Saturday, April 18, 2009

Occupational Stress 12: Burnout

Occupational Stress 12: Burnout

Let’s talk about burnout. Burnout, in addition to being a cool descriptor for a killer day at the office, is actually a psychological disorder from the interpersonal class of occupational stressors. But, instead of stemming from butting heads with your boss or frustration with “the system,” burnout comes from interactions with your clients or customers.

It used to be that burnout disorder was the sole domain of the health care profession. Doctors, nurses, and psychologists, facing constant physical and emotional demands of distressed and suffering patients, would sometimes develop this disorder. However, over the last two decades, burnout has migrated to the corporate scene. Fast-paced managers, customer service departments, and IT personnel are all in the position of helping distraught and angry people on a daily basis. Like their medical counterparts, they are often at a loss to relieve the customer’s grief. So, over time, without counteracting influences (and there are counteracting influences), burnout can occur.

There are three separated stages to burnout. Each stage is its own little disorder and you don’t necessarily have to progress through each stage, although most sufferers do exactly that. One could remain at one stage for years, as each stage is separate and distinct from the other two (the big word for that is orthogonal domains). The first stage of burnout is emotional exhaustion (EE) or feeling drained by contact with other people. Emotional exhaustion is characterized by a cluster of internalized symptoms. Internalized means you are beating yourself up instead of someone else. Do you dread seeing clients or meeting with customers? Does just the thought of dealing with one more complaint about that faulty product or that buggy application make you want to take the day off? These are the type of endorsements supporting a state of emotional exhaustion. Clearly this emotional banging-your-head-against-the-wall feeling is stressful. The research is clear about one thing: having unpleasant contact with your supervisor and coworkers makes things even worse. Increased and improved training, as well as the use of a strong peer support system, is one of the recommended solutions, especially if EE is systemic within the group or department. It’s not as bad when you know everyone is in the same boat. Also, you can begin to brainstorm solutions and stress-avoiding protocols. Isolation always makes things worse. One possible treatment is moving toward a team approach to dealing with customers.

The second phase of Burnout is depersonalization. This is the outward or externalized phase. Externalized referrers to beating up on others as opposed to yourself. In this phase, you are rude, demeaning, and insulting toward the client or customer. You’re no longer blaming yourself. You’re blaming others for having a problem. (Hey, I think I just figured out the problem with Larry down in accounts receivable!) Of course, a client with a crashed program is not to blame, but it appears there is only so much one can take of this endless stream of people with the same problem! Are you often negative toward clients or callous toward the problems of your valued customer? If so, you can put a little check in the box next to depersonalization. What helps? Again, training is a key ingredient. It’s very healing to know when you are addressing the customer’s problem in the most professional and efficacious manner possible. Also, through training and professional assessment, you can begin to understand that solving the problem may not exactly be in your job description. Your goal may just be to do the best you can do with what you have while maintaining a professional disposition. Wouldn’t this be a self-affirming attitude? But these are perspectives you sometimes can’t put together by yourself, especially while working in an isolated situation.

Burnout’s final phase is reduced personal accomplishment (RPA). This is characterized by generalized feelings of disappointment, nonsuccess, and underachievement. Workers with RPA endorsed statements such as, “I’m not getting anywhere,” or “This job has lost all its meaning.” As I indicated earlier, having supportive supervisors and coworkers is an important step in halting the progress of burnout’s three stages.

Burnout is serious and the consequences are serious as well. Psychologists have good instruments to assess this disorder and its progression. If you are experiencing one of these phases, don’t hesitate to talk to a professional about it.



Ian Glickman, Ph.D.
Learn more about leadership, occupational stress, conflict management and change management at Professional Development Resources, Inc. Visit our web site at visitpdr.com.

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