Tuesday, November 28, 2006


An Eloquent Essay On Job Burnout

The term "burnout" was first used in the seventies to describe individuals in professions like nursing, teaching, social work and the clergy who had become disillusioned with their jobs, and found it difficult to continue caring for the people they were expected to help. It even gathered a sort of glamour around it. "Burning out" was something that happened to veterans of the "good fight", and was seen by many as a sign of nobility. Burnout has since expanded to plague individuals in all walks of life. It can now hit bankers, attorneys, software developers and many others. By now, it has become so prevalent that it has lost its glamorous specialness and is a threat to public health. Anyone who invests themselves fully in their work, whatever it is, can burn out if the rewards they achieve are unequal to the effort they expend. According to the article at the link below, "Work, after all, is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith."

Burnout expert Christina Maslach has identified six factors that can burn out workers:

1) Working too much.

2) Working in an unjust environment.

3) Working with little support.

4) Working with little control over one's circumstances.

5) Working for causes or individuals we despise.

6) Working for insufficient reward.

That sounds just like the plight of your typical white collar worker in today's business climate, but there's more. Burnout doesn't result from overwork alone - or even primarily. It comes from a feeling that whatever one does, no matter how hard and how long one works at it, it will have no positive effect. Another writer, Barry Farber, calls burnout "the gap between expectation and reward." Taken to its extreme, burnout becomes a species of hopelessness.

Little study has been done on burnout in a corporate environment. Those who have tried to conduct such studies have been almost universally rebuffed by corporations, and most researchers believe that this is because scientifically identifying burnout among employees would reflect poorly on the corporation, and might even provide forensic evidence for lawsuits. Burnout has, however, been studied among individuals in the "caring professions". A study in the Netherlands found that the average latency period for burnout among social workers was between one and five years, which is similar to the work-life expectancy of a New York public schoolteacher. And studies in Israel and elsewhere suggest that nurses in pediatric burn units exhibit the highest burnout level of all.

Other groups with a propensity for burnout are young professionals with unrealistically high expectations, depressives, angry or anxious people, unmarried people, and people who are continually interrupted or distracted during their jobs. Those with the lowest levels of burnout include seasoned professionals in midlife or older, happily married people, people with children, hobbies and other fulfillments outside of work, corporate employees with a special sense of vocation for what they do (even if their job would seem dull to others), and entrepreneurial types predisposed to switch their attention to something else if their current enterprise starts to fail.

Continual interruptions can affect anyone, regardless of age or temperament. Modern business technology with its constant stream of voicemails, emails and text messages not only maximizes interruptions at the workplace, but brings them into the home-life of an individual as well, creating a world of non-stop and unpredictable demands from which there is no escape. The interruptions also tend to break up time in a destructive manner such that their victims come to assume that they have less time available to them than they really do. This accentuates their "hurry sickness" and accelerates the pace of burnout. A study that administered IQ tests to three different groups - an uninterrupted control group, a group that was constantly interrupted during the test, and another group that took the test stoned - revealed surprising results. Not only did the interrupted group score 10 points less on average than the uninterrupted group - they also scored 6 points less on average than the group that was stoned. In that context, the time honored means of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out of the rat race doesn't seem so bad after all.

Read the article at the link below, and you may learn more than you ever wanted to know about "burnout". You might even burn out on it...

"Can't Get No Satisfaction" from New York Magazine

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