Burnout is the consequence of a broken way of work

It’s the time of the year where we can start to feel overly stressed by the demands of work, family, and community. But for some of us, the stress at work can become more than a short term spike of too many items on the todo list: it may be burnout.

Burnout is generally misunderstood. It’s not just the individual feeling helpless in the face of overload. It is really the fraying of the relationship of the burned out person and their work: their engagement in work, and the ties between the individual and the organization — and the social networks that make it up. It is a chronic issue, not a short term or seasonal sense of stress, and can lead to a deep sense of self-doubt, desperation, and cynicism. Widespread burnout is the systemic consequence of a core failure in society and business culture, and a compelling argument for a better, radically different way of work.

Widespread burnout is the systemic consequence of a core failure in society and business culture, and a compelling argument for a better, radically different way of work.Some research shows that the troubled economy is contributing to greater degrees of job stress and burnout, as Sharon Jayson reported on a survey from The Conference Board in 2012:

— 63% say they have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control.
— 39% cite the workload as the top cause of stress.
— 53% take frequent “stress breaks” at work to talk with others; 36% say they just work harder.
— Almost half (46%) cite stress and personal relationship issues as the most common reason for absences, ahead of medical reasons or care-giving responsibilities.

Christina Maslach is one of the leading researchers on burnout and its costs, both personal and societal. Maslach and her contributors created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which addresses three scales contributing to burnout. And the factors include the obvious issue of workload — having too much work and not enough resources, but also these:

  • lack of control — micromanagement of your work by others, lack of influence over decisions impacting your work, and accountability without power
  • insufficient reward — not enough pay relative to the work done, lack of acknowledgment, and low job satisfaction
  • low engagement with community — sense of isolation, high degree of conflict, and a feeling of being disrespected
  • unfairness — perceived discrimination and favoritism
  • mismatched values — the presence of unresolved ethical conflicts, or the focus on meaningless tasks, for example.

The authors of the full inventory also created a quick burnout assessment, to help individuals gauge their circumstances and perhaps to start to improve the work/worker relationship mismatch that leads to burnout:

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The Bottom Line

By zeroing in on the factors that are contributing to a feeling of burnout, people can take actions to relieve the pressures in that area. If your workload is too high, perhaps you need to learn to delegate, or to push back on managers or coworkers asking you to take on more work. If you feel that you are not being made a party to decisions that affect your work, raise the issue in meetings with coworkers and management, and ask (demand) to be brought into those discussions.

Of course, some situations are beyond the reach of a quick checklist. Sometimes the fit between the job and the worker can’t be bridged.

We are living in a time of great transition, and the unrelenting pace of work and the rising demands of employers are increasing the pressure of workload, but the other factors can be a safety value. While more is being asked of all of us, that should not translate into depersonalization. Greater levels of involvement, autonomy and reengagement with work are possible even with increased workload, but there must be conscious efforts and new practices put in place for that to happen. Otherwise the rate of burnout is going to continue to rise, at least until we have a real revolution in the workplace.