At age 55, Ray had sailed to his fourth promotion — senior account manager for an office equipment company — and was being eyed for an even higher level job, when he began to get vicious headaches. Although he denied he was struggling on the job, Ray was experiencing enough stress for his doctor to advise him to exercise and get some counseling. Ray did neither. As a result, he had such severe anxiety attacks on the way to work or when he even thought about his job that eventually he was unable to return to work — anywhere. Ray’s morale and self-esteem are described in an insurance company report as “rock bottom.”
Joyce, a 44-year-old molding machine operator on an assembly line who was featured in the same report, had symptoms similar to Ray’s. The intense light on the shop floor bothered her eyes, and the pressures of the assembly line left her exhausted. Her doctor diagnosed her as suffering from depression and advised her to take a leave.
Unlike Ray, Joyce and her employer dealt directly with her burnout. Her employer supported her time off and asked her to pick a less stressful job. After 13 months on disability leave, she chose to return to work as a janitor. It was less taxing to her physically and mentally, and she worked her shift without anyone looking over her shoulder. Instead of flaming out, she was happy in her work again.
Both Ray’s and Joyce’s stories are examples of burnout from a survey of 600 workers published by Northwestern National Life Insurance Corp. — now known as Reliastar. Among the report’s findings: One in three people surveyed expected to burn out on the job in the near future.
Burnout is ubiquitous
The American Institute of Stress defines burnout as “a disabling reaction to stress on the job.” Aside from being painful for employees, burnout is expensive for the nation, according to the institute. It estimates that job stress costs U.S. industry $300 billion annually, as measured by absenteeism, decreased productivity, employee turnover, and direct medical, legal, and insurance fees. The institute also reports that nearly half of all American workers suffer from symptoms of burnout.
Many of those symptoms are easy to spot. Burnout quickly erodes employees’ physical and mental health, often resulting in fatigue, irritability, crying jags, and anxiety attacks. Other noticeable symptoms are loss of appetite or weight gain due to lack of exercise or overeating in reaction to stress. Subtler signs can include teeth grinding or increased drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, along with insomnia or nightmares, forgetfulness, low productivity, and an inability to concentrate.
Left unattended, experts say, stress and burnout can lead to headaches, feelings of emptiness, cynicism, or a sense of isolation; lack of intimacy and lowered sex drive, and — of course — increased absenteeism.
But overwork alone doesn’t explain why some employees reach their breaking point when carrying a too-heavy load, while others carry on and even appear to thrive. The insurance company study found that workers who had little control and too many constraints on how to do the job were at a high risk of burnout — a finding that may come as no surprise to frazzled clerical or assembly line employees. A substantial cut in employee benefits and frequent, mandatory overtime also upped the risk of burnout, as did layoffs, a merger or change of ownership, or other cutbacks. The reasons for job burnout, the researchers concluded, are varied and complex. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has its own take on what stresses workers to the point of no return. Along with workloads, infrequent breaks and long hours, NIOSH cites a lack of control over your job — including little or no support from bosses and co-workers and an inability to participate in decision-making. Other factors contributing to stress and burnout may be familiar to many workers: They include job insecurity, too much responsibility or conflicting expectations, and unpleasant or dangerous conditions, such as crowding, noise, or ergonomic problems.
It’s the best who burn out
Since burnout is both pervasive and enormously destructive, many managers make it a priority not to overwork their employees. Overwork is certainly a key factor in employee burnout: Nearly a third of the cross-section of workers in the Northwestern Life insurance study said they suffered from too large a workload. That finding jibes with a common perception. We usually associate job burnout with overwork. Like a motor running so hard that it starts to smoke, we imagine people figuratively overheating and eventually conking out. But in many cases, simply reducing an intolerable workload may not be enough — or even the central issue. Management consultants say they frequently hear complaints of burnout from people with reasonable workloads. They may feel overworked because they are so depressed, they aren’t getting anything done.
This might be the colleague who is late each morning because he hasn’t slept well and dreads getting out of bed and heading into the office. Or the co-worker who stares at the computer screen for hours on end, never seeming to focus on the task in front of her. Or the friend who totes a jammed briefcase home each weekend, hoping to catch up but never manages to carry the paperwork from the car to the house.
