Professors Andrew and Nada Kakabadse continue their review of the issues contributing to burn out in the workplace. What causes burnout, how can it be identified, how dangerous is it, and what can be done to improve our corporate lives?
“I’m bored, I’m tired and I’m going nowhere. There are no more promotions. The work doesn’t get easier. Yet what’s pushed hard in the firm? More commitment! More drive! More time for work. Get the client! Keep the client!”
If any of this sounds worryingly familiar, rest assured you’re not alone. A recent study by the American Psychological Association showed three quarters of Americans experience symptoms related to stress every month, with 77% citing physical symptoms as a result.
The distress of burn out ruins many people’s lives, and the fact a considerable number of senior managers seem increasingly prone to this debilitating experience suggests the issue deserves serious attention.
Our research indicates no one person or ‘type’ is particularly prone to stressful circumstances. Anyone can experience burn out over time, but the following two points can be used as a guide to recognising the condition before it becomes too late:
- Time is crucial - anyone exposed to strain at work over a prolonged period is likely to experience some sort of trauma, which can emerge as symptoms of burn out. An individual who previously found a situation challenging or exciting, will eventually see the same circumstances as debilitating
- Boredom can similarly result in burn out. Having too little to do, or just working on ‘auto pilot’ without any personal improvement, can lead managers to despise an activity. Examining the track record of people who are considered burnt out shows that work they once viewed as easy has now become their main complaint
Burn out can defined as an ‘unemotional deterioration, arising from prolonged exposure to perceived circumstances, leaving a person unable to do what they were previously accomplished at’.
It is an insidious, slowly emerging phenomenon, often recognised too late as sufferers can appear to be coping well with their situation for a considerable time.
Burn out and stress, while similar, are not the same. Six key points separate burn out from other conditions. These are:
- Repetition: The removal of middle management in more organisations means a greater number of senior managers are taking on a higher volume of repetitive, detailed, and often tedious tasks
- Over exposure: Another outcome of middle management reduction is that the survivors are more exposed to criticism. With more demands, managers respond to the symptoms of problems rather than their causes, leading to increasing dissatisfaction
- Downsizing: Working in downsized organisations makes managers defensive, mistrustful, inward-looking and unwilling to address long-term issues. With reduced prospects for career progression, the motivation to deal with challenges drops
- Loss of will: The result of being exposed to circumstances of prolonged demotivation emerges as an emotional deterioration
- Job trap: A feeling of being trapped happens when a manager recognises that, despite a reasonable level of pay, they are unlikely to find alternative work because of their age and lifestyle demands
- Discipline dysfunctionality: Some managers take pride to being disciplined enough to perform effectively despite impossible circumstances. This might be effective in the short term, but will likely to lead to greater dysfunctionality as time goes on
When it comes to combating burn out, important strategies have been identified for the individual, and for bosses to help their team members.
- Individuals should become proactive in managing their emotional lives and develop self-awareness, rather than let themselves feel engulfed, or be too accepting of their own moods
- Recognise and respect the symptoms of emotional decline and strain. It is only when a problem is seen as a problem that people commit to doing something about it
- Address problems on a step-by-step basis and increase your confidence along the way. Taking on too much change too quickly can lead to a feeling of being unable to cope. Use stress reduction techniques like taking more breaks, employ relaxation therapies or exercise
- Re-orientate yourself. Face up to the need to change your attitudes and lifestyle expectations. Restructure your life and recognise that less income and status can result in a positive change
From the boss’s perspective:
- Recognise the psychological contract between employer and employee and develop working relationship based on employment with loyalty, and endeavour and security expectations
- Prepare and help staff into a conversation about any personal or professional decline. Not doing so creates greater defensiveness in someone experiencing burn out
- Give time off. Even just enough time away to relieve the strain can help tackle the more distressing symptoms of burn out
- Reducing the number of tasks someone is facing helps reduce their strain and allows them to regain control over their personal and work lives
- Offering coaching and counselling helps individual reconsider their circumstances and learn new skills to expand their abilities
Ultimately, the boss needs to recognise the limitations of what can or can’t be done. If the genuine view is that no more can be done to help, then it may be best for everyone if the person suffering from burn is helped to leave the organisation.