Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Burnout
What is it and how can be it be avoided?
Imagine a man called David, a compassionate man who works as a high school counsellor. David cares deeply about his job and believes he is making a difference in his students’ lives, and he has been deeply motivated since the day he started several years ago. It has made him a very effective counsellor. Lately, however, David can no longer keep up his usual momentum. He feels tired constantly, and becomes more exhausted every time he thinks about work. His attitude toward his students has changed; he is no longer feeling anticipation about helping them, and now feels something like dread every time he has an appointment. He notices every failure more, and he recently caught himself resenting a student for not being able to solve his own problems. David is suffering from burnout.
Although David is only noticing these problems recently, they have been building up for some time now. Burnout can simply be defined as a mental state of exhaustion and loss of professional motivation, but it is the many components of burnout, such as its gradual but steady development, often unnoticed until too late, and the susceptibility of social services professionals like David, that makes it so insidious.
Pines, Aronson and Kafry (1981) define burnout as “a state of mind that frequently afflicts individuals who work with other people (especially but not exclusively in the helping professions) and who pour in much more than they get back from their clients, supervisors, and colleagues” (p. 3).
This is the basic definition by which the authors introduce the concept of burnout, and while they go into tremendous detail later in the book about what constitutes burnout and how one can deal with it, details that help to inform much of this chapter over thirty years later, this introductory definition is key because it communicates a clear understanding of the aspects of burnout the authors consider to be important; not just the symptoms and causes of burnout, but the conditions under which it is most likely to occur, and its status as a state of mind rather than a purely physical affliction. Perhaps most importantly, the authors identify a personal condition highly associated with burnout; victims are most likely involved in professions with a largely social element, where working with others effectively is not only crucial for professional recognition but also for professional success, and the more interpersonal interaction plays a part in a given profession, the higher the burnout rate among employees is likely to be, with member of professions such as counselling, social services, medical professionals and other providers of care being particularly susceptible. The reasons for this will be expanded upon later, but it comes down to a great deal of energy being expended on others, with very little left over for the self.
In addition, the emphasis on consistent social interaction, demanding a steady flow of energy and provoking a matching amount of pressure over a long period of time, implies not a sudden onset of symptoms prompted by a few unusually demanding or traumatising events; rather, burnout has been found to build steadily, matching the pressure and sapping all enthusiasm and motivation until the pressure spikes because of certain events, triggering burnout noticeable to others and causing a severe drop in work and quality and engagement.
Important to note, however, is that performing a mundane, repetitive office job with little human interaction does not make you any less susceptible to symptoms or problems similar to burnout that occur as a result of recurring pressures of any kind, which Pines, Aronson and Kafry (1981) called tedium. Similarly, while these authors highlighted constant social interaction of some kind as a key part of the burnout process this does not mean that being a full-time counsellor for troubled youth guarantees you to suffer from it. The point of this is that the authors identified a key pattern in burnout sufferers that allows me to target my advice for avoiding burnout to specific careers, and therefore the emphasis on social interaction prevalent in Pines, Aronson and Kafry informs this very chapter, and can help you determine to what extent you might be susceptible to burnout.
Another factor of burnout that should always be kept in mind is the idea that the fatigue comes from a professional environment, which is an idea addressed implicitly in Pines, Aronson and Kafry’s (1981) overview and explored in detail by Schaufeli, Maslach and Marek (1993). An occupation, no matter how understanding the management or unusual the work hours, applies a sense of rigidity to life. Social commitments have to be made around a job schedule, hobbies have to come second to assignments, and after a while mundane things like shopping and reading the paper are seen and done in the context of the job you perform, like a political job affecting how you react to stories in the paper or an advertising job infringing on your perusal of product packaging when the last thing you want to think about is work. This imposed schedule contributes to the mental exhaustion of burnout, along with personal factors related to your profession like how enthusiastic you are about your job and how you feel about hard work.
Based on these enduring definitions, an apt description of the kind of environment burnout thrives in might be ‘structured and social.’ Not rigid necessarily, but structured enough to encourage a niggling sense of tedium in your routine that can become a mind-numbing fatigue and disinterest with anything to do with work that you once cared about and enjoyed. The social aspect doesn’t have to be in the form of enduring relationships with specific individuals, either. As long as your job involves constant and perhaps repetitive contact with others, be it seeing the same coworkers and clients everyday or dealing with the same types of people until they become a faceless horde representing how sick you are with this job, a highly social work life can contribute to the fatigue of burnout. These two concepts, social contact and a professional structure, combine to create an environment in which burnout thrives.
