It’s a common story among professionals:
Guy gets a job. Guy is happy because the job is challenging yet fulfilling. To top it off, it pays well.
After a couple of years of hard work, the guy just stops and realizes that he doesn’t really feel fulfilled from working anymore.
By then it’s already too late. That guy has burned out.
Contrary to what people who haven’t experienced it think, burnout is not merely a case of depression, a severe mood swing, or some other temporary stress related ailment. Nor does it usually culminate in a spectacular fashion, like a person going postal in his workplace.
It’s more like a car which has gone for hundreds of thousands of miles without periodic maintenance. The burned out worker just suddenly breaks down mentally, spiritually, or in some cases, physically. The latter are the lucky ones; sure they get sent to the hospital, but they’re more likely to be diagnosed and treated properly in this situation. Burnout is a condition that ends careers–a person whose will suddenly snaps at work will find it difficult to find someone who can properly asses and deal with their situation. More often than not, those who will come to the person’s aid won’t understand what the person is going through and might even make the condition worse.
Here are the 12 phases of burnout printed in the June/July 2006 issue of the Scientific American Mind.
Burnout syndrome does not strike overnight; it develops gradually overtime. Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North have divided the process into 12 phases. The steps do not necessarily follow one another in order. Many victims skip certain stages; others find themselves in several at the same time. And the length of each phase varies from patient to patient.
1. A compulsion to prove oneself
The beginning is often excessive ambition; their desire to prove themselves at work turns into grim determination and compulsion. They must show their colleagues–and above all themselves–that they are doing an excellent job in every way.
2. Working harder
To meet their high personal expectations, they take on more work and buckle down. They become obsessed with handling everything themselves, which in turn demonstrates their notions of “irrepclaceability.”
3. Neglecting their needs
Their schedules leave no time except for work, and they dismiss as unimportant other necessities such as sleeping, eating, and seeing friends and family. They tell themselves that these sacrifices are proof of heroic performance.
4. Displacement of conflicts
They are aware that something is not right but cannot see the sources of their problems. To deal with the root causes of their distress might set off a crisis and is thus seen as threatening. Often the first physical symptoms emerge at this stage.
5. Revision of values
Isolation, conflict avoidance and denial of basic physical needs change their perceptions. They revise their value systems, and once important things such as friends or hobbies are completely dismissed. Their only standard for evaluation of their self-worth is their jobs. They become increasingly emotionally blunted.
6. Denial of emerging problems
They develop intolerance, perceiving colleagues as stupid, lazy, demanding or undisciplined. Social contacts feel almost unbearable. Cynicism and aggression become more apparent. They view their increasing problems as caused by time pressure and the amount of work they have–not by the ways they have changed.
They reduce social contact to a minimum, becoming isolated and walled off. They feel increasingly that they are without hope or direction. They work obsessively “by the book” on the job. Many seek release through alcohol or drugs.
8. Obvious behavioral changes
Others in their immediate social circles can no longer overlook their behavioral changes. The once lively and engaged victims of overwork have become fearful, shy and apathetic. Inwardly, they feel increasingly worthless.
They lose contact with themselves. They see neither themselves nor others as valuable and no longer perceive their own needs. Their perspective of time narrows to the present. Life becomes a series of mechanical functions.
10. Inner emptiness
Their inner emptiness expands relentlessly. To overcome this feeling, they desperately seek activity. Overreactions such as exaggerated sexuality, overeating, and drug or alcohol use emerge. Leisure time is dead time.
In this phase, burnout syndrome corresponds to depression. The overwhelmed people become indifferent, hopeless, exhausted, and believe the future holds nothing for them. Any of the symptoms of depression may be manifest, from agitation to apathy. Life loses meaning.
12. Burnout syndrome
Amongst all burnout victims now have suicidal thoughts to escape their situation. A few actually carry them out. Ultimately, they suffer total mental and physical collapse. Patients in this phase need immediate medical attention.
There are three major sources of burnout.
The first source of burnout is the worker himself. It may be naive (and even insulting) to say that “it’s all in the mind”, but when you look at it, burnout’s root cause is continuous disillusionment from continuous failed expectations.
This is the reason why the best employees are the most vulnerable to burnout. Looking at the phases listed above, it starts with the worker trying to prove himself/herself. They readily go for the most demanding work available, otherwise they will not be satisfied. And most likely, they’ll get these difficult tasks.
As the weeks and months go by, these people would overcome these initial tasks and would eventually ask for more difficult tasks. They work even harder and continue to increase their expectations. Work and responsibilities pile up, and they commit longer hours into their work.
In an ideal world, this is a surefire way to get to the top of the corporate ladder.
However, the real world is not as nice.
Maybe in the end all that effort will be thrown away. Contracts can get canceled at the drop of a hat for various reasons. Patients can suddenly die of complications after a long battle with disease.
Maybe there’s no end in sight for that effort. Work, responsibilities, and (in turn) problems would continuously pile up for the worker, pushing the him to his limit.
Maybe that worker would not be recognized for her effort. Maybe someone else takes the credit, or maybe the management doesn’t see the quality her work… these things happen often in a corporate workplace.
The end result is always the same: disillusionment from failed expectations.
The second major source of burnout is the nature of the work itself.
There’s not much to say about this; you would expect a high school public school teacher, a caregiver taking care of the elderly, and, say, a nurse in a children’s burn ward, would be a lot more stressed than most workers. These are the people who go into their jobs expecting to do something good for humanity, but they are also the people whose expectations will be shot down most of the time. The emotional trauma they receive from day to day eventually push them into burnout.
However, this does not mean that other occupations are free from burnout. In fact, knowledge worker occupations, from research scientists to IT workers to lawyers, are not far behind caregivers when considering the rate of burnout cases. This makes burnout a particularly dangerous problem in this day and age when people are moving from traditional manual labor towards knowledge work.
The final source of burnout is mismanagement.
A manager has no excuse for not being aware of the nature of burnout syndrome. The mere fact that it will cause his best employees to leave his company should be able to convince a manager to take burnout seriously.
But again, this is not an ideal world. The prevailing belief in the working world is that burnout is just a private problem and not a managerial one.
Burnout comes from failed expectations, and it is a manager’s job to make sure that her workers expectations are fulfilled. Sadly, many managers do not even look at their worker’s expectations, some even force upon their workers their own expectations.
One expectation is recognition for one’s work. I doubt a burnout prone employee (i.e. one of the best) would work for a company that doesn’t have a reward system in place. However, one common mistake is that every employee responds to the same reward for work. Some people want money, some don’t. Some want recognition in front of their peers, others would find the same act patronizing. Some want to be promoted to a management role, others would prefer to stick with their current role. An improper reward is still a failed expectation, regardless if a manager thinks otherwise.
Another expectation is respect. Respect isn’t simply the management treating its employees like people (unlike overbearing managers in corporate horror stories), it also deals with other issues such as autonomy. No knowledge worker wants to be micromanaged–removing autonomy from a worker only makes his life worse. Respect also means that the management allows employees to raise concerns without fear of being ignored or receiving backlash.
The last expectation I would list here (there may be others, but hey, I’m no burnout psychologist) is the expectation that the management would do its best to prevent problems from piling up. In effect, this also means that the worker expects the company to be pro-active in preventing burnout. Long work hours, forced crunch periods, impossible deadlines… all of these potential burnout factors are outside the control of individual employees, and it is up to the management to find ways to eliminate them or at least reduce their effects on the workers.