Bonnie, president of a small business consulting company, stares at the stacks of paper on her desk. For weeks now, she hasn't been able to concentrate on her work. Her once contagious enthusiasm has deteriorated to apathy.
Trevor, a top sales representative, overhears a co-worker complain: "What's the matter with Trevor? He has no patience with anyone and criticizes everything we do." Trevor fumes over these words and pops another tranquilizer to dull his escalating rage. He must concentrate on his sales quota.
Joan, manager of a French country accessory shop, drags herself out of bed these days to go to work. "I used to love my job, " she tells her husband, "but now it feels unimportant. I need to do something meaningful.
Stress overload or burnout poses a threat to your career advancement and effectiveness. Stress is your body’s reaction to the demands and pressures of the day. These demands and pressures are called stressors. A stressor could be a critical boss or too much to do.
Stress occurs when your body reacts to these stressors as if it were being physically threatened, so your body prepares for action. You may simply be nervous about a presentation but your body’s alarm system may be firing as intensely as if you were being attacked by a cobra. So stress itself is not the problem. It is your attitude towards the stress-producing trigger that creates the difficulty. Too much stress or burnout leaves in its wake individual casualties, loss of productivity, high absenteeism, chemical dependency, strained family relationships, and broken dreams. The good news is that you can learn to manage your response to the stressors in your life and stop burnout before it undermines your goals.
How do you know if you’re approaching burnout? Take the following quiz. Add up how many of these warning signals you’re experiencing on a regular basis:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Frequently being late for work
- Skipping work
- Irritability; quickness to anger
- Frequent illnesses
- Inflexibility; resistance to change
- Feeling unappreciated
- Hopelessness and detachment
- Accidents, on and off the job
- Increased alcohol or drug consumption
If you are wrestling with three or more of these warning signals, then you are at risk for burnout. Burnout is often insidious; you may be the last to know. If Trevor could consider the validity of his co-workers’ comments about his irritability, then he could begin to acknowledge his pain. Awareness is the first step toward recovery. As these warning signals can also be symptomatic of disease or depression, check with your doctor to be sure.
Who is most at risk of burning out? Usually, it is the best and the brightest workers who are most vulnerable. Ambitious, capable people, such as small business owners like Bonnie, have high expectations of themselves and can get overwhelmed by their own enthusiasm. If you are obsessed with success, over-commit yourself with too many responsibilities, and feel the need to be in control all the time, you are a likely candidate for burnout.
Attitude and philosophy of life also influence your vulnerability. It is your attitude toward a demand or 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 rejection. Presently, when Trevor 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 professionalism.
Learning to manage stress means taking care of yourself by accepting responsibility for your well-being and making positive life choices. Bonnie, Trevor, and Joan need to eclipse their stress overload by examining their personal and work choices. If you are a manager or a business owner, you can help yourself and your employees by listening to their needs and instituting positive changes. In Joan’s case, she needs to uncover new work choices for herself. Let’s take a closer look at the specific stressors that you are experiencing with your job or business using the following Stress on the Job Checklist. Remember, your stress response is unique to you. A noisy office environment can be a negative stressor for one person but exhilarating to another.
Stress on the Job Checklist Consider the items below in terms of how much negative stress they create for you. Rate them 1-5
1=This item is never stressful for you.
2=This item is seldom stressful for you
3=This item is sometimes stressful for you.
4=This item is often stressful for you.
5=This item is always stressful for you.
- I am unclear about what is expected of me on the job.
- I am caught in the middle between conflicting agendas.
- I feel drained from my daily commute.
- I am continually interrupted by people with new priorities.
- I only receive feedback when my performance is unsatisfactory.
- I have to work under crowded or unpleasant conditions.
- There is little chance for promotion or growth in my organization.
- I have too much to do and not enough time to do it.
- I don’t have the opportunity to participate in decisions.
- I do not have enough challenging or interesting work to do.
- I am terrified of failing.
- I feel over-qualified for the work I am doing.
- I am under-qualified for the work I am doing.
