Bonnie, president of a small business consulting company, stares at the stacks of paper on her desk. For weeks now, she has not been able to concentrate on her work. Her once contagious enthusiasm has deteriorated to apathy.
Sam, a top sales representative overhears a co-worker complain: "What's the matter with Sam these days? He has no patience with anyone and criticizes everything we do." Sam fumes over these words and pops another Valium to dull his escalating rage. He must concentrate on his sales quota.
Joan, manager of a French country accessories business, drags herself out of bed these days to go to work. "I used to love my job," she tells her husband, "but now if feels unimportant. I need to do something meaningful."
Many people like Bonnie, Sam, and Joan feel trapped in their jobs or their businesses -- victims of stress overload, commonly known as burnout. Burnout leaves in its wake individual casualties, loss of productivity, high absenteeism, chemical dependency, strained family relationships and broken dreams. Bonnie, Sam and Joan must confront their burnout in order to cure it. Also, if their companies were innovative and supportive, the road back to productivity and health would be swifter.
How do you recognize burnout in yourself or an employee? Warning signals may include the following signs, occurring on a regular basis:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Frequently being late for work
- Skipping work
- Irritability and quickness to anger
- Frequent illnesses
- Inflexibility and resistance to change
- Feeling unappreciated
- Hopelessness and detachment
- Accidents, on and off the job
- Increased alcohol or drug consumption
Burnout is insidious -- you may the last to notice. If Sam could consider the validity of his co-worker's comments about his irritability, he could begin to acknowledge his pain. Awareness is the first step in recovery. As these warning signals can also be symptomatic of disease or depression, check with your doctor, as well, to be certain you are designing the right recovery plan.
Who is most at risk of burning out? Usually, it is the best and the brightest workers who are most vulnerable. Ambitious, capable people have high expectations of themselves and can get overwhelmed by their drive to achieve. If you are obsessed with success, overcommit yourself with too many responsibilities, and need to be in control all the time, you are a likely candidate for burnout. Attitude and your philosophy of life also influence your vulnerability. It is your attitude toward a demand or a pressure rather than the actual demand or pressure that causes your stress response. For example, when you work in sales, you must learn to handle rejections regularly. Presently, when Sam loses a sale, he vents his anger at his customer, instead of calmly analyzing the facts and preserving the relationship. He has lost touch with his former professionalism and perspective.
Learning to manage stress means taking care of yourself by taking responsibility for your well-being and making positive life choices. Bonnie, Sam and Joan all need to eclipse their stress overload by examining their personal and work choices. Managers and organizations can help their employees by analyzing their corporate culture and instituting positive changes. In Joan's case, she needs to uncover the truth about why her career now seems so unfulfilling.
The following is a list of powerful steps that you and your company can implement to halt the downward spiral of burnout:
- Take a personal stress inventory and make decisions to avoid, alleviate, or adapt to whatever causes stress for you.
- Make plans to identify and actively pursue your personal and work goals.
- Do work that you love and matches your personality and lifestyle.
- Build up your stress resistance with a healthy lifestyle.
- Learn relaxation techniques and use them daily, even just for five minutes.
- View yourself and your job realistically and identify potential pitfalls ahead of time.
- Develop strong relationships with your colleagues and mentors.
- Limit your overtime hours and take your vacations.
- Learn to say "No" and to actively negotiate to prevent your workload from becoming overwhelming.
- Keep your life balanced with satisfying personal relationships, recreation and creative pursuits.
If You Manage Others:
- Model the above stress reduction strategies listed above to your employees.
- Watch for the early signs of burnout in your employees.
- Meet regularly with your staff to review job responsibilities, company objectives and employee career development goals.
- Regularly give earned positive recognition to employees.
- Don't overload your best employees with too much responsibility.
- Limit employee work hours and set realistic expectations.
- Encourage employee participation in decisions whenever possible and encourage their creativity.
- Ensure that your employees have proper training, resources, and support to do their jobs well.
For Your Organization:
- Announce an organizational commitment to stress-reduction and identify key problems and solutions.
- Provide stress management information to all employees.
- Train your managers in effective coaching and people skills to utilize with their employees.
- Offer company benefits, such as health club memberships, smoking cessation groups, quiet nap or meditation space, and healthy lunches to support their well-being.
- Review departmental job descriptions and expectations to develop new and innovative models of efficiency and job satisfaction as well as reasonable work hours.
- Communicate organizational goals and initiatives to employees so they can feel like a significant part of the team and ask for their input.
- Be certain that all policies and procedures are up-to-date and equitable.
- Provide ongoing coaching, professional development programs, and technical training for all employees.
- Arrange for employee assistance counseling or coaching for employees dealing with burnout.
These guidelines can help you and your colleagues take charge of your body, mind and spirit. Life enhancing choices will prevent you and your employees from feeling stuck and helpless. Bonnie, Sam, and Joan are being challenged to make some significant changes in their relationship to work. Burnout can be an opportunity for growth and decision-making that can improve your life and allow you to once again become a positive member of your family, workplace, and community.