Although this is the term my friends ascribe to my sporadic attempts at scone making, I think of burnout more in an organisational, and not kitchen, context. I’m talking about when staff have reached the end of their tether, workwise, as a result of severe stress and fatigue. I mean when an individual’s personal energy, interest, enthusiasm, motivation and feeling for their work has completely gone and replaced by exhaustion, lethargy and numbness. I mean when someone is physically at work but mentally and emotionally gone.

The spooky thing with burnout is that it develops unobtrusively over time. Then it becomes Blindingly Obvious. It can creep up on the individual so subtlety that they can be unaware that anything is amiss. So too, for the organisation.

So how does burnout happen? Generally, there is no one single factor at play. Rather, it is more the connection between, and synchronous presence of a number of factors. Organisations and individuals each play their part in its development. Organisations can be stressful, demanding working environments simply by the very nature of their industry. Internal systems and constraints can create pressures – like a lack of training or orientation for new employees; like the requirement to do more with less resources. Role overload and role complexity, little ‘downtime’ or time to consolidate after organisational change, also create pressure points.

Some organisations may focus entirely on achieving the end result, and give little regard to how well the staff and the organisation can arrive at the result, together. Some organisations can also be quite toxic (no, not talking chemicals here) by virtue of their values, internal culture and climate – the way things are done, the way staff and management regard each other and the way different occupational groups interact and work with one another. Some organisations too, provide little by way of staff or management support structures. They may fail to provide opportunities for celebrations, acknowledgement or social interaction. Inadequate supervision or leadership can also create problems.

Individuals themselves can create some of their own pressures and stresses. This can happen by being in competition with themselves and others, to see who can cope with the most and the worst situations or workloads, over the longest period of time……… all this without showing stress, strain or fatigue, you understand. Pressures can be created by individuals getting, or expecting to get, all of their needs met, in the workplace. Individuals can also feel pressured if they attempt to provide a Rolls Royce service with a Morris Minor resource base. Stress also occurs if incumbents work in flexible roles yet prefer roles with limits. Conversely, work in rigid, constrained roles, when the preference is for flexibility and few controls. Some individuals may be reluctant to take leave of any kind because of role complexity and lack of cover; some carry information in their heads, making it impossible for others to know what’s going on. Some are always too busy to even consider being away. Individuals have their own unique views and perceptions on their performance and their workplace, so the stressors are different for everyone.

And the signs and symptoms of burnout? A range of physical symptoms can be

experienced – aches, pains, fatigue, insomnia, palpitations. A range of emotional signs like depression, fear, isolation, anxiety, rage, inflexibility, may be obvious too. There can also be a range of behavioural clues, like a negative attitude, endless chattering, blaming, irritability, overactivity or taking uncharacteristic risks. And if you’re thinking this could be anyone of us, on any given day, you are absolutely right! However, these symptoms can relate also to other issues. They could be an individual’s preferred working style, personality or response to private issues.

So what do you need to watch for? The onset is when individuals don’t function any longer at their own acceptable level and they use their own defense mechanisms to deal with routine stressors. When this is no longer effective, individuals can then become rigid and cynical, withdrawn or isolated from others. They may stop doing workplace things with colleagues that were previously enjoyed. An increase in sick leave is not uncommon and you may see little difference in people after they have returned to work. Total mental and physical exhaustion is often the end point, when individuals may be listless and apathetic and have just enough energy to get by. Some may become angry, demanding or obviously, ‘off’ in their judgements or in their dealings with others.

So what can individuals do? You need to check you are in a role and in an organisation that suits. If so, great. If not, don’t stay in a situation that is harmful. Set boundaries and limits around you and your work. Know what your personal needs are and develop ways of ensuring they are not all met in the workplace. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you the minute they think you may be on the path to burn out or, ask them whether you are burnt out already. Talk to your manager if you believe you are struggling and ask for his/her help. Don’t tough it out by yourself – it’s too hard and sometimes it isn’t the most successful strategy. Consider taking some time off work and get professional help. Implement a range of self care strategies.

So what can organisations do? They could develop a range of internal monitoring and support systems. This could mean informal as well as formal meetings with staff, so they are ‘known’ and not just a face at a desk or morning tea. Ensure managers who have staff responsibilities have excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Ensure managers have the knowledge, experience and ability to recognise burnout and the wherewithal to act the moment the problem first appears. Develop policies and procedures to assist burntout to staff recover and regenerate with support and dignity. In performance appraisal meetings, check that staff are truly comfortable with the shape and scope of their role. Find internal or external coaches to work with staff or managers who have lost or are losing their perspective. Closely monitor staff in roles which are particularly demanding. Check to see if additional organisational support is required. Ensure managers are themselves monitored and that they are effectively monitoring their staff.

Burnout is costly, both for the individual and the organisation. By being aware and proactive, you can minimise its presence in the workplace.

First Published in NZ Business March 2000

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