Thinking About Burnout

PICT0364I’ve seen my fair share of people burning out at work and I’ve experienced it myself several times.  Most often it’s been a temporary experience for me, fixed by a relaxing weekend, but sometimes it’s more systematic.  Many years ago I managed a couple of people who had burned out and had to go off sick with stress for a month or more and it was a traumatic experience for me (and them).  I was shocked that I didn’t see the signs early enough to help and since then I’ve always been a much closer observer and taken proactive preventative steps when I can.

So I was intrigued to find a study from the The Association for Psychological Science that asserted that burnout comes in three types:

Overload: The frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion, is most closely related to emotional venting. These individuals might try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work, feeling as though it imposes limits on their goals and ambitions. That coping strategy, unsurprisingly, seems to lead to a stress overload and a tendency to throw in the towel.

Lack of Development: Most closely associated with an avoidance coping strategy. These under-challenged workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, a strategy that leads to depersonalization and cynicism — a harbinger for burning out and packing up shop.

Neglect: Seems to stem from a coping strategy based on giving up in the face of stress. Even though these individuals want to achieve a certain goal, they lack the motivation to plow through barriers to get to it.

As I read through these types of burnout two thoughts came to mind.  First most people only really look for and address the ‘overload’ type of burnout and more interestingly I’m suffering from the ‘lack of development’ type. 

My personal circumstances mean that I don’t work many hours and more importantly have to avoid stressful situations and high intensity activities.  This means it’s difficult for me to fully engage in work.  I’d never considered this as a form of burnout.  What’s made it more difficult for me as well is the endless sequence of changes that we are going through at work many of which are poorly planned and barely implemented before the next change arrives.

So I’ve decided on two things:  First I need to seek out ways to get re-engaged in work in a way that works for me AND I need to be more conscious of others that might be suffering from ANY of the three types of burnout and make sure I support them as best I can.  At least I didn’t suffer like Charlie in this cautionary tale.

It’s a fascinating topic and one that needs more attention, even the advice in the original article on coping with burnout seems to really only address the first type:

Treatments that include emotion regulation, increased cognitive flexibility, and mindfulness may help ward off burnout in susceptible individuals, suggests the research team led by Jesus Montero Marin of the University of Zaragoza in Spain. Organizations that want to keep their employees happy and productive may begin to invest in the fight against burnout by helping employees find accessible, affordable therapies for coping with stress. As some companies know all too well, high turnover can stall progress — especially if the burnout wildfire spreads.

Many people when faced with burnout consider that reduced working hours is the solution, in some ways that was my solution, but as I’ve described reduced working hours comes with it’s own challenges and burnout risks.

It seems that Google (as is so often the case) is leading the way, but again really only addressing overwork burnout.:

Google is conducting a decade’s long study into the work lives of its employees in an effort to understand how people work better. What they discovered is that only 31% of their employees are able to leave work at work. That means 69% of people take their work home with them.  It’s actually more than that though, people are unable to distinguish between their work life and personal life.

Google’s Dublin office instituted a policy called “Google Goes Dark.” All of the employees in that office had to leave their work devices at work and off. This was done in an effort to draw clear boundaries between home life and work life.

There’s a perception that more work equals more productivity, but that’s not always the case.

I think my simple guide to health provides a good foundation for avoiding burnout, but clearly as this article shows there are some scenarios that it doesn’t address, food for thought!

The photo shows my view as I sit by the beach writing this post.  I was prompted to write it by a half finished conversation with my friend Graham.  We were having a wide ranging conversation earlier in the week and we never got to do this topic justice, he reminded me a few minutes ago.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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