Job Burnout—Part 3

An organizational perspective

August 10, 2004
By: Vicki Bell

This is the last in a series of articles about job burnout. Part Idiscussed the causes. Part IIcovered symptoms and solutions from an individual standpoint. It also included a test to help you determine where you are in terms of burnout.

Job burnout is a complicated condition caused most often by the conflict between an employee's values, priorities, and needs; the organization's values; and the job requirements. Ironically, the most dedicated employees—those who continually strive for excellence and go beyond the minimum effort required to remain employed—are most at risk. Prime job burnout candidates are highly productive, creative individuals who take pride in their work, have good work ethics, and try to make a difference—the kind of employees most companies want.

In the current economic environment in which companies are struggling to survive, employee burnout often is considered a relatively insignificant, individual problem. The employee simply is unable to deal with job-related stresses. Shouldn't employee assistance programs (EAPs) and stress management seminars be enough to address the problem on a case-by-case basis? And if a burned-out employee quits, aren't many jobless people just waiting to fill his shoes—perhaps at an even lower salary?

In Denial

Such organizational thinking is wrong, shortsighted, and ultimately can lead to an organization's downfall. According to The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About Itby Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, burnout affects the bottom line: "The bottom-line argument about burnout is that it doesn't affect the organization's performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, job stress can lead to substantial financial and productivity loss, and anyone who is unaware of this basic fact has been in denial for quite some time."

Maslach and Leiter said, " We believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environmentin which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.

"Burnout is best addressed at the organizational level rather than the individual one. Such action does not necessarily reflect an altruistic motive on the part of employers; indeed, it is a matter of self-interest. By taking responsibility for dealing with burnout, the organization will be managing in a way that will ensure it has a productive staff for the long-term."

The Burned-out Employee

On the surface, it may appear that the burned-out employee's job performance isn't suffering and that productivity hasn't been affected as the employee attempts to cope on his own with the situation. However, Maslach and Leiter said, "People who are burned out are likely to withdraw from the job, both psychologically and physically. They invest less time and energy in their work, do only what is absolutely necessary, and are absent more often. In addition to doing less, they do their work less well. High-quality work requires time and effort, commitment, and creativity, but the burned-out individual is no longer willing to give these freely. The drop in quality and quantity of work produced is the occupational bottom line of burnout."

A reader responding to Part I of this series wrote, "I have suffered from job burnout for approximately four years. I wasa hard-working, dedicated employee who seldom watched the clock. Now I barely can get to work."

Burned-out employees become cynical, negative, and argumentative. They can lash out at co-workers, become non-team players, and pass their burnout on to others. The company that fails to identify and correct organizational problems that contribute to burnout can find itself in serious trouble.

Problem Areas

According to Maslach and Leiter, six areas of organizational life contribute to job burnout:

1. Work overload
Because of downsizing, this condition is becoming more and more serious. Companies that downsize may not decrease output, which means remaining employees take on heavier work loads, often without increased rewards.

2. Lack of control over one's work
Commenting on this area, a reader wrote, "Feelings of powerlessness, not being listened to, and not [having control of a job] certainly lead to the F-this attitude and 'I want out; there must be something more.'"

3. Lack of reward and recognition for one's contributions
A metal fabricating manager responded to a recent Stamping News Brief question about compensation with the following:

Raises are quite poor after the 1980s. My current compensation is less than what I made in 1990. Benefits are equally poor. I do not get any sick leave or vacation for a year. Pay raises here are significantly lower than profit improvements. The sales force sees a major improvement in their pay in the form of commissions. That is not normally passed back to the manufacturing work force.

The problem as such is much more than simple pay raises. If the compensation is not there and remains low, the best and brightest will eventually move on. This is what is happening. It is a treatable industrial cancer that most members of government and executives miss in their cost analysis. Remember, accountants are reviewing the balance sheet, not savvy manufacturing folks.

Another reader said, "We have received no raise in 2003 or 2004 and our next opportunity is 2005. However, our medical insurance co-pay has gone up every year. I would love to get another job and will keep trying to do so."

4. Lack of community, meaning the loss of positive connection with co-workers
The four-year burned-out employee quoted above said that his main issue is the people with whom he works. He feels no sense of community with his co-workers.

5. Lack of fairness, respect, and confirmation of self-worth
A reader felt her company fell short in terms of fairness and respect when she was asked to prepare a lengthy presentation for a meeting and then did not have the opportunity to present the presentation. She feels that her contribution was not appreciated, and she is not motivated to exert much effort on future assignments of this nature.

6. Organization/employee value conflicts
In previous articles, I've discussed my own experience with this issue. For my job to be fulfilling, I must believe in the company I work for—in its mission, its values, and its continual, sincere efforts to fulfill them. I must be proud of the products and services we provide. My personal belief is that what's good for the customers—both external and internal—ultimately is best for business, and I need to work for an organization that has the same belief system.

I believe in honest, open communication and expect my employer to respect and value its employees enough to provide this type of environment. Will I agree with all management decisions? Probably not, but that's not important. Perfection is relative, and nothing is perfect. What is important to me is understanding the reasons for decisions and not having to operate in the dark, which can be a scary place in today's job market.

What I learned from my previous job is that when a value conflict exists and the organization isn't interested in finding out why and making things better, it's time to move on. Accept the things you cannot change and find a healthier job.

What Organizations Can Do

Maslach and Leiter offer some very practical, detailed suggestions for setting organizational missions and values, assessing the job burnout potential, and working to create a healthier workplace.

Preventing job burnout is an ongoing goal that involves input and cooperation from the entire organization. To accomplish it, an organization first must have a clear mission and a strong culture consistent with the mission.

Next, the six areas conducive to creating burnout must be assessed. Staff surveys are excellent tools for gaining input, provided the staff feels comfortable and safe enough to be honest without fearing repercussions. One way to provide this assurance is by having an independent consultant conduct the survey and compile the results anonymously. This may be an easier task for larger organizations. In smaller companies, it's hard to guarantee anonymity.

Survey results should be compiled by department, because departmental perspectives can differ greatly. Management and employees then can sit down together to discuss the identified problem areas and what can be done to improve conditions. It's important for employees at all levels to participate in the initiative.

As I read Maslach's and Leiter's book, the light bulb went on as to why I suffered severe burnout in my previous job, and given that company's mindset, little probably could have been done to remedy my value conflict. What I read also confirmed that my current employer does many things right when it comes to trying to improve conditions—at least from my perspective. We have a clear mission statement and goals. We hold companywide monthly meetings to discuss the company's financials and important issues. In the meetings, we acknowledge employee anniversaries and birthdays. These meetings also can be forums to share concerns or positive news.

Because of downsizing, employee morale has suffered. Management recognized this and developed a staff-run employee appreciation committee to address it. Many positive ideas were implemented that have helped morale. But this issue, like the others that can lead to job burnout, can't be resolved by one-time actions. Efforts must be ongoing.

Can we do more to enhance communication? Of course. We are a multifaceted organization, and it's easy for one area to remain in the dark about what's happening in other areas. Like other companies, we've downsized, and it can be difficult for each of us to handle our individual work loads and still pay attention to what's happening elsewhere.

The bottom line is that an organization should care about and take steps to prevent job burnout if it wants a healthy bottom line long-term.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

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