Running on Empty
In this age of overload, with organizations trying to do more with less, employees buried in information, and devices that call for round-the-clock urgency, burnout is a malady ripe for our times. Burnout can strike even the most productive workers and the most consistent performers, as well as those who seem to have the greatest capacity for hard work, experts say.
One reason burnout is such a pernicious problem is that it does not have to be total for its effects to be devastating.
“Burnout tends to plateau rather than peak,” says Paula Davis-Laack, specialist in burnout prevention programs, founder and CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and author of Addicted To Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. “Burnout exists on a continuum. You don’t have to be completely mentally broken down and barely able to get out of bed to feel major effects.”
In other words, employees suffering mid-level burnout may still be able to power through and complete an adequate amount of work by sheer force of will, but their partially depleted state greatly hinders their performance and productivity, and it keeps them from realizing their full potential.
“That can go on for months, or even years, depending on the person’s work ethic,” says management expert Brady Wilson, cofounder of Juice Inc. and author of Beyond Engagement and other business performance books.
In a field like security, workers can be especially vulnerable to burnout, given the continual pressure and stress that go into protecting people and assets, and the high stakes involved if a breach does occur.
“Constant job pressure, especially when some of the factors are out of your control like they are with security, is definitely one of the causes of burnout in employees,” says Carlos Morales, vice president of global sales, engineering, and operations at Arbor Networks, which specializes in network security.
The consequences of burnout are varied; in some cases, they involve serious health issues. Davis-Laack, who became a specialist in the field after burning out as a practicing attorney, says she experienced weekly panic attacks and a few stomachaches that were so painful they sent her to the emergency room. Coronary disease, depression, and alcohol abuse are other possible consequences.
For the employer, burnout can significantly compromise workplace quality, causing more absenteeism, turnover, accident risk, and cynicism, while lowering morale and commitment and reducing willingness among workers to help others.
Fortunately, in many cases burnout can either be avoided, with deft management and a supportive organization, or significantly alleviated using various strategic methods. But like most maladies, it must be understood before it can be properly addressed.
SYMPTOMS AND CONDITIONS
Burnout occurs when the demands people face on the job outstrip the resources they possess to meet them. Psychologists who study burnout as a condition divide it into it three dimensions: exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.
When the first aspect—exhaustion—hits, the employee may feel emotionally, physically, and cognitively depleted. This often spurs feelings of diminished powers; challenges that were formerly manageable can seem insurmountable. As Davis-Laack describes her own experience of this condition: “Every curveball seems like a crisis.”
When depersonalization occurs, an employee may start to feel alienated from his or her own job, and more cynical and resentful toward the organization. Work and its mission lose meaning; feelings of going-through-the-motions increase. Detached and numb, the employee tries to plow ahead.
Exhaustion and depersonalization often combine to produce the third component of reduced personal accomplishment. As Wilson explains, the depleted employee possesses considerably less “executive function,” or the ability to focus, self-regulate, connect the dots between ideas, strategize, analyze, execute smoothly, and follow through—all of which can be thought of as “the power tools of innovation.”
“Nuanced thinking and value-added thinking are the first to go when employees are exhausted,” he says. “Instead, they rely on duct-tape fixes, reactivity, firefighting. They don’t get to the root causes of problems and issues.”
The state of mind that burnout can elicit sometimes leads to self-blame, where the employee feels that he or she is professionally inadequate. But that is unfair, says Davis-Laack: “I don’t want individual workers to feel that it’s all their fault.”
The root causes of burnout, she explains, are usually a product of what employees bring to the table—work ethic, how closely they tie work to self-worth, their level of perfectionism—and how the organization itself functions, which can be an important factor.
Understanding key organizational conditions, experts say, will help managers maintain a culture that protects employees from burning out. One of these conditions involves what the organization chooses to reward.
Wilson explains this as follows. For many years, many organizations stressed the importance of keeping employees engaged. But the definition of engagement has shifted, so that many firms now define engaged workers as those with clear dedication and commitment, who come to work early and stay late. “What’s missing from this definition is passion, enthusiasm, verve, and spirit,” he says.
