Job Burnout: Frazzled, Fed Up, and Running on Empty
Hyperaccessible, Adaptable Workers Wanted
Check out any online job board and you can quickly pick up on a theme. In today's globally connected marketplace, employers want hyperaccessible workers who can adapt like chameleons.
Oftentimes, job advertisements paint a picture of burnout before it even happens:
- Employers describe a "rapidly changing and ambiguous business environment" and
- seek an employee who is "metrics-oriented, organized and has a need to win"
- someone who is "able to deal with multiple, changing priorities"
- in a "high productivity setting" and
- can provide "on demand" customer service.
Is it any wonder that workers are so frazzled?
Do you typically use ALL of your earned vacation?
Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, compared with most other developed nations.1 We spend an average of 8.8 hours a day working, and many employees bring their work home with them and on vacation.2
According to a survey by mobile communications firm Good Technology, 80% of workers surveyed take their work home with them. This includes
- reading emails before 8 a.m. (68%)
- answering work emails during family time (57%)
- checking emails while in bed (50%)
- working after 10 p.m. (40%) and
- reading work emails during dinner (38%).3
While almost one in four U.S. workers has no paid vacation time, more than half of those who do have vacation forfeit some of it due to fears of getting behind in their work or losing their job.4,5
America has become a no-vacation nation, bound to our work by our cell phones and email. We are constantly available, perpetually on the clock. In a world where only 9% of Americans do not have cell phones, we have managed to blur the boundaries between work and home.6
But there is a hefty price to pay for über availability.
The High Price of Job Burnout
Costs of burnout can include the loss of:
- enthusiasm and idealism that you had when you started work
- professional identity that your job gives you
- physical and emotional energy and mental sharpness
- a sense of community with colleagues, clients, and the organization
- self-worth, hope, a sense of competence, control, and making an impact.
While not a psychological disorder itself, burnout is associated with poor health:
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- inflammation and
- lowered levels of immunity.
Job Burnout Affects Many Professions
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion created by chronic stress.
It was once seen as primarily a risk of the helping professions — for example, nurses, teachers, social workers, and the clergy. However, burnout is now recognized to also impact investment bankers, manufacturing workers, lawyers, middle managers, and executives.
Heck, even experts on burnout have been known to succumb to it themselves!
It is estimated that more than one in four American workers is suffering job burnout.7
Feeling utterly spent from long hours and heavy workloads, burned out workers sacrifice their own needs for their jobs. As a result, they begin to hold their work in contempt — as well as themselves, their clients, and coworkers. They work until there is simply nothing left to give.
Typically others can recognize the signs of burnout before the employee can.
Burnout: Signs You're Headed for Trouble
Symptoms of burnout include emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and motivational impacts. The more you can identify with the following signs, the more likely you are headed for job burnout.
Emotionally, the burned out worker may become critical, cynical, and resentful of work. This includes
- irritability or impatience with coworkers, clients, and others
- disillusionment about one's job and
- dissatisfaction about one's achievements
- feeling exhausted emotionally, mentally, and physically which may be expressed in various unexplained physical ailments (e.g., headaches, backaches).
Behaviorally, the burned out worker may experience:
- a change in sleep patterns
- the use of food, drugs, alcohol to try to feel better
- self-isolation from coworkers and others and
- skipping work, reporting for work late, and/or leaving early.
Cognitively, his or her functioning may decrease. It is harder for the burned out worker to
- pay attention
- concentrate and
Motivationally, the employee no longer seems to be the ball of fire that he (or she) once was. The worker loses interest in work. He may
- have trouble dragging himself to work and getting the workday started
- lack the energy to be consistently productive
- feel like his work in this job is done
- procrastinate, taking longer to complete tasks
- avoid volunteering to help with even small duties
- encounter declining job performance.
Are You Burnout Prone?
Certain personal characteristics make workers more susceptible to job burnout than others.8
Remember being 22 and wanting to set the world ablaze with your awesomeness? Inflated expectations can particularly set you up for burnout. Cross-cultural research repeatedly and consistently finds that younger people burn out more often than older people.
Where you get your fulfillment is about seeking balance and setting priorities in your life. Thus, research finds that single people burn out more than married people (so long as they have happy marriages). People without children burn out more than those with children, even with the added strain of parenting.
High achievers, those who have attained higher levels of education, and people who are prone to depression, anxiety, or anger problems are also more prone to burnout.
