By the end of the year, many of us feel exhausted and look forward to change of pace, including celebrating the festive season with friends and family. One December, a psychologist sighed ‘It’s been a long year’, and told me how she was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to rest and recharge her batteries… More than that, some of us will feel this year ‘It’s been a long decade’, recognising that milestones (personal like birthdays, or collective like decades) prompt us to reflect and evaluate our accomplishments and state of mind.
There is too a growing awareness of the importance of looking after our mental health: the topic has increasingly entered our group consciousness in the United Kingdom and internationally. The stigma around mental health and wellbeing is abating, and we are not as stoic about it as we once were. We’re talking about it far more, which itself is a healthy activity. And, the World Health Organisation has recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), underscoring the increasing attention on mental wellbeing.
From a Protagion perspective, our members ask about or allude to burnout and its consequences perhaps more than average because of the types of achievers they often are or because a number of our coaches are experienced in helping proteges to manage stress. In a recent conversation with an international mentor, she shared her own challenges with juggling her career, her young family, her studies, and her responsibilities to her parents and parents-in-law. Please sign up as a protege if you’d like to speak with our coaches about your specific circumstances. As Dr Geri Puleo says, “star employees are the ones who tend to burn out fastest”.
Other Protagion articles which touch on the topics of stress and ambition include:
Read more to learn about the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), dimensions and stages of burnout, the changing dynamics of work and the impact of job-person fit, and ten techniques for dealing with stress.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is our prolonged physiological response to chronic stresses on the job / in the workplace. Unrelenting stress affects our performance, bearing in mind that many factors can cause stress. There is even a Japanese word for death from being overworked: karoshi! Our natural fight or flight responses can be triggered by work stressors like trying to meet deadlines or collaborate with difficult colleagues. When the demands and pressure placed on us exceed our physical and mental capacity to deal with them (especially when we haven’t allowed ourselves necessary rest), we reach our breaking point...
When we push our creativity and productivity to its limits, we can easily find ourselves teetering on brink of burnout. And there’s a fine line between being in the zone and falling down the slippery slope of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.”
Dr Christina Maslach is one of the world’s experts on burnout, having researched it for many years. She is a Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Centre at the University of California, Berkeley. One example of her MBI tool can be found here. Using the three components, Christina explains that there are five overall MBI profiles:
1) Burnt out: where the individual has high negative scores on all three dimensions
2) Disengaged: where only the score for Cynicism / Depersonalisation is a high negative
3) Overextended: where only the score for Exhaustion is a high negative
4) Ineffective: where only the score for Inefficacy is a high negative
5) Engaged: where the scores for all three are positive
Christina has also described burnout as the erosion of engagement with your job, and notes that this can arise from poor job-person fit (e.g. character and temperament) – more on this later.
Difficulties for professionals
The risk of burnout can be acute for professionals, especially those of us working in high-pressure environments and managing portfolio careers. And, pushing our teams hard can increase the risk for them as individuals too. Lars Lehtonen, an Information Technology Consultant, puts it like this: “tenacity and ambition become dysfunction”.
While there are definitely environmental contributors, some individuals are more predisposed to burnout than others, based on their personal characteristics and attitude towards work. Also, those who’ve experienced burnout before can be quickly triggered back into it by similar circumstances – this is sometimes called “residual burnout”, underscoring its long-term effects. Lars explains that the risk of burnout is higher in emerging fields where benchmarks are not yet set: “We judge ourselves and our teammates by what we observe. We are measured by our ability to tame new technologies that may, in reality, not work at all as advertised. Tenures are short, and the field is small enough that we know that a failure today will be noted by a colleague who may well be making a hiring decision in some other situation months or years from now.”
In addition to the software and technology environments that Lars alludes to, another profession where burnout is prevalent is the medical profession (such as doctors and nurses). Dr Gillian Colville, a psychologist with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) says: “There’s a lot of evidence now, in terms of burnout, that the more burnt out a unit is, the higher the staff turnover, the higher the rates of staff illness, which then in turn impacts the workload for everybody else that isn’t off sick. There’s also a clear relationship in the literature between burnout and the rate of medical errors, so us being burnt out affects the quality of care of the patient.” She emphasises that duty of care covers patients, your team (if you’re a manager) and yourself, so that you can be a good role model.
Burnout appears to be more common in high-intensity, helping professions like healthcare, teaching, ministry, other human services, customer services and social activism. Because these professions can attract people who are personally invested in the outcome (as they enjoy helping and guiding others), the work stress can impact their sense of self. In our “Jobs of the Future” article, we noted that jobs will shift towards coaching and caring roles as automation increases i.e. we’ll shift towards using more of our uniquely human traits. This indicates that the risk of burnout may increase as we use more empathy at work.
Managing the stress will be crucial as Lars warns us: “Your intellect is a physical resource, and stress can ruin it forever”.
