Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care


by James Porter March 09, 2011

Who is affected by burnout? Burnout has been described as the erosion of the soul, a cross between helplessness and hopelessness, a severe loss of motivation and/or a mismatch between the employer and the employee. Burnout can come about as the result of stress, low morale, poor working conditions, a bad boss, or simply having too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Burnout can occur at every level of an organization from the mailroom to the boardroom. It's commonly found among helping professionals like nurses, teachers, and social workers but it is also found among police officers, lawyers, EMS workers, factory workers, white collar executives, customer service people, middle-level managers, and salespeople.

The profile of an employee who burns out may surprise you. It is often a person who cares deeply about his or her job but hits a roadblock somewhere along the way and simply stops caring - sometimes as a matter of self-defense. And it is often the rising stars within an organization that are at the greatest risk for burning out. These are people whose careers were on fire at one point - fueled by idealism, dreams, and the desire to really make a difference in the world.

What causes burnout? In some organizations burnout occurs when the workload is overwhelming. Burned out workers feel like (the character from Greek Mythology) Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill all day (only to have it roll back down at the end of every day). The deadlines keep coming, the next crisis is always looming, and the burned-out worker never gets a sense of accomplishment at the end of ANY day. In this competitive atmosphere there is often an emphasis on quantity over quality. Add downsizing, and inadequate training to the mix and you have a perfect recipe for burnout.

In bureaucratic organizations burnout can also result from too little stimulus. Workers complain that the job has gone stale. That it's repetitive, monotonous and simply doesn't challenge them enough. Bureaucracy and red tape only add to a burned out workers sense of futility. Eventually he or she just loses interest, doesn't care and begins biding his or her time - doing just enough to get by. This malaise is common in government offices, the post office and other non-profit organizations.

Burned out workers feel cynical, withdrawn, exhausted, ineffective, unmotivated, angry, depressed, and stressed.

How to keep from becoming a statistic

The purpose of this article is to teach you enough about burnout - so that you can recognize it early and take steps to avoid it. By reading this article you'll learn what conditions lead to burnout; the five stages of burnout; and you'll learn about the crucial third stage where it's not to late to rescue yourself from the destructive fourth and fifth stages of burnout.

You'll also learn about values, control, challenge, getting organized, stress management and time management. You'll learn about support, change, motivation and building a satisfying personal life that gives you a healthy perspective on what happens to you at work. And by the end of this article, you will know the answer to the two most important questions you must ask in regards to this subject: Am I a candidate for burnout? And: Is my working environment a breeding ground for burnout?

Five working conditions that lead to burnout

  1. Too much to do and not enough time to do it.

  2. Not enough control over what you do.

  3. Inadequate compensation.

  4. Feeling like you are being treated unfairly.

  5. Feeling like your values are in conflict with the values of your company.

1. Too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Having too much to do and not enough time to do it is, in some ways, normal. Everyone feels this way from time to time. But feeling overwhelmed day after day, week after week and month after month can be emotionally debilitating.

QUESTION: We mentioned the Greek legend of Sisyphus a few minutes ago, do you know the story behind the myth?

For betraying Zeus, the greedy King Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity in the underworld pushing a boulder up a big hill. Just as he would reach the top of the hill the boulder would roll backwards and he would have to start the whole process over again.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT: Is there an example of a Sisyphean task that you are confounded by at work?

Nowadays, most organizational flow charts are designed to keep workers busy all the time. Overload is built into the system. From the management's perspective this approach makes sense. If there is always more work in your "in-basket" than you can keep up with - there is never any down time.

From the point of view of the worker this strategy often backfires because: 1. It limits your responsiveness. You can never do something right away for someone because there are always three other things you must do first. 2. If you do push one job ahead of another, you risk offending the person whose work you're putting off. 3. This strategy often puts a premium on speed over accuracy and on quantity over quality. It deprives you of the basic satisfaction of doing your job to the best of your ability.

Employers and/or bosses who encourage workers to increase productivity at the expense of quality make a huge miscalculation. Workers want to do good work. And when they aren't permitted to do it, it's a drain on their personal resources.

