It's Not Just You: Exploring the causes of worker burnout

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Early in my career I worked at a place that was the textbook example of Corporate Hell on Earth. My manager had a habit of lashing out in meetings if you disagreed with him. Public email floggings were common; once, a woman in another department made a vital (read: politically charged) error and my manager sent her a flaming missive, copying all of the senior executives in her department. I don't recall seeing her much after that.

It took a while before I understood that my manager wasn't the source of the toxicity problem, he was pressured and encouraged by the layer of management above him.

With this experience permanently etched in my mind I read with appreciation a recent study, summarized in Knowledge@Wharton entitled, "What Makes the Job Tough? The Influence of Organizational Respect on Burnout in Human Services," written by Wharton doctoral student Lakshmi Ramarajan and Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, so interesting. The report provides one of the most comprehensive analyses of the origins of burnout that I'd ever read.

I've found it difficult to identify with the typical profiles offered up in the reams of articles written about employee burnout--even when I was officially fried. But this study offered up much more complexity.

According to Barsade,

"One of the biggest complaints employees have is they are not sufficiently recognized by their organizations for the work that they do. Respect is a component of recognition. When employees don't feel that the organization respects and values them, they tend to experience higher levels of burnout."

Or, as Ramarajan puts it, "it is often not the job that burns you out, but the organization."

My exit interview from Hell yielded few surprises. When asked why I was leaving the company I cited "preserving my sanity" as a primary reason. What occurred to me, over time and much contemplation and research, was that I was becoming complicit in the burnout behavior. Initially I had been shocked by the disrespect at the office, but over time I came to expect it, and then I began to blame myself for it. It took some caring friends to remind me that before the job I had been a capable person; it was unlikely that I'd lost my skills or talent. But I had lost something at that job--my motivation, confidence, and original purpose.

I'd taken the job, frankly, for the paycheck and because I knew I could do the work well. I craved balance and wanted to spend more time with my friends and on writing, but after a day of working this job I was sapped of the desire to do anything. Though I disrespected my manager, his goals became my goals. His moods became mine.

Much of this was my fault. I'm what life coach Martha Beck describes as a "Spongy" person who absorbs others' moods very easily. My challenge is learning to, well, wear an emotional rubber and become impervious to others' stress and frustration. But there was something else, and this something else I got in the Wharton Study.

A company's culture -- which, for the purposes of the study, is defined as "the unwritten norms and values surrounding how employees are valued as individuals" -- plays an important role in burnout, the researchers say. "We know that employees start identifying with an organization as soon as they join it," says Ramarajan. "The more they feel respected as a member of the group, the more likely they are to have that sense of identification. Respect is a way in which employees get entrenched into the workplace and feel that what they do is meaningful. Conversely, if they observe that people around them are disrespected, they come to a consensus that the organization doesn't treat people well."

While at Hell Job I researched burnout quite often. I knew that I'd exhibited some of the common personality traits of a burnout candidate before because I tended to over-identify with my work, but this time I found it difficult to figure out what it had to do with me. I certainly didn't overidentify with this job; I often avoided the topic of what I did for a living because I so actively disliked the company. But then why was I getting sucked in by it? Why didn't I leave sooner?

There are many reasons for burnout. We tend to think of the reasons that are our fault; for example, some people with unresolved childhood issues often play out pleasing their bosses to redeem themselves for affection they didn't receive from their parents. Then there are company reasons for burnout, such as layoffs or having your job downsized. These reasons are episodic, more the cause of impersonal financial or business reasons, and sometimes these circumstances are more energizing than demotivating. But not if the company doesn't respect you. That's the key; respect must be ingrained in the company culture.

Many companies understand this on a surface level. They offer up "Employee of the Month" plaques and corporate retreats to pound this "respect" into the psyches of their employees. But more commonly there's an ongoing, sometimes subliminal disrespect of workers that leads to employees' prolonged, difficult to identify, depression over their jobs.

