Bosses: How to Prevent Burnout

Overwork, job stress, layoffs, mandatory overtime, and lack of control over the job: these are some of the biggest reasons that employees get burned out on their work. Reducing job stress, getting rid of forced overtime, and improving workplace culture will help. Sometimes people just need to look for another kind of profession for personal reasons. But if your employee is trying to stay in the job, all the exercise, vacations and green, leafy vegetables in the world won’t make a difference if your workplace is psychologically toxic.

“Often, there’s this idea that there is a failing on the part of the individual and they need to be treated,” says Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. In 1997, Leiter and Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, co-authored The Truth About Burnout, the first book to emphasis the idea that the structure and conditions of the workplace — not the worker — are to blame for burnout.

There is only so much the burned-out person can do, Leiter notes. The one person who can really make a difference is the boss. Your supervisor has a great deal of control over the major aspects of how you work and how you feel about your work. “You can’t just send people off to fix themselves,” Leiter said. “I don’t think you can get better without a change in your relationship with your supervisor.”

Where do I start?

Leiter and Maslach, who have been studying burnout for several years, have identified several elements that influence whether a workplace will nurture productivity or breed burn out:

Workload. Do employees have a reasonable amount of work? Do they have the time and resources to get their work done? Do they have some sense of control over their workload?

Rewards. Are employees rewarded in meaningful ways?

Community. Do employees feel they are part of a team that is working towards a shared goal? Or do they feel isolated and in conflict with the rest of the group?

Fairness. Do employees feel that work and rewards are allocated in an equitable manner? Or do they feel oppressed by an obvious star system or pecking order?

Values. Do employees share the values of the organization? Does the work seem meaningful?

“People can put up with an astounding workload if they feel those other elements are being addressed,” Leiter said.

Letting your employees know their efforts are essential to the organization’s success can forestall feelings of isolation and alienation. A good supervisor makes people feel their contributions are valuable. Ruth Luban, a career consultant based in Santa Monica, California, talked about the director of a multimedia company who made a golden replica of the CD software his office designed. He had everyone sign it — including technical and support staff — and framed it and hung it in the office like a gold record.

Recognize and reward good work

“Validation is extremely important,” said Luban, author of Keeping the Fire: From Burnout to Balance. “It’s very much a top-down thing, in my opinion. Of course coworkers are going to commiserate, but what really makes a difference is getting recognition from the person in charge.”

And recognition needs to come in a form that speaks directly to the worker’s needs. “For some people money is it,” Leiter said. “For other people, money by itself isn’t sufficient. There has to be a jibing of the values. For a significant number of people, particularly those doing creative, emotionally challenging work, the other aspects need to be addressed for them to want to stick with it.”

Like a good captain, a good boss makes sure everyone stays on course, even over the rough patches. Many people thrive on the stress of doing challenging work. Colleagues who are excited about getting an Internet startup off the ground often find they have the energy for schedules that would seem impossible in a less inspiring environment. But put those same people in a startup where the mission is unclear and the goals keep shifting, and watch the seeds of burnout start to sprout.

“Helping people clarify expectations and priorities is one of the biggest things a good manager can do,” said Karen Lawson, a management consultant based in suburban Philadelphia. “But often, especially in settings that are rapidly changing and evolving, there’s the sense that the managers don’t even know what the expectations and priorities are.”

If you are highly critical without offering constructive advice or praise, you can do just as much damage as those who aren’t clear about their expectations. And although no one should count on a supervisor to be a surrogate parent or counselor, it is not unreasonable to expect civil treatment in the workplace.

Change starts at the top

“Bosses need to remember the small things,” said Carole Kanchier, a psychologist and principal of Questers, a career consulting group. “Say good morning with a smile. Bosses don’t intend to be rude, but often they are so engrossed in a task that they forget the basics.”

Sadly, even though supervisors wield a great deal of influence over their subordinates’ attitudes about work, many of them fail to make the time to learn how to improve office morale. Although small businesses and Fortune 500 companies are eager to contract with Lawson for her six-hour burnout class for employees, they routinely cancel the companion class for managers.

“Companies think offering the class is the cure,” she said. “They don’t understand the changes have to start at the top.”

Luban said she receives dozens of calls for help from Internet companies. “Even dot-coms with the foozball tables and the massage therapists are beginning to see those things as cliches,” she said. “These things aren’t enough anymore. “The hallmark of burnout has typically been denial. [People think], ‘Other people appear to be coping better so I’ve got to try harder.’ You have to honor and acknowledge how you feel. Managers can create a climate of communication. Talking about burnout is one of the most healing things you can do.”


Interview with Ruth Luban, a career consultant and author of Burnout: Keeping the Fire.

Interview with Karen Lawson, a management consultant based in suburban Philadelphia

Interview with Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia

Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter. The Truth About Burnout : How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. Jossey-Bass: New York, New York: 1997, 256 pp.

Wilmar Schaufeli and Dirk Enzmann. The Burnout Companion to Study and Practice : A Critical Analysis (Issues in Occupational Health). Taylor and Francis: 1998

The Truth About Burnout : How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, Jossey-Bass, 1997

When Stress Won’t Go Away, by William Atkinson, HR Magazine, December 2000, Vol. 45, No. 12

© HealthDay

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