...A lot of us have spent all of our life being praised for how well our brain works. We’ve built identities on that. We’ve built careers on that. And considering that our brain might possibly be malfunctioning, that could possibly chip away at our own identity and our self-worth.”
Changing dynamics of work
Our Protagion research and articles often cover the changing workplace and its implications for our careers. Dr Christina Maslach talks about these aspects too, focusing on the social dynamics and their impacts on engagement from employees and the risks of burnout for individuals.
Negative changes she highlights are:
Christina describes the “burnout shop” as a business model that embodies these transactional, short-term and individualistic attributes, saying that the sprint approach is being used to run marathons. She warns of the human costs of using the short-term startup self-sacrifice approach as a long-term model for the workplace.
Please reflect on your role as a manager in exacerbating the impacts of these changes on your team – improving the environment for your team can significantly enhance their enjoyment of their roles, and their engagement at work. More detail on this at individual level (i.e. job-person fit) can be found below.
They create synthetic crises knowing that some up-and-comer will put in 80-hour weeks to prove himself worthy… The worst parts of my career have been spent servicing someone else’s greed by being on call 24/7 responsible for maintaining an all-corners-cut infrastructure for people who got to take vacations and had the luxury of heading home at quitting time. I carry a chip on my shoulder. That resentment has fuelled my ambition to keep pushing my career forward...”
One of the major factors impacting the risk of burnout is how well-matched a person is to their job. Christina refers to this fit between self and work as “job-person fit”, and she describes six areas:
1) Workload / demands of the job and availability of resources – this area is connected to the Exhaustion component of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)
2) The degree of control (or perceived control), autonomy, personal choice and discretion
3) Positive feedback, rewards and recognition
4) The strength of the workplace community and level of social connectedness, including supportive relationships at work
5) Fairness and social justice, including who gets recognition, and whether policies are fairly applied without discrimination
6) Meaning and passion, including how the individual can fulfil or enact their personal values in their work i.e. no value conflicts or ethical issues
While different people will place different emphasis on these areas, the more mismatches there are, the higher the risk of burnout e.g. burnout can be caused by conflicting values, or lack of control, rewards or purpose.
Greater engagement will result where there is a good fit between the person and the job/conditions/work climate in these six areas. In this way, engagement can be thought of as the opposite to burnout: energy, enthusiasm, deep involvement, and feeling good about what you’re doing. Thus, these six areas are useful aspects to consider for managers wanting to work with their teams on encouraging more engagement at work.
This is one of the reasons why Protagion emphasises so strongly the importance of understanding yourself, your aspirations and motivators, your strengths, and your goals. When you know yourself, you can assess which roles and opportunities are a better match to bring out your best and feel fulfilled at work. Sometimes you need to change your environment to achieve more success...
If you stay in a job that you desperately want to leave, you will eventually get fired. Even if you get out before they ask you to leave, your reputation will have suffered. People won’t remember the good times. People will not remember your hard work. They’ll remember the burned out, cynical, angry and ineffective version of you forever.”
To see Christina talk about her work (almost 40 minutes long), including the three dimensions of burnout, changes in the social dynamics of work, job-person fit and the causes of mismatches, and paths to a healthy workplace, see her video from the DevOps Enterprise Summit below.
Stages of burnout
There are two models of burnout we’re aware of. The first, developed by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, sets out 12 stages. These are not linear, and hence a given individual could be in multiple stages at the same time, or potentially skip stages. The second is the Burnout During Organisational Change (B-DOC) Model, designed by Dr Geri Pulio, a Human Resources professional & Change Management consultant with a PhD in Management.
The 12 stages in the first model are:
1) The compulsion to prove oneself: enthusiasm, accepting responsibility, demonstrating value-add, but can have difficulty setting boundaries with demanding bosses
2) Working harder, including long hours, overtime, an inability to switch off and/or reluctance to take holiday
3) Neglecting their needs e.g. erratic sleeping, disrupted eating, limited exercise and recreation, lack of social interaction
4) Displacement of conflicts: dismissing issues as an avoidance behaviour, combined with feelings of being threatened, panic or anxiety
5) Revision of personal values to focus on work ambitions: hobbies can be seen as irrelevant and friends and family dismissed
6) Denial of emerging problems, with the individual becoming progressively intolerant, cynical and/or aggressive, viewing others as stupid, lazy, undisciplined or demanding, and seeing the cause as time pressure and work
7) Withdrawal, including seeking relief in seclusion (limiting their social life) or escapism from stress through drugs or alcohol
8) Odd Behavioural Changes that concern friends and family
9) Depersonalisation, with the individual seeing neither themselves nor others as valuable and no longer acknowledging their needs
10) Inner emptiness, an extreme sign of impending burnout, defined by a feeling of numbness, which some may try to overcome by exaggerating activities or binging: overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs
11) Depression: feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, with a bleak worldview and no enthusiasm for the future
12) Burnout Syndrome: physically, mentally, emotionally – often results in total mental and physical collapse
The later stages align well to the components measured in the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI): Cynicism / Depersonalisation and Inefficacy.