Sometimes you have to look at yourself and ask: is this job a good fit for my personality? Every working environment has its own set of expectations when it comes to the pace at which work is done. And every employee has their own profile when it comes to handling these kinds of pressures. If you find yourself wondering if it's the job or if it's you, look around. Are other people feeling the same way you do? Or are you in the minority? Some businesses are deadline driven, and for a low-key person, who doesn't do well under this kind of pressure, another environment might be a better fit.

2. Not enough control over what you do.

Decades of research and numerous studies have shown that there is an inverse relationship between your levels of control and your levels of stress. The more control you have in a situation, the less stress you'll usually experience. That's why airline pilots generally report having less stress than stewardesses, and doctors report having less stress than nurses, and CEOs report having less stress than middle-level managers, even though they may be working for the same employer and with the same clients. In each case, the first group of professionals has more control over what happens to them at work than the second group.

Big companies often try to maintain control of the organization by creating a lot of rules and regulations that are supposed to guide you but don't always apply in all situations. When a situation arises that's unique - and the rulebook doesn't seem to apply, good employers empower their employees to make the best decision for that situation. But many companies don't give you the flexibility (or control) you need to handle the situation gracefully. As the result, you may lose an opportunity (to make a sale or a good impression) because you can't give the customer what he or she wants at the moment they need it. And whether it's a slightly better deal or a little extra service, when you can't give the client what you will undoubtedly feel a loss of control.

There are many other reasons why you may feel a loss of control at work. You may be afraid of taking control, because the consequences of making a mistake would be too great. You may have a boss who micromanages or who has trouble delegating. Disorganization, endless deadlines and decisions that are made without your input also diminish the sense of control you have over your work.

Something to think about: Do you have an example of a situation at work - involving a client or business interaction - that would have gone better if you had had more control in that situation?

3. Inadequate compensation.

A paycheck and benefits are not the only reasons why we work. Motivational expert Wayne Dyer, who wrote the book THE SKY'S THE LIMIT, said: "We all want to feel productive as human beings. It's a basic need." You want job satisfaction and you want to be recognized for doing good work.

But you also need to feel like you are being adequately paid. When your salary doesn't measure up to what others in the same field are making or, you're putting in long hours of unpaid overtime, eventually you'll begin to resent it. This will be followed by feelings of cynicism, detachment and not caring how good your work is. These conditions can lead to burnout.

Occasionally, even when you are being adequately paid - the amount of hours you put in and the amount of stress you have to endure - just isn't worth it. The emotional and psychological price you have to pay is just too great. This situation too, can lead to burnout.

4. Feeling like you are being treated unfairly.

Discrimination and harassment are severe examples of unfairness that can take place within an organization. But we want to look at the subtle, more common ways in which fairness and trust are occasionally violated.

Sometimes it's just the way an organization navigates through change. When a major restructuring is in the works, how are these changes handled? Are employees warned far enough in advance? Is the communication open and honest? Is there any help offered - in regards to severance and continuing benefits? What additional training and consideration is given to the survivors of a round of cuts - who often feel guilty and unfairly burdened with extra responsibility.

Unfairness and lack of trust can manifest itself in lots of other ways: When a person with less experience and less seniority is promoted over someone more qualified; When an upper level executive's extravagant compensation package is made public; When a new employee gets a coveted corner office; Or when choice assignments or certain perks are handed out to the same few people all the time.

When enough of these variables stack up in the in one direction, certain, neglected, employees will begin to stop caring. They lose their motivation. And this leads to poor performance and eventually this can result in a vicious cycle that ultimately leads to burnout.

Something to think about: Can you think of any examples of unfairness that you have personally witnessed?

5. Feeling like your personal values are in conflict with the company's

Most companies have strict standards and codes of ethics that are vigorously enforced. But occasionally, these standards are side-stepped for the sake of a sale or for the sake of saving money. Whether this amounts to someone encouraging you to put something back on the shelf that is slightly used or asking you to falsify the date of an interaction that has already taken place, in these unfortunate situations, you have to choose between doing what someone tells you and what you know is right.

When these ethical conflicts arise, the company suffers and so do you.

Another potential road to trouble occurs when there is a mismatch between your values and the values of your employer. For example, a vegetarian isn't going to feel good about working in a meat packing plant and an environmentalist isn't going to feel good about working for a coal burning power plant. But these value mismatches are rarely as black and white as the examples we've provided. You may have a value mismatch and not even be aware of it.