The Causes of Burnout – Who is at Risk
We can see from accepted definitions of burnout that a work environment with a regular social component that imposes some schedule on your life is a prime environment for burnout. But this is a very loose guide within which any number of professional contexts may exist. Any number of individuals may have any number of ways of dealing with pressure, and as burnout is primarily a psychological condition, it is important to stress that it is the individual that contributes most to the risk of suffering from burnout and how well it can be dealt with. Here we explore the kinds of personalities, lifestyles and mechanisms for coping with stress that interact with the burnout environment and determine how the individual is affected.
We can identify three broad kinds of jobs that are likely to have a high burnout rate; we will call them helping, teaching, and service.
A helping career is one where the employee’s primary responsibility is to care for other people personally, to address issues in their physical and mental health, and to help them return to a stable state of living when they are unable to do so themselves. Examples include clinical psychology and counselling, social services and, for lack of a more applicable category for them, the medical professions such as nursing and general practice. Helping professions have received a great deal of attention because of a high burnout rate, and we can tell a lot about burnout and certain statistical and demographical trends from studies and documented cases (Farber, 1983; Gould, Watson, Price & Valliant, 2013; Grosch and Olsen, 1994; Savicki & Cooley, 1994)
Teaching as a profession is a career in which the primary aim is to mentor another person or group of people. This obviously includes teaching itself, at all levels of education, but also describes positions where the employee’s duties involve working with other employees in a teacher-student relationship, such as training and motivational speaking. Certain managerial positions might also apply. Like helping, teaching jobs have received a great deal of attention from burnout researchers for much the same reasons, and teachers, particularly in the education system can be at a high risk of burnout (Sakharov & Farber, 1983).
Service professions cover a wide array of jobs including marketing, management teams, media, and customer services. While the type and frequency of human contact varies based on the position, the burnout risk for these jobs likely comes more from a professional structure and repetitive work than from a frustration with being unable to help others, although the other spectrum of organisational difficulties, a lack of defined roles and expectations, can also contribute to the disillusionment phase of burnout, and even jobs that require very little contact with clients or the public can fit the social contact requirement by featuring regular competition between coworkers and high-pressure collaborative assignments with difficult partners.
Clearly the lines between these types of professions are not always clear. I am not saying that you cannot qualify for more than one, or even that in determining how susceptible you are to burnout you should first determine which of these categories you fit into. Improvement and psychological healing, however, come best from understanding, from having knowledge of your problem situation and how it fits in context with your world, with your personal and professional environment. Ideally, my goal here is not to definitively classify the professional factors of burnout, but provide you with a contextual structure with which to examine your environment and discover why you feel dissatisfied with your situation. If you disagree with this analysis or find it complicates matters, concentrate on techniques and solutions for dealing that are effective rather than wasting energy on an ill-fitting model of high-burnout environments. If, on the other hand, this has somehow helped you make sense of matters, even in some small way, then I have achieved my goal.
Most importantly, the high rate of burnout among helping and teaching professions cannot be ignored. This has been documented from early burnout research (Pines, Aronson & Kafry, 1981) to the present (Blau, Tatum & Goldberg, 2013; Cieslak, Shoji, Douglas, Melville, Luszczynska & Benight, 2013), and this research indicates that the pressures of working with damaged, unpredictable and potentially ungrateful, or worse, unreachable human beings, can become so intensely personal and jarring to the confidence and moral certainty that attracted helpers to their profession in the first place. Eventually, the stress becomes too much, and previously effective coping mechanisms not only stop working, but instead become routines that enable a burnt out helper’s drifting through their job. Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that as trained and practiced experts in giving advice and support to people with these exact same problems, helpers might think they can handle burnout, even obviously extreme cases, on their own, and use this as an excuse not to let anybody see their weakness. This can deprive sufferers of the kind of crucial, non-artificial social support structures that have been found to prove crucial in breaking ‘zombies’ out of their funk (Farber, 1983).
A second crucial factor in the development of burnout, and something that, with the right outlook and level of self-perception, you can not only keep track of, but to some extent control, is your own behavioural patterns and reactions to stressors at work. Like any psychological condition, burnout does not apply to all people in the same way, and is not influenced by purely external forces. Indeed, it is most correct to say that burnout is less the result of continuous external pressure, and more the result of the interaction between an individual’s reaction patterns an coping mechanisms over time, a developing situation that builds itself from the resolution of each stressful event and the energy spent dealing with that event. This is why in any discussion of burnout it is crucial to discuss the types of personalities most vulnerable to burnout, and what kind of actions and thought patterns can make you as an individual more vulnerable.