Lakshmi's and Barsade's study explains burnout as a multi-dimensional phenomenon. We don't always count the psychological exhaustion of a job.

"Disrespected employees may need to mask their true emotional reaction regarding how their organization treats them while they assist their clients. This masking and suppressing could increase emotional exhaustion..."

Hell job offered up some obvious reasons for low morale, but they were matched by other, more insidious causes. Often, my boss would hole himself up for days to work on something "incredibly important," leaving the troops to work alone. Initially the autonomy was nice, but then I began to wonder, what was so important that it couldn't be shared with the team? And then sometimes, when my boss re-emerged he'd reveal a whole new business focus, making all of our work we were doing while he was in hiding irrelevant. Over time, I began to question anything that I was doing, thinking, will this change in a week? Why get so excited. Why work so hard?. I lost the usual spark that I had to tackle projects and excel.

At a later job I marveled at the initial "respect" I received as a new employee. The employment negotiations were exceedingly fair; everything that I wanted included in my agreement was considered and mostly accepted. I got to sit in on all planning meetings, as the company philosophy was that we were all contributors to the company. We had nice staff dinners and parties. But then I got a whiff of the insidious disrespect. Just a faint whiff, initially. I questioned whether I was paranoid. But then over time...yep. Disrespect.

I sensed that I could sit in the planning meetings and offer up whatever I wanted, but only the suggestions of the senior team were written down. I was given assignments that were often irrelevant by the end of the week; some consultant would be hired to do the work instead.

"Is it me?" I asked my boss. "No," she said. "We just want you to work on other things. Looking back, I think that the disconnect was from a disorganized management, but at the time, it felt like disrespect.

As an older, wiser, worker and manager I often wonder if I don't perpetuate disrespect like this employer did, unwittingly. The Wharton study provides several ways to avoid burnout in employees:

1. Don't assume it isn't your problem.

According to the study:

Organizational respect influences burnout above and beyond the effects of job demands and negative affectivity. Because existing studies conceptualize burnout as stemming from the job or the individual, rather than the organization, "the 'problem' from a managerial perspective is the person," the authors note. "Succumbing to burnout becomes a private affair of the employee, and not something of concern to the organization as a whole....This ignores the contextual sources of the problem."

2. Encourage autonomy.

Knowledge@Wharton, says that autonomy, defined as "the discretion that one has to determine the processes and schedules involved in completing a task," can often act as a buffer against burnout. I think of the software developers and system administrators I used to work with at a start-up. The hours were sometimes outrageous--system outages at 3am required their immediate assistance. Some days they spent overnights at work. But during downtimes they were allowed to come into the office whenever they wanted, and to leave at their discretion. No one questioned their whereabouts during these times, which ensured their high-engagement when they were needed.

3. Don't play favorites.

According to the report: "one's perceptions of respect and disrespect are not only based on how one views one's own treatment, but also by how others are treated. For example, when team members see someone else on the team being treated unfairly, they alter their own perceptions of the fairness of the team. Likewise, the extent to which others, not just the self, are treated ... can influence an individual's own perceptions of respect."

This goes without saying, but consider how cultures can differ between departments. Are others in marketing happier than those in sales? What systems are in place in other parts of your company that can be applied across the board? And consider your contractors--people who don't work in your company but who comprise your team. Are they as informed as your internal reports? How can you make sure they are brought up to speed and included?

As an employee, consider the above as reasons for your discontent, and consider these starting points to conversations for change. But hold on! Before you pass off all of your dissatisfaction on your employer, you should ask yourself, am I personally prone to burnout? The Wharton study also cites "negative affectivity" as a factor. You know that person who seems to be annoyed or cynical all the time? She's likely to have negative affectivity, or a propensity to soak in less positive emotions. If you find that every job you have you are always disrespected, take notice of the pattern. You may be perpetuating your own burnout.

In other words, burnout is not all your fault, but it's probably some of your fault.

Photo Credit: news.bbc.co.uk

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