Look carefully at your values and ask yourself: Does your employer do business in any way that compromises what you believe in? Does it value you as an employee? Does it operate ethically? Does it respect your personal life and the time you spend with family?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, this is an issue that could eventually lead to burnout.

The Five Stages of Burnout

There are lots of elements in your working environment that can contribute to burnout, as we have discussed. When one or more of these elements are present, there is always a chance that you could be affected by burnout. However, there are also specific signposts that you can look out for, that will tell you when you are traveling down the road toward burnout. These signposts are what we call the five stages of burnout:

  1. On Fire. You're in love with your job - or just happy to be employed. Attribute it to naivete, idealism, or just a good old-fashioned work ethic, but whatever the reason is, the long hours and difficult assignments don't phase you one bit.

  2. Fire still burning bright - but not quite right. You begin to notice things that aren't quite right about the job. The long hours and other difficulties are starting to wear you down.

  3. Fire flickering. In this stage, you start to notice stress symptoms such as headache, muscle tension, sleeplessness and/or gastrointestinal problems.

  4. Fire smoldering. This is where your stress symptoms evolve into full-blown stress-related problems with migraine headaches, chronic back pain, insomnia and/or digestive-tract disorders.

  5. Fire out. Your health problems have escalated to such a degree that you can barely function at work. Throw in problems with alcohol and drug abuse - not to mention personal finances - and you have a recipe for personal disaster.


Stage one: On Fire

Starting out a new job is stressful but it's also stimulating. This kind of stress is good for you. Hans Selye, the grandfather of stress research called it: Eustress. Robert Eliot, author of the book IS IT WORTH DYING FOR, called it N.I.C.E. stress. N.I.C.E is an acronym for anything that is New, Interesting, Challenging or Exciting.

When you first start a job everything seems N.I.C.E. You don't mind putting in long hours because it's new. You volunteer to do the jobs no one else will do, because they are challenging. You agree to take on extra responsibility because it's exciting. You haven't developed a concept yet of how much is too much, the value of your services, or what is fair. You're happy just to be working in a new place.

People who eventually burn out often begin their jobs as highly motivated, idealistic employees - with a fire in their belly. A rising star if you will. In this stage, you feel like the world is your oyster and you don't see any impediments to achieving exactly what you want in life. At this point, nothing fazes you and your mental health reflects this.

Something to think about: What makes this stage any different from the first weeks at any other job?

How do people who your fellow workers feel about the workload? (especially the ones who have been there awhile.)

Do you feel overloaded because there's a learning curve, or because it's just a lot of work?

Stage Two: Fire still burning bright, but not quite right.
In stage II, you begin to notice something isn't quite right about your job, your working environment or even your boss. You're still working hard, putting in long hours but you begin to resent it. You may experience:

  • Job dissatisfaction. The job has more responsibilities than you signed on for at the start. You begin to wonder whether all the extra effort is ever going to pay off. The idealistic vision of what you thought you could accomplish is beginning to lose its luster.
  • Inefficiency at work. You're just not quite as productive as you once were. It's harder to concentrate. Distractions, interruptions, and conflicting assignments get in your way and slow you down.
  • Difficulties with your boss. You start to see your boss as human with faults and shortcomings just like every one else. But when you first discover these weaknesses they come as a bit of a shock. This rude awakening might come in the form of his or her unfair criticism, withholding praise, treating you unfairly, or micromanaging.
  • Feeling overworked. No matter how hard you try you never seem to be able to keep up with your work. You put in the overtime, but it doesn't help. You pine for the less hectic times when you always felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of a busy day.


STAGE Three: Fire flickering.

In stage III, you begin to notice that something isn't quite right about you: You may experience one or more of the following stress symptoms:

  • An unexplained increase in colds or flu. Sometimes you're illnesses will even coincide with important deadlines or a particularly stressful event.
  • The afternoon headache or backache. You can almost feel your muscles tense as a particular supervisor or co-worker approaches. By the end of the day your body just can't take the unrelenting tension and lets you know it in the form of a pain.
  • Gastrointestinal problems. Maybe you need to take an antacid on the way to work or maybe you just experience some other form of ache in your gut. Everyone experiences stress differently - and this may be your vulnerable area. Diarrhea, stomachaches, colitis, and other digestive tract disorders can be the direct result of the increasing level of stress you are experiencing at work.
  • Panic/anxiety. You first notice it briefly on the way to work one morning. But the feelings of panic and anxiety are more prolonged. You find yourself avoiding people and assignments - like putting on a presentation - that make this feeling worse. And this avoidance begins to interfere with the way you do your job. You start self-medicating your anxiety with an over-the-counter remedy by day and perhaps a few drinks when you get home at night.