Also, if you have trouble saying "no" or setting boundaries — especially regarding bringing work home with you — you could be setting yourself up for job burnout.
One of the strongest predictors of burnout is work/home interference — taking a work call during family time or answering work email while tucking the kids into bed.
It's tempting to cast blame on the burned out employee for his plight (e.g., she cannot cope with stress, he wasn't qualified for the work). However, one must dig deeper by looking at the organization itself. Typically, there are substantial situational stressors and other burned out workers, too.
Have you ever experienced job burnout?
What Causes Job Burnout?
Job burnout is a crisis in job effectiveness and self-worth, the feeling that you are working way too hard and not accomplishing anything. You feel your work has low value and your inputs are meaningless.
Often it's the best and brightest who burn out, those who are on fire to prove themselves. So just how do you get from burning star to burned out?
Researchers say one of six organizational factors can lead to burnout:
- work overload - too much work
- an unfair work environment (e.g., overly demanding or unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, micromanagement, office bully)
- lack of social support (e.g., close, supportive relationships at work and home)
- lack of control over decisions that affect your job (i.e., your schedule, workload, resources to do your job, challenge level)
- working in the service of values you dislike (e.g., poor job fit)
- working for insufficient reward (money, prestige, positive feedback, recognition)
I used to be a classic workaholic, and after seeing how little work and career really mean when you reach the end of your life, I put a new emphasis on things I believe count more ... family, friends, being part of a community, and appreciating the little joys of the average day.— Mitch Albom, American author and broadcaster
How to Build a Better Workplace: 3 Key Takeaways for Managers
As a former HR investigator for Fortune 500 companies, I've found that job burnout often had a role in the complaints I was reviewing. Here are common situations I've encountered, plus lessons learned for managers.
Key Takeaway 1
Set up-front performance guidelines and let subordinates know what a good job looks like. Provide clear direction, then get out of the way so people can do their jobs.
Any Coward Can Micromanage
Many complaints involved first-time supervisors who were struggling to gain their leadership footing. Rather than provide direction, they micromanaged every detail of subordinates' jobs, draining the energy and strangling the confidence of their people.
However, it wasn't just inexperienced managers; it was also seasoned executives. There was an Executive Vice President who regularly spent hours re-crafting sentences on a report that had been carefully written by professionals three levels under him then reviewed by subsequent levels.
It takes a brave manager to provide just enough direction then step away and let competent people do what they are paid to do.
The Stress of Being Micromanaged: How to Deal
"If you want something done right, then do it yourself." So goes the motto of the micromanager. Micromanagement is a significant source of job burnout.
The micromanager typically does not realize that they she (or he) has "control" and "overinvolvement" issues that interfere with her ability to effectively delegate. She fools herself with the belief that she's simply being a good manager by rolling up her sleeves.
Rather than assigning tasks to subordinates then trusting them to do their work, the micromanager instead feels compelled to be personally involved in every decision, in every step of every task. If the subordinate deviates even slightly from script, then approvals and sign-offs are required.
There are no allowances for creativity or self-direction, and subordinate growth opportunities are stymied.
Ultimately, this style of mismanagement is grounded in the manager's internal anxiety about relinquishing control and in her distrust of those she supervises. Sometimes company culture or stressful circumstances may encourage micromanagement. Micromanagement should be considered for what it is: microagression.
To effectively deal with a micromanager, work on building your boss' trust. Try to understand the source of her anxiety and plan accordingly. For example: Have you missed deadlines previously, misunderstood her direction, or made errors that embarrassed her? Oftentimes, however, micromanagement is not personal. It may have more to do with her anxiety than with you.9
Help alleviate your micromanager's anxiety by making sure she knows your skill sets. Help her lead by repeating back to her your understanding of her direction for clarity.
Be super reliable and overly communicative regarding any tasks she has assigned you. Offer detailed, regular updates on your progress before she has a chance to ask you how it's going. Send her drafts of your work to date. Schedule check-ins to ask for your micromanager's feedback along the way.
By anticipating her needs, you beat the micromanager at her own control game. With steady application and positive feedback when she lets you make your own decisions, you'll find that ultimately your micromanager's trust in you will improve.
Key Takeaway 2
Resist the temptation to over-rely on a "go to" person. Distribute workload fairly among staff and check in frequently.
Playing Favorites Stresses Everyone Out
Managers often have a "go to" person someone they can trust to do the job right, someone who will take on new or additional tasks, often on short notice and without complaint.