In these cases, the problem usually isn’t too much work, but too little recognition. These people feel they have no control over their work lives. Like gears grinding in place, they aren’t getting anywhere. They have trouble doing their jobs because they can’t see that their efforts matter. A sense of futility feeds their unhappiness until they really do fall behind. This lack of recognition is a key reason for burnout, say some experts.
“Burnout is a person’s alienation from work,” said Karen Lawson, a management consultant based in suburban Philadelphia. “It results in physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion.” That alienation can be triggered by long hours and Herculean tasks or by a sense that one’s work isn’t good enough or doesn’t count. The manifestations of this latter form of burnout — lethargy, apathy, absentmindedness — can make these employees look like slackers. But the people most likely to succumb are often those with the greatest sense of mission in their work.
“People who are burnout-prone tend to be resilient and hardy,” said Ruth Luban, author of Keeping the Fire: from Burnout to Balance “They tend to be givers. They want to contribute and make a difference. These are people who are caring and spiritually generous. They can take on enormous stress as long as they have some sense that they are being recognized.”
Stop it before it starts
To protect oneself against burnout, Luban said it is essential to set and maintain boundaries.
“You’ve got to pay attention to external and internal boundaries,” she said. “External is learning how to say ‘no.’ Park the Palm Pilot and the cell phone. Give yourself weekends. Take lunch hours and breaks. Respect the boundaries between your work and private lives. It’s important to have friends outside of the office.”
Luban and others warned against turning social time into kvetching sessions. When someone is burned out, it is easy to develop a kind of tunnel vision in which everything revolves around the miseries of the workplace. Make sure to spend regular time with people who value you for something other than what you do for a living.
Respecting internal boundaries also means taking care of the basics — getting regular exercise, eating healthful food and sleeping at least eight hours a night.
Carole Kanchier, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, described one of her clients, Linda, a young woman who was being run ragged in her job on a computer help desk. In order to restore a sense of balance, on her days off, Linda goes to Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California to meditate.
When someone is burned out, she will probably need help figuring out a way to recuperate. If the problem is overwork, then she might need to ask for an assistant or take an overdue vacation. But time off won’t be enough if it means returning to a work situation that leaves her feeling worthless. In that case, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. Many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs. These are services offering a counseling hotline that workers can call for free. A counselor can help someone identify areas that she might change, for instance, asking for a reassignment or arranging a more flexible schedule. The insurance company survey found that just having an EAP available — whether or not it was used — had a salutary effect on workers.
Help for the flagging career
Perhaps you’ve outgrown your job, or maybe you don’t have the training you need to do your job. Talking to an EAP counselor can help you figure out how to launch a job search or to ask your boss to send you for professional development courses. If you aren’t getting the validation and recognition you need from your boss, seek it elsewhere. When a newspaper reporter didn’t feel he was getting enough credit from his editors, he turned for solace to a fat file of letters from readers who’d been moved by his stories. An assistant in a high-powered law firm found meaning by volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate for a child in foster care. Learning a new sport or skill can also give a person a sense of accomplishment outside of the office.
And if all else fails, you might want to consider moving on. Remember that no job has to be forever. “You always have a choice,” said Kanchier, who also runs Questers, a career consulting group in Mountain View, California. Perhaps because burnout leaves people feeling so drained, people tend to forget they don’t have to tough it out. “It usually takes a crisis before people decide to leave,” said Michael Leiter, co-author, with Christine Maslach, of The Truth About Burnout. Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley have spent years studying burnout patterns among hospital workers. Leiter said the anecdotal evidence from nurses indicates that their decisions to leave jobs that made them unhappy were linked to life-threatening events.
“Often people left after being in car accidents,” he said. “One woman left after a bomb threat in the hospital where she worked. There is a sense that life is short and they don’t want to spend their time on work that is taking away their ability to experience joy in life.
But it shouldn’t take a car wreck to tell you when your career has turned into a train wreck. If this sounds like your life, find someone to talk to and get moving.
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 http://www.shrm.org/hrmagazine/articles/default.asp?page=1200atkinson.htm