STAGE Four: Fire smoldering

In stage four, your stress-related symptoms lead to stress-related illness. Most likely you'll see a doctor about your symptoms. In this stage:

  • Occasional headaches might become an unrelenting series of migraine headaches.
  • Occasional back pain grows into a battle with chronic back pain.
  • Occasional stomach upsets become a serious stomach disorder.
  • Occasional diarrhea becomes chronic colitis and/or spastic colon.
  • The occasional cold becomes a recurrent cold you can't seem to get over.
  • Borderline high blood pressure becomes full-blown hypertension.
  • The occasional blue Monday turns into blue Tuesday, blue Wednesday, etc.

In this stage of burnout, your job suffers because your health problems begin to take center stage. You feel depressed and exhausted. You've completely lost that "can do" attitude. You feel overwhelmed by little tasks. As your performance at work suffers you feel guilty and even more depressed. And when you feel depressed you withdraw from others making your depression even worse. As your health problems become worse this feeling of futility will increase. You've entered into a vicious cycle that is very hard to extricate yourself from.


STAGE Five: Fire out

Your stress-related problems dominate your life to the point where you are barely functional. Keep in mind, that if you were in this stage right now, and you are still employed, you are probably holding onto your job by a thread. In stage five, you will experience:

  • Substance abuse. One drink at the end of the day is no longer sufficient to dull your pain. You need more.
  • Absenteeism. Health, financial and relationship problems make it difficult just surviving a full day at work. Your boss is probably making a case for why you should be fired if you haven't been already.
  • Escapism. Breaking the law, gambling and other high-risk behavior provide the means of escaping a life you can no longer tolerate.
  • Feeling suicidal. Thoughts of suicide may SEEM like the best way to solve your problems. (If you have any suicidal thoughts you should consult your doctor, see a therapist or talk to a counselor or anyone who can get you immediate help.)
  • Broken relationships. All your most important relationships are breaking down or have already broken down.

A person in this stage is desperately in need of professional help. It's a bit doubtful that you would even be reading this if your problems were this far advanced (but not impossible). If you, or someone you know, are in this stage, they (and you) can be helped, but not without significant changes in their (your) lifestyles, and the care of a professional counselor.

Stage three is the stage where you can take a stand against burnout.

A lot of people reach stage III and realize they need to make a change - and do so - before it's too late. Maybe they ask for a transfer, or go to work for a new boss, or simply find a new job. Some ask for a leave of absence, a sabbatical or take an extended vacation.

Others seek to increase their tolerance for stress - learn what stress they can eliminate and what stress they have to manage in order to avoid the more serious stages four and five of burnout. Teachers often reach stage three every spring and rejuvenate themselves over summer break.

Still others look for something exciting to do to expand their horizons. If you're burning out because you feel that you haven't been properly challenged, you need to throw a few logs on the fire: Learn a new skill, take on a new responsibility, tackle a big project. The change will do you good.

Something to think about: In the previous generation, people worked for one company for their whole lives. Now the average length of stay at an employer is under five years. Why do you think there has been this change? Are people just coping with burnout?


Seven ways to prevent burnout

A career is a bit like a marathon. You don't want to start sprinting too early because you'll never make it to the finish line. This is what happens to people in stage one. They establish a pace that they can't sustain. The following seven ideas are designed to help you establish a reasonable pace that you can maintain over the course of a lifetime. We'll discuss each one of these ideas in detail.

  1. Cut back excessive hours. The more overtime you put in the less productive you will be.

  2. Seek more control. The more control you have over your job the less stress you will experience.

  3. Seek the right level of challenge. Not enough challenge and you'll be bored. Too much challenge and you'll be overwhelmed.

  4. Get a personal life. Fostering an existence away from work, that involves intimate relationships, an active social life and an interesting hobby will act as a buffer against burnout.

  5. Get organized. When you're always looking for lost papers, files, keys or tools your life feels out of control. Getting organized puts you more in control of your stress.

