Battling burnout in the workplace

How to spot occupational burnout and improve job engagement

Stressed out at workstation
VBJ File

Burnout … we’ve probably all experienced it at one time or another. Whether it’s feeling emotionally drained, mentally exhausted or physically spent, when we reach that breaking point the thought of crawling back to neutral can seem like just another overwhelming task on our ‘to do’ list. Fortunately, there are strategies and resources to cope with burnout and even learn to recognize it coming around the bend in the future.

Jenny Kim, a professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University Carson College of Business, conducted extensive research on employee burnout, job engagement and emotional intelligence as part of her Ph.D. Focusing on the hospitality industry, she has identified symptoms, causes, inherent personality traits and ways to overcome that ring true across a range of sectors and workplace situations.

“People, in general, are under stress,” said Kim. “They have to come up with new ideas [and] innovative products, whether frontline [or] top employees. That’s how the economy grows. It has good and bad sides.”

Don Sasse, founder of High Country NW, a Battle Ground-based consulting firm, couldn’t agree more. Sasse helps companies and entrepreneurs achieve their business goals while keeping a healthy work/life balance.

“In my lifetime – I’m 51 years old – I have seen so much advancement in technology and our lives are so much more fast-paced. That fast-paced, constant barrage of information that we’re all taking in is a huge part of what’s causing job dissatisfaction to be epidemic; challenges, priorities, information to process. It’s very, very difficult for any one of us to process and still be functional,” he said.

Dr. Kim breaks down stress into two categories: challenge and hindrance. She explained that challenge stressors can be motivating and are actually necessary like more job responsibility and deadlines for projects. Hindrance stressors include long work hours and piling job responsibilities. Depending on certain personality traits, some people will function better under positive or negative stressors for a longer period of time such as those high in conscientious, agreeable, extraverted or openness to experience characteristics. The problem comes when the horse never gets to eat the carrot, so to speak.

“When people work under pressure productivity can go up, but it depends on the amount of time spent,” said Kim. “If it’s too long with no reward, it becomes a hindrance stressor. A long-term challenge stressor becomes a hindrance and 99.9 percent of people will leave the company or another negative result will occur.”

So, are you suffering from burnout? Sasse streamlined the condition down to five key areas of frustration. While the perspective is more from an entrepreneurial or business owner view, it’s easily applicable to employees and even home and family situations.

1. Lack of control – Business is running you. You have no control over your time, or resources and everything feels like a whirlwind of chaos

2. People problems – Employees, other team members, vendors, suppliers, sub-contractors, partners, dysfunctional teams, not enough discipline and accountability.

3. Lack of profit or poor cash flow – There’s never enough of either and no systematic process for managing it.

4. Reaching your limit abruptly – People will hit the ceiling with their emergency brake on. It leaves them unfulfilled and ultimately frustrated.

5. It’s not working – You’ve tried a lot of things and nothing works. You’re looking for the silver bullet and there isn’t one.

The key to battling burnout, Kim explained, is to balance challenges with resources that help each employee meet those challenges instead of the ‘do more with less’ mentality. She pointed out that when demand is high and resources to meet that demand are high, that is when growth and job satisfaction are on the same plane.

Things like a company clearly defining and communicating its mission; identifying tangible ways to acknowledge employees for their contribution as part of the team; taking the time to determine the individual strengths of each team member; passing on a measure of decision-making authority at every level of the employee team; allowing ample opportunity for movement throughout a workday; and providing a reliable and accessible supervisory and management team to all staff during working hours are all examples of resources that companies can easily and effectively implement.

For the self-employed, many of these concepts can be adapted. However, without a co-worker support system it becomes vital to create one – whether that’s a formal networking group or an informal weekly meeting of the minds with a few close associates in the same industry or a completely different one. Regular social support is equally important for the self-employed and its benefits should not be ignored.

Case in point, Dr. Hoa Ly, medical director for Legacy Salmon Creek, views recovery from burnout holistically.

Ly teaches mindfulness brown bag sessions at Legacy and recounted an interaction he had with a colleague. The colleague shared with Dr. Ly that he was feeling irritable and couldn’t pinpoint the cause. Suspecting burnout, Ly asked the man what gives him meaning, to which he had no response.

“Everyone who comes into a profession has a meaning, but when small meanings that happen every day connect to a bigger meaning, you’re less likely to have burnout and, in order to do this, be mindful of each day,” Ly said.

He went on to say that he’d been up for 23 of the previous 24 hours when he stopped to talk to the colleague on his way to a cup of coffee. Ly said that the conversation gave him more meaning than the cup of coffee.

“Don’t wait ‘til your cup is empty, and work hard to fill it but fill your cup as you go,” Ly added.

Dr. Ly knows from where he speaks. As a youth he grew up in the midst of the Vietnam War, went through bombardments, left school in the 5th grade, was jailed for treason and not allowed to re-enter the school system upon his release. He came to America as a refugee – unable to speak English – at 22 with a dream to become a doctor.

“If we give control to external factors – my work is tough, my boss isn’t friendly, not enough pay – no wonder you lose control,” he said. “So control your attitude and how you feel. Gain a sense of control and everything around you has meaning.”

The consequences of burnout are just starting to be understood. According to Sasse, they include substance abuse, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, stroke and obesity. From a company perspective, a high turnover rate and declining business success are two obvious results.

While there is no overnight fix to overcoming burnout, Kim explained, the benefits of better work/life balance and a happier, healthier staff far outweigh the negative impact of ignoring this growing concern.

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