shortcomings in organizational life; address pressures contributing to chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness; build productive engagement between people and their work; and increase commitment and productivity in the workplace."

In a Nutshell

Job burnout has more to do with the lack of appreciation and reward an employee receives for his or her efforts than an increased work load. It also has to do with a conflict between an employee's values and job requirements. Those suffering from job burnout feel no sense of accomplishment from and no control over their work lives. As a result, they are not motivated to do more than is required to receive a paycheck. Is this the kind of employee most employers want?

An acquaintance offered the following comments about work conditions that can lead to job burnout: "Years ago if you put in long hours and worked hard for a company, you were rewarded with gradual promotions, longer vacations, medical insurance, and a healthy retirement plan. Most people expected to work 20 years or more at one company. Today to get ahead and save for a reasonable retirement, workers often must hop from company to company to get a promotion. Hard work and dedication to a job well done are no longer seen as ways to protect a job. Everyone is expendable, thanks to many employers' short-term, economic goals. And there's no incentive to work long hours. It won't likely pay off for the worker in the long run."

A Personal Story

I've experienced job burnout. Before this job I worked for a small high-tech firm that provided complicated programs for companies nationwide, including a very well-known company that would kill my firstborn if I divulged its name. I was responsible for this and other major accounts.

The technology-based programs we provided were supposed tofunction nonstop. I found myself monitoring programs and heading back into the office late at night or in the wee hours of the morning to reset systems or alert technicians to do so. This was on top of assisting the president's overworked assistant in managing the company during the two weeks each month he spent at his vacation home, managing two departments, and taking on whatever else needed to be done.

I thrived on the responsibility. What led to my burnout were the inability to give our customers the service I thought they deserved and promised, my strong reluctance to go along with the president's instruction to be less than honest with our clients, and the organization's failure to resolve certain issues. The job conflicted with my values. I was mentally and physically exhausted and suffered from chronic stomach problems.

Before finally making the decision to leave the job, I identified the issues that were contributing to my burnout, came up with suggestions for what both the company and I could do to make things better, and discussed my ideas with the president. Eight months after our meeting, nothing had changed. I gave notice and left both the job and my chronic stomach problems behind.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Even the most enlightened, caring employers are facing conditions that can lead to employee burnout. Bob Kerr, Innotec Stainless operations manager and Welding Wire subscriber, wrote, "I hope that as a follow-up to the replies you receive from burned-out welders, you can remind them that their employer's constant efforts to increase productivity while decreasing costs are also an effort to compete in an increasingly competitive market. If the employer cannot compete successfully utilizing domestic labor, he is either forced to offshore or close shop. Therefore, it is in the best interest of each employee to strive for higher personal productivity. As Americans, we tend to forget that we are indeed competing in an increasingly smaller world."

An Equal-Opportunity Condition

Job burnout is nondiscriminating. Employees at all levels suffer. The symptoms of job burnout, particularly cynicism, have a way of spreading. Even employees who like their jobs and find them rewarding eventually may perceive a co-worker's complaints about management and lack of appreciation as valid. Not dealing with a burned-out employee can undermine your organization's health and lead to a burnout epidemic. Alleviating job burnout causes can strengthen morale, job satisfaction, and productivity.

Part IIof this series lists burnout symptoms and offers suggestions for overcoming the condition. It also contains a test that will help you determine where you are in terms of burnout.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209