  6. Learn how to motivate yourself. Motivating yourself is trickier than you think.

  7. Organize a support group for change. Some organizational changes have to come from the bottom up. Support groups can help you initiate those changes.


1. Cut back on excessive hours

Working a 50 to 60 hour week once in a while is no big deal. But when you keep this schedule up week after week, eventually you will become fatigued and start to work less efficiently. As a result, you'll have to put in even longer hours. That's when you begin to make stupid mistakes and consequently you have to work even more hours to correct your own errors. This is the definition of a vicious cycle.

Now, keep in mind, every model for fighting burnout relies on creating a balance between work life and your life away from work. How are you supposed accomplish this when you spend 12 hours a day at the office? Working excessive hours not only robs you of a life away from work, it robs you of the energy you need to enjoy what little free time you do have.

But how do you cut back on excessive hours when you still have to pay the rent and make the car payments every month? How do you tell your boss - no I can't work late tonight?

First look at your productivity during normal business hours. A lot of people work overtime because they get so little done during the day. Interruptions, phone-calls, meetings and coworkers can distract you from what you need to be focusing on. Close your door if you have one, set up times when your co-workers know you're not to be interrupted and, if it's not an emergency, let your calls go to voice mail. Develop these and other strategies (like working from home) that help you to be more productive between the hours of nine to five. And get in the habit of leaving work on time. (If you have to put in extra hours: we recommend coming in an hour early when you're fresh.)

Second, consider your priorities. Most people work excessive overtime to support a lifestyle they don't even have the time to enjoy. Ask any young child whether they'd rather have a new toy or more time with Mommy or Daddy and usually they'll pick the latter. Why? Because small children have their priorities in order. Yet parents continue to fool themselves into thinking that providing things is more important than providing the gift of their time.

You can create a lifestyle that will allow you the free time to appreciate it. (Even if it means changing jobs to do it.) You simply have to decide what your priorities are and live life in accordance to them.


2. Seek more control over your job

When GM first started Saturn, they wanted to create a whole new car company from the ground up. The goal was to build high quality cars that could compete with the cars being offered by foreign competitors. To insure their success, Saturn gave its workers much greater control over the making of each car. If a worker saw a problem he or she could fix it on the spot and/or stop the production line if necessary. Putting this level of control in the hands of American Autoworkers was unprecedented at the time.

And this way of doing business was simply borrowed from Japanese car makers like Toyota and Honda who are famous for making incredibly reliable cars at a reasonable price.

The side benefit from offering workers this kind of control over the manufacturing process is that it also increases their job satisfaction. Job satisfaction comes as the result of knowing you are doing good work. When you see a defect in a product, or you encounter a customer with a problem, you want to have the power to fix that problem right then and there. This can only be accomplished by giving you - the worker - greater amounts of control rather than less.

But as a worker - how can you gain more control in a company that doesn't practice this kind of empowerment strategy? Here are a few tips that can help:

  • You can take on assignments that others won't.
  • You can do work that's better than what others do.
  • You can ask for clarification whenever there is confusion - so mistakes are kept to a minimum.
  • You can complete assignments on time (always ask for a deadline) and/or communicate delays while documenting the reasons why.

These strategies will help you develop a trust that earns you the right to attain greater control over what you do. Let's face it - the more control you have the less supervision you need. And employers really want you to be able to do their job with a minimum of supervision. This is a win-win situation for workers and management.

In any good organization, as you earn your supervisor's respect - you'll gain more control over the way you do your job, the hours that you put in, and the schedule that you keep (and sometimes, whether you can work, unsupervised, from home.) Every time you achieve a new level of control, you will achieve a new level of confidence, a higher level of self-esteem and self-mastery that will ultimately lower your levels of stress and help prevent burnout.


3. Seek the right level of challenge

Every job has a different set of challenges that might or might not be stressful, depending on the type of person performing that job. An airline pilot who calmly deals with stressful situations that would make a postal clerk pass out, might also experience a fair amount of stress if he or she had to perform the duties of the postal clerk.

So seeking the right level of challenge, means finding a job that taps into your unique talents, whether it's dealing with the public, being creative, being good with numbers, knowing how to manage others, or knowing how to handle highly charged situations. It also means finding a working environment (i.e., an employer) that matches your stress profile. In other words, you want to find a job that's the right fit for your personality.