When engagement is so defined, increased effort, such as working more hours and taking on more projects, is rewarded. But simply increasing hours at the office does not produce high performance, Wilson says.
“We get our epiphanies in the shower—we don’t get them when we are determined and gritting our teeth around a board room table. It’s not effort that produces brilliance, it’s energy,” he explains. But sometimes, the more-rewards-for-more-work philosophy can function as an unintentional incentive to burn out.
The organization’s day-to-day working conditions are also a crucial here. Research has found that two factors can be deadly in sapping an employee’s resources, according to Davis-Laack.
One is role conflict and ambiguity, which can occur when employees are never clear on exactly what is expected of them, and on what part they should be playing in active projects. “That’s very wearing on people,” she says.
Another is unfairness, which is often related to office politics. This can include favoritism, failure to recognize contributions, being undermined, or dealing with the demands of never-satisfied supervisors.
Such stressful conditions push some employees into “gas guzzling” energy mode, because they require so much emotional effort just to cope with them, Wilson says.
“Substances generated by stress, such as cortisol and adrenaline, have a beautiful utilitarian use—to get us out of trouble, to keep us safe,” he explains. “But we are not as productive when we have a brain that is bathed in those things day in and day out.”
Although it is vital for managers to strive to maintain a positive office culture, it’s also important to recognize that burnout can happen even in the healthiest of environments. Given this, Morales encourages attempts at early detection.
“As a manager or executive, it is important to first note the factors that tend to cause burnout even before employees begin to show signs,” he says. “This gives you the opportunity to address issues proactively with employees.”
These factors, he explains, include a very travel-heavy schedule (50 percent or more of total work time); consistently logging work weeks of 60-plus hours; unrelenting expectations of working off-hours and on weekends; and constant deadline time pressure.
But since early detection is not always successful or even possible in some cases, managers should also be looking for common signs of burnout that their employees might be exhibiting. Morales advises security managers to look for combinations of the following characteristics that are different from usual behaviors:
- General lack of energy and enthusiasm around job functions and projects.
- Extreme sensitivity and irritability towards coworkers, management, and work situations.
- Constant signs of stress and anxiety.
- Significant changes in social patterns with coworkers.
- Sharp drop in quantity and timeliness of output.
When looking for signs of burnout, it’s important for a manager to have a high degree of familiarity with the employee in question, a familiarity which is a byproduct of a strong manager-staff relationship.
“You’ve got to know your people,” Davis-Laack says. “When someone seems more checked out and disengaged than usual, if you know your people well enough, you can spot it.”
When it becomes clear that an employee is suffering from burnout, managers have several options for treatment and alleviation, experts say. Morales says he believes that managers must first come to an understanding of the underlying factors, so that they can be addressed.
“If there is a workload issue, a manager may be able to spread out the workload with other workers to alleviate the issue,” he says. “It’s important to let the employees know that this is being done to gain more scale, and to reinforce that they are doing a good job.”
Indeed, crushing workloads are now common in many workplaces, experts say, as many companies are actively cost cutting while attempting to raise productivity and output. And for employees who work with data, such as security employees who use analytics, benchmarks, or some form of metrics, the information explosion is requiring more and more staff hours to keep up with the processing and analysis. Managers must be cognizant of this, Davis-Laack says.
“If you do nothing but pile work on people—well, people are not robots and they are not computers. They are going to wear out,” she explains.
To combat this, managers should employ a strategic and honest operations analysis, she advises. The department may be generating more output with increasing workloads, but burnout and turnover risk is also increasing, as is the likelihood of costly mistakes. Is it worth the risk? Hiring additional help or outsourcing some tasks may be cheaper in the long run than the costs due to turnover and errors.
When a department conducts a strategic review of operations, the focus is often on fixing glitches in process, experts say. A focus on reducing workload is less common, but when it is adopted, it often reveals that certain time-consuming tasks are unnecessary.