- I feel torn between home and work responsibilities.
- I need more training to do my job well.
- I am afraid of being laid off.
- I move from one deadline to the next.
- I have lost interest in my job.
- I don’t enjoy my co-workers.
- I am always fighting fires instead of completing my work.
Make a note of each item that you rated with a 3 or higher. These negative stressors are an invitation to problem-solving. They are meant to provide a framework in which you can decide if you need to change jobs or careers or redesign your business. If you are basically happy where you are, then see if you can transform these negative stressors into positive choices. Caitlin hated driving to work so she moved to a seacoast town where she could take the commuter boat and used the time to catch up on her reading. Pedro realized that if he became a better time manager that work would be much more rewarding for him. So, he approached the most organized person he knew and offered to buy him lunch for six weeks in exchange for productivity lessons.
In addition to correcting your individual negative stressors, here are some general suggestions to help you prevent or recover from burnout. For yourself, try the following strategies:
- Keep a stress log and then make decisions to avoid, alleviate, or adapt to whatever causes stress for you.
- Identify and actively pursue your personal and work goals.
- Discover the work that you love and find a way to earn a living at it.
- Build up your stress resistance with a healthy lifestyle.
- Learn relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga and use daily.
- View yourself and your job realistically, expecting moments of conflict and disappointment.
- Develop good working relationships with your manager, co-workers, and peers in your field.
- Consciously limit your overtime hours and take your vacations.
- Learn to say "No" to prevent feeling overwhelmed and continually renegotiate your job description so expectations are realistic.
- Keep your life balanced with satisfying personal relationships and recreation.
If you manage other people, keep an eye out for their burnout warning signs. By intervening early enough, you can protect a valued employee from compromising him/herself or a client relationship.
Try these strategies to keep your employees productive and healthy:
- Model stress-reduction techniques for your employees by your own behavior. If you are overwhelmed, then learn how to change it or handle it.
- Be alert to behavior changes in your employees, even minor clues like a sharp retort can signal the beginnings of burnout.
- Meet regularly with your employees to review job responsibilities, department objectives, training needs, and career development goals.
- Give earned positive recognition to employees regularly.
- Don't overload your best employees with too many delegated projects.
- Limit employee work hours and encourage a balanced lifestyle.
- Promote employee participation in decisions whenever appropriate.
- Insure that your employees have the proper training and support services they need to perform to capacity.
If you are the principal of your own organization or a member of the executive team, advocate for an organizational approach to burnout prevention. In this era of downsizing and lean and mean companies, many workers are on the verge of burnout.
Create a forum where employee suggestions can be incorporated into policy and try implementing some of the following programs:
- Announce an organizational commitment to stress-reduction, identify key problems, and begin to brainstorm solutions.
- Provide stress management information and/or training to all employees.
- Train your managers to use effective people skills with their employees; this will reduce much unnecessary conflict.
- Offer company benefits such as health club memberships, smoking cessation groups, or lunchtime seminars or at least make available a list of outside resources.
- Insure that job descriptions and expectations for employees are realistic and up-to-date.
- Communicate organizational goals regularly to all employees and invite their participation in the planning process.
- Encourage employees to take their vacations, develop interests outside of work, and facilitate their ability to manage work and family simultaneously.
- Be sure that company policies and procedures are equitable.
- Provide training and career development programs for employees.
- Arrange for outplacement or counseling services for employees experiencing burnout.
Ultimately, you are in charge of your well-being. When we allow ourselves to get burned out, we have lost control of our lives. The antidotes are awareness and subtracting those negative stressors and replacing them with positive choices. Life-enhancing choices prevent you from feeling stuck and helpless. Bonnie, Trevor, and Joan need to tell the truth about feeling stuck and take action on their own behalf. Burnout is always an opportunity to examine your choices and improve your life. By implementing these strategies and inventing a few of your own, you can conquer burnout and create a more balanced and personally satisfying life.For further information about stress and burnout, check out my Positive Choices Package.