In order to determine whether your job is a good fit, you have to objectively assess your own talents, your stress sensitivity and the environment you work in. Let's say you want to work in sales. You would have to ask yourself: Do I have the talent and the people-skills to be a good salesperson? Can I deal with the pressure of having to work on commission? Is this particular sales job more pressure-packed than other sales jobs? Will I get the motivational support and sales training I need to help meet my objectives?

You can apply these same questions to almost any occupation: Do I have any natural talents that make this the right occupation for me? Can I deal with certain pressures unique to this particular job and this particular employer? Will my employer give me the training I need to help me meet the challenges ahead? Once you've answered these questions chances are you'll have a pretty good idea of whether this job - in terms of challenge - is a good fit for you.

Whether you feel bored in a monotonous job that doesn't take full advantage of your natural abilities or overwhelmed by a job you're under qualified to hold it doesn't matter. Either way, you may be a candidate for burnout.


Stress and Optimum performance curve

Here is the stress and performance curve. Notice how the graph works. When arousal (your stress) is too low - you are NOT being challenged enough - and your performance is not as good. When arousal is high you are being over-challenged and performance suffers on this side too. So as your stress increases your performance increases to a point. But as you can see, when there is too much stress your productivity quickly goes downhill.

Something to think about: Where do you feel your job falls on the curve?


4. Get a personal life

Have you ever noticed how people define themselves by what they do? "I'm a bus driver; I'm a nurse; I'm a teacher; I'm a lawyer," etc. When you define yourself in this narrow way, you're placing all your eggs (i.e., your self-esteem) in one basket. When things are going well at work - your self-esteem thrives. But the minute there's an economic slow down or you stop getting along with your boss, your limited definition of who you are may come back to haunt you.

One antidote to this vulnerability is to start broadening the definition of who you are. Pursue a hobby that's really different from what you do for a living. If you work in a highly competitive atmosphere, do something non-competitive after work. If you deal with people all day, perhaps a solitary hobby like woodworking or counted cross-stitch would suit you best. If you sit at a computer all day, find something more active to do in your spare time.

If volunteering is your passion, take on challenges you wouldn't encounter at work, whether it's building things or presiding over a group of people - start thinking of ways you can grow yourself outside your place of employment. To some degree, burnout can be a case of prolonged stagnation. But even if you are stagnating at work, there are other places in your personal life where you can thrive and grow.


5. Get organized

Disorganization is a major source of stress. It can make you feel like your life is out of control. When you waste time everyday searching for your car keys, your wallet your tools, your papers, or even a pair of matching socks, it can make you crazy.

To those of you who still believe that a messy desk is a sign of genius, just try working from a clean desk for a few days. Keep the surface of your desk clear of all papers except the ones you are working on. At the end of the day, put the papers away. Get in the habit of cleaning your work area every evening, even if you come back and make the same mess the next morning. Starting out fresh each day will rejuvenate you.

Another important skill is "single handling" all paper (including electronic paper, too). When you open your mail or check your email - set aside enough time to make quick replies, answer inquiries and trash the junk mail. If you wait until later you're going to have to read the documents again, think about them again, and that's usually a big waste of time. The vast majority of documents can be single-handled and dispensed with the first time you see them.

Set aside at least a half a day every week to take care of "C-priority" chores that you tend to put off - like replacing a light bulb, getting a spare set of car keys made or figuring out how to use a new feature on your mobile phone. When you continually put off doing these low priority tasks, it adds an undercurrent of stress to your life that you can live without. Celebrate organization day at least once a month - and spend the entire day eliminating clutter from your life. (From our children's unused toys to the unwanted gifts we get we are literally inundated with clutter!) Go through your files, your closets or other storage places annually. Anything you haven't touched in over a year, throw out, give away or take to the dump.

Getting organized and staying organized is one of the simplest antidotes to feeling anxious, depressed and overwhelmed. Don't underestimate the power of adopting these simple habits. They can dramatically change your life.


6. Learn How to Motivate Yourself

Burnout has been described as a slow and steady loss of motivation. So when you feel your motivation waning what can you do? Isn't it the responsibility of management to get you fired-up and keep you that way? Absolutely, but in our imperfect world it doesn't always work that way. In fact, managers often do exactly the opposite by nit-picking and holding back praise And to you managers out there (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) burnout expert Dr. Beverly Potter says: "you can expect [positive] behaviors followed by negative outcomes to disappear."