You are most likely wondering what kind of attitude toward work makes a person more susceptible to burnout, and the answer may surprise you. While common sense might cause you to attribute extreme professional disengagement with a negative outlook and disinterest in the job to begin with, research has for a long time suggested the exact opposite; if you begin a career with high hopes, a longing to make a difference in people’s lives and a positive belief that you can achieve this while having to make very few sacrifices or compromises, then you are more likely to burn out than your coworker who is more interested in money than helping people, only does the work required rather than going above and beyond for every situation or person in need, and thinks that they make very little difference in the long run (Grosch & Olsen, 1994; Pines, Aronson & Kafry, 1981).
This phenomenon has a significant correlation with the high burnout rate in helping professions, where new counsellors, social service workers and other helpers begin with the highest hopes of making a difference in people’s lives and in society in general, and then finding that there are far more hurdles than they expect, coming from the government and health care systems, from coworkers, and even from the people they are trying to help. Because they began with such high motivation and interest in their work, this positivity has a long way to fall. Think of a baseball being dropped to the ground. Drop it from just a few feet up in the air, and the ball won’t make much of an impact and will be easy to catch. But drop the ball from a skyscraper, and gravity will make sure that ball will hit the ground hard. It’s a simple analogy, but the fact is that if there is nothing to stop the pressures of helping others in impossible situations, that optimism will drop, and the more it falls the worse the effects will be on the individual.
This trend is present in any number of professions with burnout conditions, where circumstance and an environment unfriendly to optimism and enthusiasm can reverse the usually positive effects of those feelings, but it hits hardest in the helping professions because a helper is expected to help people deal with what often seem to be impossible situations (Cieslak et al., 2013). Caring for such a variety of variety of broken people means taking some of the distress and self-pity into yourself, making it harder to fight the despair of witnessing these situations, and when circumstances heap more pressure than you have the ability to cope with, and when the failures seem worse each time and eat away at your confidence, then it seems inevitable that the very traits that made you an indomitable worker throughout your life now turn what would ordinarily be a time of unusual upheaval and pressure into a crisis of faith.
Personality is not the only individual contributor. As I have mentioned, burnout is a multidimensional condition, the result of the interaction between several factors including the work environment, the work structure, the social and interpersonal requirements of the work, the way the individual feels about the work and, finally, the way the individual reacts to mounting pressure in the work environment. This can be seen as the final ingredient to the burnout recipe. Let’s return to David. He is starting to get sick of hearing his students complain about their problems, and because of this he starts drifting off, which he never used to do. He also has a hard time keeping calm when his coworkers make mistakes. He used to love his job and was excited to come in every morning, but now he can’t wait to go home. He is clearly feeling the effects of burnout, and many of the contributing factors we have already discussed have lead to this. He is not without agency, however. He can take steps to prevent the process, but instead he chooses to stick with his regular routine, hoping the whole thing will blow over.
This is what feeds the symptoms during the later stages of burnout. First he tries carrying on as before, then when he can’t handle it anymore he no longer has the energy to adapt, so he makes compromises, simplifying his coping mechanisms rather than changing them, attempting to be more efficient by doing only what is required. He loses his passion for the job because it started to become a mundane, bothersome part of his life, and he can no longer see a reason why he should bother. In essence, the problem was the situation, but he would not or could not come up with an effective solution. This is crucial to remember when dealing with burnout yourself; you have the ability and resources to change your situation, but you have to acknowledge understand the environmental factors causing the issue and devote yourself to changing them for the better, a concept Pines, Aronson and Kafry (1981) called “taking responsibility for action” (p. 11), and one that has informed much of the literature since, including this chapter.
Now that we’ve gone over the signs, symptoms and demographics of burnout, we can make an informed analysis of how to deal with burnout. Measures taken to prevent or relieve the symptoms can be put into three categories: pre-emptive measures, awareness of your own susceptibility and symptoms, and finally reactionary measures. Each of these is defined by what stage of burnout you are in.
