Working Smarter

The Science of Why We Burn Out and Don't Have To

Posted by Joe Robinson

burnout woman.jpg

JOB BURNOUT is an accident. No one aspires to a state of exhaustion so complete you don't want to get out of bed. If we knew ahead of time that we were headed down this road, we could change course. But we don’t know that, because the chronic stress that drives burnout directs us down an unconscious track of mechanical momentum.

We don’t think about managing the demands that are pushing our buttons, we just keep reacting to them on autopilot on a route I call the burnout treadmill. Just keep going until the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving so we need a healthier approach to how we work and react to pressure, stress, and other people, and that means a conscious understanding of how we respond to burnout triggers and how certain personality traits and habits factor in to the equation. Stress management has to be as routine as brushing teeth.

BRAKE FOR BURNOUT

To prevent auto crashes, we moderate speed and make sure the brakes are working. To keep the accident of burnout at bay, we have act preventitively too, by putting the brakes on uncontested stress and perfectionism, and what researchers call self-undermining, from bad coping habits to lack of communication 

Most of the people I work with in my coaching practice suffer from burnout. They come to me after a long period of extreme work hours, workloads beyond their capacity, and high chronic stress from demands that have overwhelmed their coping systems, touching off anxiety, cynicism, and fear about what the future holds.

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They are not slackers; in fact, they are the opposite. They have worked so hard that they have gone beyond what’s healthy or needed to be productive in their work. They may think they are the only one who can get the job done right and don't delegate. Often, they associate endurance, quantity of hours on the job, with performance, when in the knowledge economy, it’s all about how fresh the chief productivity tool—attention—is. I meet them when the exhaustion, drop in performance, and medical issues tell them they can’t go on anymore like this. 

Burnout is what happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental. It’s easy to get caught up in because chronic stress floods the body with adrenaline that masks the physiological impacts and makes us think we’re handling it, at least for a while—until we’re not. 

We're left in a state of chronic exhaustion, futility, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. Not only do you not have energy to do the job or live your life with joy, but you also feel like there’s no point to doing either. Cynicism and emotional distancing, withdrawal, and a host of medical issues follow.

CONTEST THE STRESS

Studies show a high incidence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in burnout cases (Ahola, 2007). Burnout is also a factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Melamed, Shirom, 2006), gastro-intestinal problems, and stroke.

On the performance side, burnout triggers higher absenteeism and turnover (Maslach 2001), and presenteeism. The body’s at the office but not much else. It takes longer to get tasks done because of low energy and attention levels, so productivity is reduced.

There are situational factors that trigger burnout—the structure of the work, unrealistic deadlines, excess workload, and insufficient reward or support—but also individual causes rooted in personality traits and our own responses (or lack of them) to demands. The key to not fall prey to reflex burnout triggers is to be aware of the daily issues that drive stress, and resolve, dispute, communicate, and adjust them so they don’t push your buttons.

We all have a job we have to do. Nothing we can do about that. But how we do our tasks is something we can change. When we make adjustments to how we do our tasks and how we respond to others, we turn off the engines of burnou, which thrive on lack of control. When we make little and big changes, delegate, ask for help, control devices, and find ways to feel more autonomous, we eliminate the festering root of burnout—helplessness.

Research shows that when we exercise acts of choice and flexibility, we satisfy one of our core needs, autonomy, an antidote to burnout (which thrives on futility and lack of agency). One study (Bakker, Demerouti, Euwema, 2005) found that employees who communicate often with supervisors, get regular feedback (something you can ask for), have social support, and feel more autonomy as a result can have high demands but not get burned out.

DO EXTRAVERTS GET BURNED OUT?

The key to managing the stress that drives burnout is increasing control over demands and the thoughts and self-talk that undermine us. That’s where we gain autonomy and make work-life less difficult. But we have to set boundaries, which are a success tool, studies show (Nash, Stevenson, 2004). We can’t be doing two hours of work email at home. We can’t reflexively do 12-hour days without asking what’s wrong with workflow, delegating, or time management. 

And we have to speak up. We have to let others know the situation is untenable. One of my clients told her boss that though she loved her job, the toll of burnout on her and her family was no longer something she could accept. Something had to change. The boss agreed and removed a person driving high stress from contact with her and gave her a month off with pay to regather her crashed resources.

Proaction is the way out of burnout. Keeping everything inside is the way to keep burnout going. This client is an introvert, but she was able to step up and communicate her needs. Studies show, by the way, that extraversion is negatively associated with burnout. So if extraverts tend to have less burnout than introverts, that is instructive data. People more inclined to talk about challenges and ask for adjustments feel more control over events, and that control reduces the helplessness of silence.

EXHAUSTION LEADS TO MORE EXHAUSTION

In a fascinating study, Arnold Bakker and Patricia Costa examined the individual side of burnout. They found that, “Employees with higher levels of daily exhaustion show self-undermining behavior…Chronically burned-out employees are less able to manage their own emotions, and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. These self-undermining behaviors all contribute to higher daily job demands.”

Bakker and Costa found too that high levels of daily exhaustion resulted in mistakes that had to be done over, which pushes schedules back, creates more time urgency, and more pressure in an ever-repeating cycle.

Researchers have found the best antidote to burnout is something every employer wants: employee engagement. People who feel they are valued and participants in the way the work is done don’t get burnout out. Burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported that the key dimensions of burnout—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of professional efficacy—are the polar opposite of engagement's main domains: vigor, dedication, and absroption. 

The autonomy support framework created by the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan is an ideal antidote to burnout. It brings more teamwork, satisfaction, and something else critical for anyone to do something that’s hard—the right kind of motivation, intrinsic motivation. When we work, not for the external payoff, but for internal goals such as service, challenge, excellence, or craft, we satisfy our core needs of autonomy, competence, and connection with others and don’t go down the track to isolation, alienation, and catastrophic thoughts that lead to burnout.

Attention, then, is our exit off the burnout treadmill. The more attention we have on how we work, the fewer emotional reactions and mechanical momentum that can self-undermine us. There is nothing more important to pay attention to than your health, so let’s all make sure we jump on the triggers that set us off and not give stress a pass or buy the bravado that we can “take it.” Or one day, you get taken by burnout.

Tags: work overload, stress management, burnout, job burnout, burnout causes

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