“I don’t know if I’m Arthur or Martha at work – there’s been so many retrenchments and we who have stayed on have had to pick up the slack – I’m now doing two or three people’s jobs, there’s just no let-up,” says Andrea (not her real name) who came to my counselling practice to deal with stress.
I’m finding more and more people in Andrea’s position are coming to counselling complaining of stress-related problems.
It seems workplaces are pushing them to the limit, giving them the message of “just count yourself lucky to have a job”.
What many managers don’t seem to realise is that they are pushing their employees towards burnout – making them unproductive for the company.
There are three dimensions to burnout, says Helena Cooper-Thomas, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s department of psychology.
They are feeling exhausted, depleted and overextended, having a high level of cynicism and detachment from others, and reduced efficacy and feelings of poor performance, matched by poor performance.
She says little research is available on workaholics, but workaholics who get burned out would experience these things.
“A good way of telling if someone is reaching burnout is if they are becoming callous to others, are exhausted and have reduced competence.”
She says burnout can happen when the demands of the job exceed the resources of the individual.
This can occur when a person is given too much work, when there is role ambiguity because the person’s manager has not given enough information on priorities, or when there is a lack of social support and supervisory support.
Cooper-Thomas says those who work in emotionally demanding fields that require emotional labour – such as teaching, customer service or police work – tend to be at high risk of burnout.
Men and women are equally at risk of burnout, and research shows younger people are more likely to be affected – employees under 30 are most prone.
Unmarried people, especially men, are more at risk than married people.
Burnout can lead to health problems such as heart attacks, addiction and other stress-related illnesses.
Cooper-Thomas says research has found that people most prone to burnout are those with poor self-esteem and with an avoidant coping style.
These people have an external locus of control – meaning they are fatalistic and think things happen to them because of external events beyond their control.
Intervention can be helpful to deal with exhaustion through programmes focused on the individual, such as relaxation, time management, team building and meditation, Cooper-Thomas says.
But she says it is even more important for the organisation to make changes to help all affected employees, thereby helping the organisation overall.
“Make sure that the work environment is fair and equitable,” she says. “Help employees see meaning behind what they do. Make sure the supervisor’s values and the employee’s are consistent.”
She says a positive way of dealing with burnout in an organisation is to look at engagement intervention.
Cooper-Thomas cites the Yerkes Dodson law, which shows that some arousal (stress) helps performance – but too much leads to impaired performance as a result of high anxiety.
“It’s not in a manager’s interest for people to be too stressed,” she says. “If they are over-aroused, performance is going to suffer. If you can help people to be engaged in their work, and find it meaningful and enjoyable, that helps to build resilience against burnout.”
Dr John McEwan says he dealt with two burnout cases this week – “people being forced to do two to three jobs hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and CEOs are not adding people who can help”.
For these people, he says, there are two options, burnout or leaving.
“What’s going on is rape and pillage. One large company I know of has told their staff to ‘just put their families on hold for the next few months so extra work can be done’.”
McEwan says that for someone in that situation, the intelligent thing to do is to leave.
“Loss of marriage and children cannot be recovered from. Companies that behave like that are putting their short-term profitability ahead of the long-term health of their employees. Ultimately, they will fail.
“People of value care about their families. What we are seeing is nothing short of a return to feudalism, and it’s a disturbing trend. I call it that because people are expected to work harder and harder for less. I’ve even heard of firms refusing to pay for health and safety positions.”
McEwan says he heard of a company director who one day told his team that salaries would have to be frozen for the company to survive.
Within a week he arrived at work in an expensive new car and even invited staff to see it. “He didn’t see the contradiction. It seems there’s a sense of an entitlement, where the rich are getting richer, and everyone else is suffering.
“How could a company director be so stupid? Simple – he’s thinking feudally. There’s a sense of entitlement.”
McEwan says that for anyone experiencing burnout, it’s important to recharge the batteries.
“Burnout is when your health collapses, and it can take at least 12 months to recovery.”
He says it’s important to develop a sustainable exercise plan, to do some physical relaxation, which helps the mind and body to work well, to eat well and spend time with family and friends. He advises getting out in sun often, and taking part in some creative activity. Going to a professional who can help develop coping strategies can be useful too.
If you’re still at the job that’s pushing you towards burnout, McEwan says, challenge the overload.
“Call it what it is, get your doctor on board. The workplace must be challenged, as pushing you to your limits is illegal and stupid.” – New Zealand Herald