This is the path of least resistance, and it builds resentment within the team. The "go to" becomes overburdened and the others don't get development opportunities.
Key Takeaway 3
Set the expectation that subordinates will leave work at work, then model it. Everyone needs time to decompress.
Off the Clock Means "It Can Wait"
My experience is that some of the most contentious employee situations have involved managers' attempts to schedule work activities during employees' vacation and family time.
- conference calls scheduled for excessively early or late hours (6 a.m./7 p.m.),
- managers requesting employees to work during their medical leaves of absence, and
- an "urgent" text for information during a family funeral. (Is anything that urgent?)
- Best of all, one employee received a call when she was in the hospital delivering her baby. Between contractions her boss requested that she email some data to them. Um, no.
How often do you take your work home with you?
Professions With The Highest Burnout Rates
Whereas 27.8% of all American workers experience burnout, some professions are much more susceptible to it than others.
Almost half of doctors report symptoms of job burnout.10 A 2013 survey of 24,000 physicians conducted by Medscape found a high rate of burnout among physicians.11
Burnout rates varied by specialty, with work hours and bureaucracy figuring as significant stressors. Specialties with the highest rates of burnout are as follows:
- Emergency Medicine (51%)
- Critical Care (50%)
- Family Medicine (43%)
- Anesthesiology (42%)
- General Surgery (42%)
- Internal Medicine (42%) and
- Obstetrics, Gynecology & Women's Services (42%)
Burnout rates for other specific professions are not always widely available. However, if one looks at other statistics by profession -- rates of divorce, depression, and suicide -- a pattern emerges regarding the general level of stress workers experience.
Workers in the Caretaking Professions
Aside from doctors, people in the following caretaking professions have higher divorce, depression and/or suicide rates:12
- Social workers
- Massage therapists
- Nursing home and childcare workers
- Dentists and
- Healthcare workers.
With some of them, perhaps you can blame the stress of low status and low control over their jobs. Others professions, such as veterinarians and dentists, often carry enormous debt from school and establishing a private practice.
Professions With Low Status and Low Control
Workers in the following professions often lack of control over decisions that affect your job and are often poorly rewarded for their effort. Thus, they often have high depression or divorce rates:13
- maids and housekeeping
- food service/waitstaff
- baggage porters and concierges
- factory workers
- maintenance and groundskeepers and
- administrative support.
Finance workers (including financial advisors and accountants) have higher rates of depression and suicide than other types of employees. Perhaps it's the types of people who are drawn to these professions, or a mixture of the intense workload periods and lack of control they have over their jobs. After all, even experts have poor stock picking skills and can't time the market well.
Divorce and depression tends to plague entertainers at higher rates than other types of employees. Perhaps the overly demanding or unclear nature of their job expectations and their lack of recognition figures into these outcomes. These professions include:14
- dancers and choreographers
- performers, sports and related workers
- artists and
We are all trading time for money in our professional pursuits. Burnout rates demonstrate that many employees could use an extra level of understanding. You never know the struggles that someone else is facing, either on or off the job.
Achieving Balance: Work Won't Love You Back
Job burnout can be prevented and dealt with by practicing healthy lifestyle management:15
- start the day with a relaxing ritual
- nourish your body by eat healthy
- exercise regularly
- get adequate rest/sleep
- learn to say "no" (you are not as indispensable as you believe)
- take a break from technology
- leave work at work
- do something creative; maintain regular hobbies
- your relationships are your lifeline to healing -- maintain them
- prioritize your life goals
- take your earned vacation
- get clarity in job duties
- address problems rather than letting them linger
- seek counseling through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a private therapist
- consider a change of job duties (e.g., different grade level, sales territory, department) and
- don't wait until you've burned out to do something about your job situation.
Readers: Share Your Job Burnout Story
In the Comments Section below, share your job burnout story: What ridiculous lengths did you go to for your job? How did you know you were burned out? When did you decide you had had enough? What steps did you take to heal?
1Schabner, Dean. "Americans Work More Than Anyone." ABC News. Last modified May 1, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1.
2U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "American Time Use Survey." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last modified July 10, 2013. http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/.
3 Core Performance. "Study: 80 Percent of Employees are Taking Work Home." Last modified July 17, 2012. http://www.coreperformance.com/daily/well-at-work/study-80-percent-of-employees-are-taking-work-home.html.
