Burn Out: Are you managing it or is it managing you?  A primer on Burn Out at Work.

Adapted from Dr. Daum’s presentation at the 5th Annual Conference of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists

Let’s begin by clearing up a misconception:  You are not experiencing Burn Out just because you consider it a vacation when you only have to work a 40-hour week...

Burn Out: just what exactly are we talking about?

A basic working definition of the resulting behavior we see is: a total depletion of your energetic resources; picture the Energizer bunny completely run down.  From a psychological perspective the condition of Burn Out is based on experiencing three components simultaneously: emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness.  It is a chronic problem. It progresses to depersonalization: doing the minimum along with cynicism.  The final phase follows this where you experience overwhelming worthlessness.  Psychologist Dr. Michael Leiter succinctly summarized it as the “erosion of dignity, spirit and will.”
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The Burn Out Cycle Model

There are two key contributors to Burn Out: the individual’s personality and perceived constraints in the organization’s environment.  Burn Out occurs when the relationship between the two is, or, becomes dysfunctional.  Burn Out directly influences Job Satisfaction and Job Performance but it is a continuous cycle with the individual reacting and going further down the slope to the final stages of Burn Out if they do not interrupt the cycle.

A key to understanding Burn Out is the fact that whether you end up burning out is based on you!  Burn Out is an individual phenomenon.  This analogy might help clarify my point.  If I were to hold up a mug of coffee and ask you how heavy it was, you would make an educated guess.  You might say about 10 ounces.  But in fact the actual weight does not matter.  It will depend on how long you try to hold it.  If I hold it briefly off the table, it is not that heavy.  If I hold it the same way for 15 minutes, my muscles will most probably ache.  If I hold it considerably longer, at some point, probably in less than an hour, I will likely drop it. If we tried this with you and several other individuals, there would be a difference in how much time each of you could comfortably hold it. Many factors affect this, for example, if you have arthritis, if you work out, had a hangover, etc. Remember, the actual weight is not changing, but it certainly seems like it is getting heavier and harder to hold the longer one holds it.  Burn Out acts the same way- each of us reacts differently to the same job related stimuli.  In some cases we thrive while others end up starting down the path to Burn Out.

Burn Out Sources and Solutions

Recall that there are two main contributors in the cycle to Burn Out.  First lets focus on the Individual.  What are the Signs of Burn Out?  Please note: this is not intended for self diagnosis, nor meant to be a comprehensive list. Our lawyers told me to say that so it covers the caveats so you will not sue me. In other words, telling you this delays my road to Burn Out!

OK here are some of the signs (from psychological instruments that assess the frequency of these factors, e.g., Maslach Burn Out Inventory):

Again, keep in mind it is not the fact that you experience one or more of these, but the combination and how you react to them that may result in the road to Burn Out.

What about if you have subordinates?  Of course, the signs are no different with your subordinates.  Except for the fact that you can be a direct contributor to the problem and also, hopefully, one who spots the signs early enough to prevent it from progressing to Burn Out.

Good versus Bad Stress  You should not assume that stress is always a bad thing. It keeps us motivated and can provide a great sense of achievement once we have resolved the stressful situation. Stress also increases the level of energy and muscle tension in our body, improving our ability to concentrate and meet demands.  It is when it gets out of your control that it becomes a negative.   Again, the key is Burn Out is a response unique to the individual.
Research has shown a number of potential stressors that tend to consistently correlate with Burn Out at work:

Let’s go over that list again...whew-- thank goodness none of those define your work environment.

Impact of Burn Out on the individual Research (Maslach and Leiter,1997) suggest that “Burn Out can cause such physical problems as headache, gastrointestinal illness, high blood pressure, muscle tension, and chronic fatigue.” Cordes and Dougherty (1993) go on to cite such psychological symptoms as lowered self-esteem, depression, irritability, helplessness and anxiety.

Here are some solutions for how to deal with your own Burn Out:

Dealing with Burn Out in your subordinates.  Very much the same remedies apply.  However, since it is specific to the individual, if you or your company is attempting to intervene you need to find out what will work with your subordinate.

Organizations: The other contributor in the Burn Out Cycle Model

What areas can your organization modify to reduce generic contributors to Burn Out?  Again, this is not intended be a comprehensive list, but rather illustrative.

Organizational Impact of Burn Out.
From an organizational standpoint, Burn Out can lead to such things as increases in turnover, absenteeism, greater intentions to quit and reductions in productivity (Cordes and Dougherty, 1993). The result for organizations is that greater levels of Burn Out mean lower levels of quality and quantity produced (Maslach and Leiter, 1997).

Let’s return to my opening title: are you managing stress or is it managing you?

Psychological research has consistently shown that increased autonomy regardless of position- blue collar, white collar and professional positions, results in increased ability to handle workload.  For example low latitude over work related decisions resulted in significantly more exhaustion after work, trouble waking up in the morning (or when the boss walks by...) depression, nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia as compared with individuals in the same positions and work load who had more decision related control.

Concisely, the key to avoiding Burn Out is exercising personal control.  Take more control and manage your work environment before you allow Burn Out to pop up and hit you between the eyes.   As the saying goes: Get out there and practice safe stress!

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