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

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Occupational Stress 8: Your mind, your body and job stress.

Occupational Stress 8 Your mind, your body and job stress.

A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture at Princeton University. The students wanted to know what stressors to expect from their initial experiences in the working world and how these stressors would affect them. Although this was an academic presentation, I was surprised to see that their questions and concerns were similar to the ones I see at all level of the business world and from all degrees of experience.

How is stress going to affect me? This is an easy question but a difficult one to address because the effects of stress are idiosyncratic. That is, it affects everyone differently. Stress is modulated by our temperament, body, and our genetic predisposition to its effects. Thus, we all react to the same stressors in physically and mentally different ways. Stressor is the technical word denoting something from the environment (work) that causes a stress response. You can see the individual differences with this little quiz. Which would you rather do with your colleagues, go skydiving or to the opera? Either one would be stressful to some and not to others. So, we can’t say opera is categorically stressful any more than we can say that office politics or meetings are categorically stressful. Yet, both politics and meetings are stressful to some people most of the time and to others some of the time. Adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue is that it’s primarily the perception of a stressor that gets the body’s stress response working. For example, you might think an evening at the opera will be stressful. Indeed, you may be upset and irritable the week before. However, when the big night arrives, you might find yourself actually enjoying yourself. In other words, the perception was stressful but the actual situation was not. Let's be honest here, how many of us have stressed out all week before an important meeting or other event only to have it be a positive, uplifting, and even affirming career experience? Show of hands, please. So, as we know from our political candidates as well as from a variety of other sources, reality and the perception of reality can be two completely different animals. Is it just me, or does this principle become magnified at the workplace?

The way you perceive possible stressors such as job demands, physical demands, power conflicts, and time constraints will determine your amount of stress. Again, the above items are objective, but each of us feels them subjectively. I was always amazed by my good friend and associate Chuck. No matter how many task demands we had, he was able to figure out how to do more and have it be a fun and challenging experience. When life gave Chuck lemons, he made lemonade. The way people like Chuck avoid job stress is to find some personal meaning in what they are required to do. He perceived the tasks as a challenge, a way to use his creativity, time management skills, and people skills to achieve his professional goals-goals he chose to set for himself. He was almost having fun overachieving in everything he did while I got stressed. Why? Because I did not find personal meaning in the job task. I viewed most tasks as merely an imposition from the outside. Chuck had it right. Whether he knew it or not at the time, these work tasks (challenges) allowed him to find personal meaning in work. He expanded and honed his talents and skills which he went on to use all his very successful working life.

Here’s what all this means to you. We all have leadership skills, advanced training, analytic training, talents, organizational skills, sales skills, etc. Psychologists do have techniques, tests, and instruments to qualify and quantify these attributes (techniques, tests and instruments that we are very proud of, I might add), but in most cases, we only have a fair inkling of our own talents and skills. Recognize your strengths and skills, then shape and organize the job demand to fit that skill as much as possible. Remember what Mad Eye Moody told Harry Potter during the big wizard completion: “Play to your strength”. Therefore, it is you giving meaning to the job, not the job defining a meaning for you-big difference. The stress research is quite clear here. Those who emphasize even a little control over their situation have less stress. This basic rule of physiology applies to mice, monkeys, and people. Discovering personal meaning is equal to gaining control. It’s a different way of thinking (or as psychologists like to say, a cognitive schemata reframing) and one you can control. Harry went on the slay the dragon and so can you.

Just remember the old saying, “ You work the job or the job will work you”.


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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Occupational Stress 4: New Job, New Role, New Stress

Occupational Stress 4

“A beginning is a time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct”
Frank Herbert, Dune

New on the job or working with a new hire? The greatest job strain at such a time comes from the occupational stress domain referred to as Role Ambiguity, or the new-kid-on-the-block syndrome. This will affect the newly hired, recently transferred, or just promoted employee, regardless of his or her level in the organization. Role Ambiguity consists of: uncertainty of job expectations, tasks, and priorities; how evaluations are conducted; and finally, how the new hire will get his or her needed training and supervision. I’ve heard countless Role Ambiguity horror stories, all the way from top-level management down to entry level specialists. Much of this stress can be avoided (or at least greatly reduced) with a little planning and a few action steps.
So, what to do? If you are in a supervisory position, schedule regular times for feedback sessions and structure these sessions so that you and your supervisee aren’t wasting time reviewing what you both already know. The new person may not even be sure of your expectations. Have a list of priorities ready and engage in a semi-structured discussion that includes issues such as goals and objectives; expected problems, procedures, protocols, expectations and the most appropriate actions steps to take. Early in the game, make sure that the new hire knows how he or she will be evaluated (i.e. by whom, and by what criteria). This is easier said than done. In today’s business environment of floating teams, interdepartmental contributors, diverse stake holders, and off-site projects, both hierarchy and priorities can be confusing. With the advent of three hundred and sixty-degree feedback, trying to figure out who is evaluating whom might be more difficult to tease out than a wookie on a bad hair day. This gets especially hairy (this wookie analogy is working out better than I thought!) if you have several managers across different departments using different criteria for their evaluations, some of which may apply only tangentially to your person. Make your goals and objectives clear so you don’t have someone else meeting their priorities on your dime. Does this sometimes happen? Believe it or not, yeah!
Remember, as a new supervisor you are also a new mentor. The mentor's attitude should reflect to a healthy degree some shared responsibility for his or her supervisee. Not only do you need to be available, but you need to arrange for the supervisee to get the outside training and counsel they need. Often when a new person stumbles or fails, it’s due to a lack of training. Mature managers can sometimes take for granted the resources he or she has in terms of connections and networks, all of which are inaccessible to the new guy. Additionally, the supervisee is usually unaware of the importance of your prior networking and connections.
Jack Walsh said that if two different people fail in the same job, change the job. In the case of a new hire replacing a failed employee, part of changing the position involves changing the context, orientation, and environment in which the new hire operates. These goals cannot be met unless it is your intention to improve upon what is no longer working.
Role Ambiguity is a well-researched domain of occupational stress (I’ve done some this research myself). It’s real, and costly if not attended to. It helps to be aware that the cost of replacing an employee equals approximately twenty-five percent of their salary. The best way to address Role Ambiguity is quickly and aggressively. Remember, poor performance and rapid departmental turnover doesn’t make anyone look good.


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