I had withdrawn socially and stopped sleeping. I found myself crying during the middle of the day for no good reason at all. I just wanted to do better, to work as hard as I thought everyone else around me was working. It was easier for me to tell myself to work harder than it was for me to face the truth – that I needed a break.”
In contrast, Geri’s B-DOC approach considers the descent into burnout and the recovery. Her model begins from Hope, which becomes Frustration (for example, at a lack of resources or others taking credit for your work). The next phase is Anger, followed by Apathy (as an attempt at self-preservation). Full-blown burnout follows, and this “keeps on going and going” she says. In order to begin recovery, the next phase is Withdrawal/Removal, physically or psychologically, including leaving the employer or even the industry to avoid the triggers. After this follows Self Knowledge and Acceptance, and finally a revised psychological contract. Her research showed that, for individuals with limited control over the situation e.g. change targets, the descent can take 6 months. For change leaders, it can take 1-2 years i.e. descent into burnout is fast, but recovery is slow. It can take around 2 years or longer to recover.
Dealing with stress
In the final section of this article, we explore some techniques for dealing with stress, which may be helpful in building resilience and avoiding burnout. If you’re approaching full burnout, please seek medical assistance, and remember that burnout can have long-term effects after recovery, including faster recurrence in future.
1) Take Inventory: stressors, circumstances, values, goals, workload
It’s helpful to reflect on what in your life is causing you stress, and sometimes awareness can help you to manage each contributing factor. Addressing our underlying emotional needs can improve our ability to compartmentalise and cope with stresses at work. Aim to identify the root causes, trigger events and circumstances that lead to stress. Also examine your personal values and goals so that you can bring purpose into your actions so that they align with what you ultimately want.
Keep track of what’s on your plate over time, so that you can determine how your energy levels are affected by workload and other factors. Monitoring your energy levels can help you decide when to tackle which priorities. A related point is: know when it’s you and when it’s them e.g. your workplace is shortstaffed.
2) Schedule daily downtime
Unplug to refuel your brain and wellbeing, and rest during your downtime (rather than overloading it). Examples include napping, reading or walking i.e. active relaxation. Don’t try to optimise every second, nor squeeze out every ounce of productivity. You can build small breaks into your workday too e.g. stepping away from your desk or focusing on your breathing for a few seconds.
3) Take care of your body
Get regular and sufficient sleep, pay attention to your diet, exercise regularly (endorphins), and be careful with caffeine and alcohol.
Meditation can be a great way to build mental fitness too, as attested by some of Protagion’s mentors and coaches. But, you should meditate in the moments when you aren’t anxious to experience the benefits: practising being calm makes you calmer in future.
5) Take time off
Another technique is to take consecutive days off, as it takes a while to disconnect from the stress and regenerate. Taking smarter, better-timed holidays following stressful periods can be very helpful, including a change of scenery. This time and distance will allow you to decompress. Beware of emotionally distancing yourself though as this can lead to depersonalisation and cynicism.
Sometimes longer breaks (such as a sabbatical) or even a change in company or industry are needed.
7) Reframe situations to see the positives
Looking for positive things to focus on can assist us to mentally reframe our interpretation of a situation, and improve our response to it. For example, picturing the positive future/result of our efforts can give us motivation to complete a task: writing glowing customer feedback to yourself in advance and visualising the change you’ve announced can reduce anxiety and propel you forward.
8) Spend time on self-care and rejuvenation
This technique involves immersing yourself in activities you particularly enjoy, so is by nature highly personal. Spending time on your favourite hobbies can rejuvenate your soul, helping to dampen your stress.
One of the most persistent complaints of burnout is the feeling that you have lost yourself. If you’ve experienced burnout in the past, or just don’t ever want to experience it, you have to reinvest in yourself. Find a way to reconnect to yourself and your passions every day.”
9) Ask for support from others
Asking others to help us when we’re pressured, especially when they are equipped to assist, can relieve stress and keep us socially connected. A good support network can be incredibly beneficial, and examples include:
10) Modify your work situation
Our final technique involves adjusting the situation at work itself. This may require the support of your manager, and may be more difficult to change. Christina argues that like ergonomics changes the physical workplace, improving autonomy, belongingness, positive emotions, psychological safety, fairness, and meaning can strengthen the social and psychological workplace.
Other organisationally-mediated strategies include debriefing at forums where you and your work colleagues can discuss something that happened and how it affected each of you – an example in a medical context is a session after an unexpected patient death. Reflective practice is another example.
Developing your skills and practical experience through education and training can help improve your job-person fit as your specific competence is strengthened through these activities. This should reduce stress as you are better equipped to meet your responsibilities.
Breaking up larger projects into smaller pieces with their own deadlines and well-described tasks can also reduce stress by providing a healthier and easier way of completing a large project.
For more information on managing stress, see this guide from the UK’s Royal College of Nursing: “Stress and you: a short guide to coping with pressure and stress”.
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