The first requires a clarification: by pre-emptive measures, I don’t mean that to prevent yourself from burning out in a job you love that you should be obsessively paranoid, worrying about every possible symptom or every event that might contribute to burnout. This is a highly counterproductive attitude; obsessing about the pressures of your job can be just as damaging to your work and motivation as giving in to mental exhaustion. Rather, you should make some effort to ensure that you will be ready for burnout if it comes, so that you don’t have to obsess about it. Think of it as maintaining a dam for a possible flood. Your level of preparedness should match with how long-term you intend the job to be and how much you enjoy it. As you should know from the previous sections, you shouldn’t assume that you will be immune to burnout just because you are enthusiastic about your job now. Prepare for the day the job tries to make you hate it. Perhaps the greatest preparation strategy is one of slowly but steadily sowing the seeds for change. You may enjoy the direction your work is taking now, but there may come a time when burnout takes you in its grasp. You don’t need to have a folder full of alternate job positions with different positions highlighted different colours based on the symptoms they are best suited to alleviate; many people find this more stressful than their job. Some forethought is required in any job, however; one thing we know about burnout is that the same old coping mechanisms usually aren’t effective in the long run; they may seem to be helping sometimes, but burnout is a long-term condition that gradually develops and overwhelms the status quo, until the routine of coping becomes just another contributor to tedium and exhaustion (Grosch & Olsen, 1994). Instead, think about hobbies you might like to take up in the future, different ways you might like to organise your workload, people you’d like to get to know better. You might not have time for them now, but if you find yourself recognising the symptoms of burnout, you might also find yourself motivated to try them out, and incorporate them into your life along with your work to keep the whole thing fresh and exciting. Having people you trust to know you and notice when things are wrong may be the best preventative measure; unlike hobbies and work schedules, people are unpredictable, and a friend forcing you to re-create your situation may be just what you need to prevent burnout.
The second step is to watch for and recognise the symptoms of burnout. This may seem as simple as catching yourself avoiding responsibilities and notice the quality of your work slipping, but everyone has bad patches, and when they become unbearable they can sometimes be dealt with by resting up and stepping back. Burnout is a long-term and enduring condition, and when it arises the methods of preventing ordinary tedium can slowly become symptoms themselves. The key to watching for burnout, and any long-term issues that may damage your work or lifestyle, is a habit of self-assessment that is in-depth, regular, or ideally both. Self-assessment is not just thinking about your life more than you might otherwise; it is a state of mind, much like burnout, only in this case you train yourself to think about your present in context with your past and your future. Don’t just think about how upset or tired you are lately, compare it with your feelings in the past, and do the same with your satisfaction. Think about what has changed in your feelings over the last several years, and what might have caused that change. Get in the habit of thinking of your life ad work situation in terms of the big picture, and you will be in a better position to know when stress and tedium starts to become burnout.
Having prepared for and recognised the onset of burnout, there still may come a time when the condition begins to get the better of you. We have covered much of what you should not do in previous sections, mostly related to carrying on as normal or waiting for it to blow over, which, as should now go without saying, is not advisable for any sort of exhaustion or tedium, let alone full burnout. Burnout isn’t necessarily just a product of environmental pressures negatively affecting motivation and interest; it is a reminder that entropy is an enduring principle, showing that the status quo cannot endure in a vacuum. Burnout is the sign that you can no longer carry on in the same way you have been and keep up the same quality of work. Something has to change in the environment or in the work itself, or in your coping methods. Depending on the flexibility of your environment this could mean a change in shifts and responsibilities, or it could mean changing your workspace or the way you deal with responsibilities, coworkers and clients. Setting new clear goals to reintroduce a new working experience is also a vital step, and can be anything from a new employment opportunity to simply a different task to work on. Find fresh ways of thinking about your work, and you’ll find it harder to assume that it has become pointless. The thing to remember about dealing with burnout is that one of the catalysts for causing it, regular and meaningful interaction with other people, can also be a valuable tool for overcoming it. The trick, as with all aspects of burnout, is to change the rules. Burnout comes from expending energy on other people, so you must find a way to draw energy from other people, through getting advice, comfort, or just spending enjoyable time with them away from work. Having a pre-existing network to provide this support external from your profession and structured life is an excellent preparation step, and is of course beneficial in many ways other than relieving burnout, but seeking out such support in the midst of burnout can actually be an effective way to break out of the funk by engaging in something new and productive to yourself, creating growth in your personal life that you can share with others.
I’d like to finish by talking about growth. It might seem to some that the idea of looking at periods of such intense and enduring stress as burnout in the half-full glass of personal growth and toughening-up trivialises the condition for those that are affected by it so terribly. It may not seem like it at the time, but experiences like burnout can teach you something about how you deal with pressure, about the value of the environment you work in and how you can reform it. If this concept helps even one person to find a hopeful way out of the bleakness of burnout, then this whole chapter has done some good.
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