4Jamieson, Dave. "U.S. Workers Trail Rest Of Developed Countries In Vacation Time: Report." The Huffington Post. Last modified May 24, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/24/us-vacation-time-report_n_3333563.html#slide=2193759.
5Censky, Annalyn. "Unused vacation days: Why workers take a pass." CNNMoney. Last modified May 18, 2012. http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/18/news/economy/unused_vacation_days/index.htm.
6Smith, Aaron. "Smartphone Ownership 2013." Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Last modified June 5, 2013. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Smartphone-Ownership-2013/Findings.aspx.
7Shanafelt, Tait D., Sonja Boone, Litjen Tan, Lotte Dyrbye, Wayne Sotile, Daniel Satele, Colin P. West, Jeff Sloan, and Michael R. Oreskovich. "Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population." JAMA Internal Medicine 172, no. 18 (2012): 1377-1385. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1351351.
8Senior, Jennifer. "Where Work Is a Religion, Work Burnout Is Its Crisis of Faith." New York Magazine. Last modified October 24, 2007. http://nymag.com/news/features/24757/.
9Small Business Association | National Federation of Independent Business. "Micromanagement Is Mismanagement: Are You a Micromanager?" Accessed August 28, 2013. http://www.nfib.com/business-resources/business-resources-item?cmsid=31587.
10Chicago Tribune. "Job burnout strikes doctors more often than other workers." Last modified August 21, 2012. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-08-21/lifestyle/sns-rt-us-doctors-burnoutbre87j0rj-20120820_1_burnout-doctors-struggle-burned-out-doctors.
11The Advisory Board Company. "Medscape: The specialties with the most—and the least—burnout | The Advisory Board Daily Briefing." Last modified April 4, 2013. http://www.advisory.com/Daily-Briefing/2013/04/04/The-specialties-with-the-most-burnout.
12Worth, Tammy. "10 Careers With High Rates of Depression." Health.com. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20428990,00.html.
13Lubin, Gus. "The 15 Jobs Where You're Most Likely To Get Divorced." Business Insider. Last modified September 28, 2010. http://www.businessinsider.com/highest-divorce-rates-by-profession-2010-9?op=1.
14Lubin, Gus. "The 19 Jobs Where You're Most Likely To Kill Yourself." Business Insider. Last modified October 18, 2011. http://www.businessinsider.com/most-suicidal-occupations-2011-10?op=1.
15Jacobs, Deborah L. "How To Keep Your Job Without Working Yourself To Death." Forbes. Last modified April 9, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahljacobs/2012/04/09/how-to-keep-your-job-without-working-yourself-to-death/.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
I work in a hospital, and the new director in my department has changed all of our schedules. We are now forced to work 5 days per week plus all recognized holidays and are not allowed to socialize. I have been there for 20 years, and the last 10 years have worked only 4 days a week. Because of the changes, I've had to take time off for emotional stress. What are my options?
With your director being new, she is probably trying to make a positive and immediate noticeable impact to impress her management. New directors/managers are notorious for enacting change and wanting to make their mark quickly.
Unfortunately, yours may be failing to consider the morale of department employees. Employees in any difficult work situation (that's you) have several options when they don't like the changes they are faced with:
1) resist - form a union, sign a petition, approach upper management and/or HR as a group to complain, file grievances
2) flee - quit, retire, request a transfer to a different department, go part-time if that's an option
3) freeze - go out on stress or other medical leave so you can press "pause" on dealing with the situation
4) adapt - figure out a way to make it work, realizing you'll probably outlast her.
As you consider your response, ask yourself these questions:
How are your coworkers coping with the change? Are they having as difficult a time as you with the changes? Talk with those you trust. Talk with your direct manager as well about the changes. Can she help? What are the director's reasons for the changes? Are the changes permanent? (Certainly you can't be expected to work all recognized holidays forever.) Are you a source of the problems or are you simply feeling the pain of a broad sweeping policy change aimed at correcting problems that should have been dealt with individually (e.g., only certain people tend to socialize too much, now everyone is punished for their habits)?
Ask for a copy of these new policies in writing as the changes are made. Oftentimes, they look more ridiculous once they appear in writing and you as an experienced employee can poke holes in them as someone who is "concerned" about patients and employees. Burnout is a real thing among nurses and other medical personnel, and that's what she's flirting with. Does she really want to deal with the consequences of mistakes made by burned out nurses?Helpful 1
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