Symptoms and Solutions
July 13, 2004
If the amount of feedback Part I of this series generated is a good barometer, job burnout is a huge problem potentially affecting many workers at all levels. This article will help you determine if you're at risk or suffering from the condition. It also offers suggestions for actions you can take to prevent or overcome job burnout.
We all have days at work when we're tempted to leave and never return. Nothing in life is perfect, and part of achieving maturity is learning to compromise, cope, and work through difficulties. When certain harmful behaviors and feelings occur frequently and begin to intensify, you may be experiencing the early warning signals of job burnout.
In her book Preventing Job Burnout, Beverly A. Potter, Ph.D., lists these warning signals as:
According to Potter, "If unheeded, these symptoms can progress until a person dreads going to work. Even worse, burnout tends to spread to all aspects of a person's life. Rarely is a person burned out at work, yet energized and enthusiastic at home."
Some people feel that they are able to compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives and not let work problems bleed over into their personal lives and vice versa. These people may think they are handling difficult situations well and that the people around them are unaffected. This is an illusion. Those closest to you always sense that something isn't right and may want to help. This is a good thing, as you'll see in the section that discusses what you can do to restore your personal powerand alleviate job burnout.
Potter's book includes a test to help you determine where you rank in terms of job burnout. Review your life over the last six months, both at work and away from work. Then read each of the following items and rate how often the symptom is true for you. Use a rating scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being rarely trueand 5 being usually true. (If you'd like to print out the test, there is a print button at the end of the article.)
Add up your scores. 25 – 50, you're doing well; 51 – 75, you're OK if you take preventive action; 76 – 100, you're a candidate for job burnout; 101 – 125, you're burning out.
In Part I, I included a personal account of my own experience with job burnout at my previous job. When I came upon Potter's burnout test, I took it for both that job and my current job.
My score for my previous job was a whopping 90—on the higher end of "you're a candidate for job burnout," but lower than it could have been, because no matter how bad the job, I could never have a "why bother" attitude, and I strive for high levels of effective communication at all times.
When rating the previous job, 5 seemed too low for some items that were alwaystrue instead of usuallytrue. For example, I remember how, during the last few months on the job, dread began to descend on me when I entered the parking lot, and how I felt its weight dragging me down as I reached the office door and pushed it open. In fact, I'm feeling it now as I recall the experience.
For my current job, my total was 34. I'm in a good place—physically, mentally, and emotionally—and it's made a world of difference in my life.
My current job is a better fit for my skill set and interests. I enjoy what I'm doing and feel that I have reasonable control of my work and the power to make a difference. I believe my company is morally sound and in line with my values and ethics. The company is concerned about employee morale and consistently works to improve it, which isn't an easy task and one that many companies never address.
Unlike my previous situation, I feel that if I were approaching burnout in this job, I could go to my supervisor, express my concerns, and work with her to remedy contributing issues. And I believe that conditions could be improved in reasonable time. If not, I would have to decide if perhaps it might be time for a job change.
The bottom line is, job burnout is a serious problem affecting all areas of your life. You can't ignore it.
According to Potter, "The antidote for burnout is personal power, or a feeling of 'I can do,' a belief that you can act to control your work." She lists eight paths to personal power and offers exercises to help you accomplish them.
Managing Yourself. As Potter stated, most of us probably acquired our self-management skills informally from parents and teachers and may not be able to manage ourselves effectively. With proper self-management, you can create situations in which you give yourself the rewards required to sustain high motivation and achieve personal power.
Managing Stress. Stress is a normal part of life, and a certain amount of stress is healthy and necessary for motivation. The key to managing your stress is to recognize how stress manifests itself in you and which situations and people trigger your stress responses. Potter suggests that this understanding can be used to raise and lower your tension level as needed for optimum personal power.
Building Social Support. As Bette Midler sang, "You got to have friends." A strong support system made up of family, friends, and co-workers provides a buffer against the negative effects of stress. Studies show that people with strong support systems enjoy healthier, longer lives.
Skill Building. As you grow in your job, you may encounter tasks requiring skill you have yet to acquire. According to Potter, personal power comes from knowing how to arrange learning situations for yourself, which gives you the confidence to handle new challenges.
Tailoring the Job. If you have landed in a newly created position, the good news is that you probably have lots of freedom to tailor your job. Most new hires aren't as lucky. They find themselves filling a previously occupied position and often expected to do things the way they've always been done.
When I first began working for my current employer, I was given my predecessor's files, which I studied to learn what was expected of me. My predecessor was a highly skilled, effective worker from whom I had a lot to learn. In the beginning, I modeled my work after hers. As time went on and I had the basics down, I began to rely on my own creativity, instincts, and skills to tailor the job as much as I could to suit my talents. As I did so, I had more to offer the company, and my job satisfaction soared. Many of us would be surprised at how much more we could achieve if only we did more than follow the status quo or work only within our narrowly defined job descriptions.
Changing Jobs. Perhaps you or someone you know has left a job because of burnout. The only way changing jobs works is if you know why the other job led to burnout, what you really need and want in a new job, and if you are diligent in seeking the rightjob. Some deep soul-searching and introspection are in order. Having a clear image of your own best job can help you define the characteristics necessary for you to experience personal power and fulfillment.
Thinking Powerfully. Powerful thinking equals positive thinking. It also means being able to quiet your mind and concentrate on the task at hand. We all can experience excessive head noise. When it happens to me, I say my mind is "wrapped around the axle," meaning it's spinning wildly out of control—so many thoughts creating so much confusion. The encouraging thing is that I recognize those moments, tell myself to get a grip, and really work at clearing my mind and focusing. Being able to focus is like living in a neat, orderly environment as opposed to one that is cluttered and chaotic. You operate much more effectively and efficiently in a calm, collected atmosphere.
Detached Concern. Potter defines detached concern as a form of mental control in which personal power is gained by letting go. She suggests that the attachment of one's ideas of how things ought to be can imprison you and make you feel helpless. Focusing on the situation at hand, taking what steps you can to make it better, and letting go of the things you can't control make for a healthier life.
Responding to Part I of this series, reader David Stewart said, "The points of the article are right on. We've all worked hard, long hours and felt fine because we didn't have the stress of conflicting emotions and demands from our jobs. And we've all worked much less but had a tough time with burnout in a company where we weren't compatible with the general philosophy.
"As an endurance athlete in Masters competition, I learned long ago that fatigue from a demanding training schedule wasn't as much an issue as the pressures on my life at any given time. Stress from work or home was much more demanding than the longest run or fastest bike ride.
"I've settled in a job I like that doesn't make the money for me that I was accustomed to in past years. But it doesn't have the same stress levels, I have a lot of freedom, and I like the bottom line approach. And I work around happy people.
"The number of hours I spend at work isn't the important factor here. It's the profitability of the work in terms of both making money and customer satisfaction, both of which we do well as a group. Add to that the need that I get everything done correctly and on a timely basis. There are times when the stress level is very high, but it's always [tempered] by a corporate culture that sees beyond the most basic measurements of performance. That's worth a lot."
In Part III of this series, we'll take a look at organizational attitudes about job burnout, how organizations contribute to the problem, how it affects the bottom line, and how to bring about change.