If the burnout is caused by a stressful job function, such as a security position in which the worker is protecting assets of great value, the manager can discuss the situation with the employee and ensure that support is available, Morales says. “This may help them feel less alone or helpless in situations,” he says.
Another key strategy for managers is to add extra focus and energy to the resources part of the puzzle, Davis-Laack says. “Help them to build up their energy bank account, so they are not always feeling depleted.”
She offers five ways for managers to do so:
- Maintain and ensure high-quality relationships between managers and staff members, and between team members themselves. This fosters a healthy and safe environment where problems can be discussed and addressed.
- Whenever possible, give team members some decision authority. This gives them a sense of autonomy and strength when dealing with issues, and helps avoid feelings of powerlessness.
- Follow the FAST system of respectful feedback—give frequent, accurate, specific, and timely feedback. This helps employees make tweaks and adjustments, and lets them know they are on the right course.
- Demonstrate that you have the employees’ backs, and always be willing to go to bat for them. Don’t point fingers or complain to higher ups when mistakes are made. This is crucial in building trust.
- Identify and encourage skills that will help your team members build resilience. These will vary depending on the specific job and situation, but include any skill or resource that can be used when challenges arise, as well as those that help manage stress.
In working toward the previous point, managers may want to brainstorm with staff to find ways to make everyone more resourceful. For instance, managers could periodically check in with staff members to determine the team’s overall level of resources, so they can replenish them when they’re low.
Indeed, soliciting solutions from staff is an excellent practice for managers, because it shows they are partnering with employees, not parenting them, Wilson says. The parenting style of management assumes that the manager has knowledge that the worker will never have, and it sets up the employee for helplessness. The partnering style cultivates the employees’ decision-making skills, so they can skillfully meet their own needs.
Burnout can be a sensitive subject. Some workers attach great self-worth to their productivity and performance, and do not like to concede that they are struggling.
“It is very difficult for some high performers to admit that their engagement is lacking. There’s a sense of judgment associated with that,” Wilson says.
Some of these workers truly are burned out despite their failure to admit it, and they may be in a precarious state. “I have seen cases where the hardest and most productive workers will not admit to burnout,” Morales says. “In these situations, burnout occurs quite suddenly, without many of the behavioral warning signs.”
Other employees fear that admitting burnout is disclosing a weakness, one that could prevent them from future promotions or ultimately cost them their job. “They like their work and they don’t want to change jobs, or they can’t change jobs because they have monetary obligations,” Davis-Laack says.
Here, management can go a long way by being proactive and soliciting feedback from workers regarding their state of mind. “It’s important to have regular discussions with employees about the impact of the workload on them personally, and give them every opportunity to talk through their situation, and vent if necessary,” Morales says. “It’s important for management to recognize the potential for burnout and approach employees proactively to discuss it. It provides employees a safe environment in which to talk through the situation.”
In these situations, a manager can approach an employee with a proactive goal—how can workload and workplace environment be shaped so that the employee is energized in the office, and still has energy left at the end of the day and on weekends for a life outside of work, Wilson explains.
Using this framework, Wilson adds that it is often easier for the manager to then ask, “What’s getting in the way of that? Is it bureaucratic interference? Is there too much on your plate? Is there bullying going on, or other workplace environment problems?”
But while burnout is still a sensitive subject among some workers, there is also a growing recognition that it is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with, experts say. This may be partly driven by recent research in fields like healthcare and finance, where findings suggest that burnout and overwork are causing costly mistakes that are detrimental to a company’s bottom line.
Moreover, more business leaders see that the problem, if left unchecked, will just get worse in the future, due to factors such as globalization and a web of technology that is becoming more and more complex. “The perfect storm is upon us,” Wilson says.
Davis-Laack says she is heartened by the fact that the burnout issue, which was frequently dismissed as too “soft” to be a subject at business conferences, is appearing on more agendas.
“It’s finally starting to get attention across different professions and different sectors,” she says. “Managers are taking it more seriously.”