In other words, if you're always critical, you're not going to have highly motivated employees. It really is that simple. When an employee works his or her heart out on a big project and you find the one thing that is wrong with it, the employee isn't going to work so hard the next time. The well-intentioned behavior will disappear. It has nothing to do with character or willpower.

And to you employees out there, take heart. You can learn how to motivate yourself. You can create your own positive outcomes even if your boss won't. You start this by simply rewarding yourself for doing good work. You can use small incentives for doing small tasks and large incentives for doing large tasks.

Always reward yourself for performing the little unpleasant tasks you tend to put off because you don't like doing them. Whether it's paying bills or cleaning a bathroom, you must reward yourself promptly after finishing an activity like this. It doesn't take much reinforcement for this strategy to work: a coffee break, a snack, or even a few minutes reading a magazine. You can use a short walk outside as a reward, also. Don't go all day from one unpleasant task to the next without even a short break. It's a surefire recipe for burnout.

Think about the pleasant activities you engage in regularly, like lunch, dinner, or an afternoon break as a way of organizing your workday. Use these events as rewards for finishing a predetermined segment of work. Other rewards like going to the movies, eating out, going shopping or even buying a magazine will also help motivate you. Give yourself these incentives immediately after the work is finished. Don't put it off. Delayed gratification simply won't motivate you as efficiently as giving yourself the reward upon completion.

When you finish a big project that you've been working on for months - give yourself a big reward such as taking a day off from work, or going away for a long weekend, or buying yourself something you've always wanted. Big accomplishments deserve big rewards. If you ignore this basic need, eventually you'll become resentful, cynical and depressed. These are all the ingredients of burnout. But it you reward your good behavior on a daily (and in some cases on an hourly) basis - you will work more productively, feel more energized, and feel passionate again about the work you do.


7. Organize support groups and or action committees for positive change.

As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, sometimes burnout is the result of working conditions, like endless deadlines, poor supervision, inadequate training and safety issues that are beyond your power to control. When recurring problems such as these, make your company an unpleasant place to work, forming (or joining) a support group within your organization can assist you in several ways. It will help you pinpoint the problem or problems that are causing you and your fellow workers to feel stressed. It will help you - to see that you are not alone. (For example: you may be surprised to find out that you're not as bothered by a particular supervisor, once you learn that virtually everyone else has the same problem.) Sometimes a support group will help you come up with solutions to problems that are easy to solve. And, if the problem is serious enough, you can turn this group into an action committee that takes your complaints to the next level.

It's important to note that we use the term support group very loosely here. Your support group could consist of several coworkers who agree to meet for lunch once a month. It doesn't have to be formalized (and it may be better if it is not). And even if you only air your grievances - and nothing ever gets done about it - this process will still be therapeutic. Don't underestimate the value of these worker peer groups.


How to analyze (and solve) a problem

Here are some things for you to consider (by yourself or in groups) when it comes to analyzing the problems that may be contributing to burnout in your company.

  • What is the financial impact of this problem on the company?
    (Include the cost of lost business, angry customers, inefficiency, retraining replacement workers, etc. If the problem is serious enough certain workers may quit or be lost to burnout.)
  • What is the cost of implementing the solution going to be?
    (You don't have to get these answers in dollars - an answer such as, fifteen minutes of my manager's time each day, or a half day of training a month, the salary of one more staff member, etc, will do for now. If your group is serious about implementing change within your organization, you can - and should - get these money figures later.)
  • What is the financial benefit to the company once the problem is solved?
    (This is the key bit of information that management loves. Try to provide it for them and you'll be much more likely to implement your suggested change.)

After these numbers are established get ready to present your findings to management. The higher up you go, the more likely you will be to get results. Think about whom in upper level management might be sympathetic to the issues you are addressing. (If you want to start an exercise program in the mornings and you know an executive VP who jogs everyday submit the idea to him or her.)

Making this cost-benefit analysis is crucial to bringing about change in any for-profit organization. Once you have taken your support group through this simple analytical process - you will have much greater leverage to make positive changes within your organization.

Remember, even if your group is unsuccessful at implementing change, there is still a great value in forming support groups. Once you see that you are not alone, your perspective on a problem shifts. You see that other people feel the same way you do. You share ideas for how best to cope. And you encourage each other to move forward in constructive ways.



Burnout can affect everyone at all levels of an organization. When you start to burn out you feel cynical, withdrawn, exhausted and ineffective at work. If the job is not challenging enough it may seem stale, repetitive and boring. If the job is too challenging you may feel swamped, under pressure, and deprived of a sense of satisfaction at the end of each day.

Burnout has been described as a loss of motivation, a combination of helplessness and hopelessness and a simple mismatch between the skills of the worker and the requirements of the job. Many people who burn out start as highly motivated employees with big goals and objectives.

The Five Stages of Burnout

  1. you're highly motivated.

  2. you start to notice something isn't right.

  3. you first feel your stress-related symptoms.

  4. your symptoms have grown into a stress-related illness.

  5. you are a walking time-bomb. Your whole life could come crashing down at any moment.

Remember it's at stage 3 where you can make certain course corrections and can reinvigorate yourself. When you encounter such unexplained stress symptoms as headaches, backaches, stomachaches, recurrent colds, rashes, anxiety and insomnia treat them like a warning signal telling you it's time to make a change.

If you need a break, take an extended vacation, if you feel overwhelmed, ask for help or more training, if you feel bored, try something new, or tackle a big project, if you feel harassed, request a transfer or send out your resume. Make enough change so you don't continue on to stages four and five where it's much harder to turn your ship around.

Five working conditions that lead to burnout.

Don't forget the five most common working conditions that lead to burnout:

  1. Too much to do and not enough time to do it. Feeling overwhelmed day after day.

  2. Not enough control. Micro-managers that rob you of autonomy.

  3. Inadequate compensation. Feeling underpaid, overworked or that the money just isn't worth the hassles you have to put up with to get it.

  4. Being treated unfairly. On-going discrimination, harassment, or unfair dissemination of salary, perks, and privileges.

  5. Feeling like your values are in conflict with the company's. Your values and the values of your employer don't match.

Seven ways to prevent burnout

  1. Cut back excessive hours. Working long hours ultimately makes you less productive. Force yourself to cut back.

  2. Seek more control. Managers who empower workers to take control over their jobs will improve morale and create better workers. Workers also need to focus on earning more control by proving their reliability and competence to their supervisor.

  3. Seek the right level of challenge. Too much challenge and you'll feel overwhelmed, not enough and you'll feel bored. Seek the level of challenge that's right for you.

  4. Get a personal life. Developing interests and hobbies outside of work that act as a buffer against the inevitable ups and downs you will experience in your business life.

  5. Get organized. Work from a clean desk. Keep your car and your closets tidy. Clean out your files once a year. Celebrate organization day once a month. You'll feel more in control.

  6. Learn how to motivate yourself. Give yourself little rewards throughout the day and bigger rewards on occasion - that motivate you to get unpleasant tasks done in the short run and work more productively in the long run.

  7. Organize support groups for change. Support groups help you sort out your feelings about particular issues and help you to see that you are not alone in your distress. Plus, if your support group can make a financial case for why a problem is costing the company more dollars than the solution - you may be on your way to creating positive change within your own organization.


The last word

Leading experts in the field disagree on who should be responsible for tackling burnout. Some experts focus more on what the individual can do and others focus more on what the organization can do. Despite this disagreement, you are the one who is going to suffer from burnout whether your employer chooses to take responsibility for it or not. And you can elect to make changes whether your company chooses to participate or not. Whether it's developing coping skills, cutting back on excessive hours, getting organized, redefining your personal life, requesting a transfer or even spearheading a committee to initiate changes within your organization, this process of reinventing and retooling yourself (and your job) will help you begin feeling better almost immediately.

Think about the things that will motivate you to make a change. Give yourself rewards for moving in a new direction. Look at your life and ask yourself what can you do to put a couple of logs under your fire? What makes you tick? What gives you hope? What is something you could get really excited about? And if after careful consideration this means looking for a new job - pursue this option with a passion.

Burnout always involves a feeling of loss. But once you start focusing your energy on making some gains - you can reverse this process of erosion and turn your life in a new direction filled with hope, promise and considerably less stress.

James Porter
James Porter