Teaching seventh grade was the first job I ever had without the word “boy” in the title (shipping boy, whipping boy, and so forth). I entered my new profession with equal measures of bumptious pride and genuine determination to make a positive impact on young lives.
By spring, all vestiges of my initial idealism had rotted into laughable, bitter memories. I felt buried alive in an avalanche of spitballs and unremitting enmity from my students and their parents. I stopped preparing lesson plans altogether and slowly fobbed off my teaching responsibilities on the smartest student in the class. On rare occasions when a kid would actually ask something about the subject matter I was allegedly teaching, my stock reply became “Good question. Why don’t you field that one, Devon?”
By the end of the school year, I saw myself as a complete incompetent in life. I knew in my heart that I could no longer handle any job, even the ones with “boy” in them. Much as I now detested teaching, the prospect of hobohood left me too paralyzed and fearful to quit.
Mercifully for the sake of everybody involved, the school’s headmaster took the decision out of my hands.
During that singularly wretched period of my life, I had no inkling that an official psychological diagnosis existed for what I was experiencing: “job burnout.” It’s a simple and familiar term, but the disorder is as complex as it is devastating.
“Burnout is a syndrome that happens in response to chronic job stresses, and it’s composed of three interrelated dimensions,” explains Christina Maslach, Ph.D., a psychologist and the pioneering creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the standard measurement tool for the disorder.
The first of these dimensions is exhaustion–mental, physical, and emotional–a trinity of straw bales that will, over time, break virtually any camel’s back. “People feel completely overwhelmed and used up,” says Maslach. “There’s a sense that they can’t handle the next thing demanded of them.”
Case in point: Walter K., a divorced father and catalog marketer in Minnesota. “I’m so fried that I feel inadequate for the task of living a reasonable life,” says Walter. “It would be nice to have a house that isn’t a sty or put a meal on the table that doesn’t come in a grease-tinged bag. But by the end of the workday, I just don’t have anything left.”
Burnout’s second symptom is a slide into cynicism and “depersonalization.” This begins as a coping mechanism: An overwhelmed worker distances himself from unreasonable job demands. But it doesn’t end there. “People shift from doing their best to doing the bare minimum,” Maslach says. “Not only the quality but the quantity of their work suffers.”
Cynicism and hostility about the job spread to contempt for the people you need to deal with. Burned-out cops grow to assume every citizen is an opportunistic scumbag waiting for a chance to act out. E.R. physicians begin objectifying patients as whining “gomers” (for “Get out of my emergency room”).
The third and final phase is a logical culmination of the first two: that is, an abiding sense of failure, and not just with regard to efficacy on the job. “There’s a profound personal worthlessness,” explains Pierce Johnson Howard, Ph.D., director of research at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain. “People feel there’s no redemptive social value in what they’re doing.”
Even researchers accustomed to couching the disorder in clinical, objective terms concede that at its worst, job burnout becomes more than a mere psychological syndrome. “Burnout represents an erosion in dignity, spirit, and will,” says Michael P. Leiter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and coauthor of the upcoming Banishing Burnout. “It’s an erosion of the human soul.”
No one knows exactly how many of us are currently burned out–or flickering fast in that direction. Many organizational psychologists, however, suspect that the problem has risen dramatically in recent years, thanks to a battery of economic forces that keep nudging up the heebie-jeebies thermostat: global competition, downsizing, and outsourcing.
“Increasingly,” says Leiter, “we work in job settings in which human values place a distant second behind economic ones. What inspires us to work well and work hard is ignored.”
A model developed by Leiter, Maslach, and other psychologists during the late ’90s identified six key areas that can make or break an employee’s spirit. Understanding which, if any, of the six are making your cerebrum smolder may help you avoid a full-blown fire.
A crushing workload, a seemingly impossible deadline, a conspicuous lack of resources: Who among us hasn’t endured occasional job emergencies that seem wildly beyond our capacity to perform? Amazingly, most of us actually come through in such situations–provided, that is, we know that the scenario is the exception, and that it will be followed by a chance to recover and recoup. But when in extremis becomes de rigueur, the odds of burnout climb fast.
Turn down the heat: Try talking to your boss (diplomatically, not breathlessly) about the amount and timing of your workload. If he’s athletic, point out the analogy to weight lifting: Work your muscles nonstop and you’ll stunt their growth and increase the risk of injury. But give them time to recover and you’ll see that they’re able to handle increasingly bigger loads. Explain that your goal is to become more productive, not less so.
It’s the classic double bind: You know you’re going to be held accountable for the results you produce, but you have no say in how the job is accomplished. Some control-freaky bosses, for example, second-guess every decision, to the point where a subordinate’s focus understandably switches from “What could best solve this problem?” to “What’s my boss going to find fault with now?”
Turn down the heat: “Managing a micromanager is an essential life skill,” notes Leiter. First rule of management: Less is more, as in, lessen your expectations of your boss and you’ll have more serenity when he pulls his stunts. We’re not talking about “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” pessimism, just a nod to realpolitik pragmatism. In fact, pair this attitude adjustment with a plan to meet regularly with your boss and show him what you’re up to. This will create more and earlier opportunities for course-changing input.
When it comes to acknowledging a job well done, says Maslach, money alone is not what our highly social species craves. “What we’ve found,” she says, “is that recognition and positive feedback from others play an even more critical role. You bust your buns, you do a good job, but does anybody care?”
Turn down the heat: Oftentimes, bad managers, like uncommunicative spouses, really do appreciate your efforts–but it doesn’t occur to them to tell you so. Ask for more “feedback” on your work, couching this in terms that make it clear you’ll use the information to perform even better in the future. Besides drawing him out about areas where you may have fallen short, ask where you performed well. With luck, a few such fishing trips will get your boss in the habit of acknowledging your accomplishments.
Successful managers have come to understand the importance of community in the workplace and take pains to foster and reward teamwork. Even some business schools, says Howard, have begun occasionally grading teams as opposed to individuals. Despite this, dysfunctional group dynamics is hardly an endangered species in much of American business. “If your workplace is characterized by a lot of destructive competition, unresolved conflicts, and lack of support, stress levels can go way, way up,” says Maslach.
Turn down the heat: If you make an honest effort to be a team player but no one else shows up for practice, consider transferring to another department. It could be that you and your coworkers are alike–in all the wrong ways. “One of the most striking things about burnout is that it occurs in pockets,” says Howard. “You have a cluster of five or six people here, 10 or 12 people there.” And since the cause of these clusters is usually a toxic supervisor, often the best solution is to leave the department.
Of all the potential burnout pitfalls at a workplace, a sense that the rules have been rigged for another’s benefit generates the greatest resentment and hostility. “When people perceive that there’s nothing they can do to make things fair,” says Maslach, “they often start doing other things to get even–leaving work early, for instance, or stealing office supplies–all with the justification that the company ?owes it to me.’ ”
Turn down the heat: As simplistic as it sounds, one way to deal with injustice is to simply “keep your eye on the prize”–i.e., acknowledge that life is frequently unfair, but if you keep doing your best, eventually you will be rewarded. Consider the example of Carlos P., a former steel fabricator in Pittsburgh. He had a sterling work record and was first in line for a supervisory job–until, that is, his boss hired an unqualified youngster he knew personally. Carlos swallowed his bile and didn’t let what happened affect his performance. The next time a supervisory job came up, he got it.
Work demands, unfortunately, do not always harmonize with our sense of right and wrong. Say, for example, you have a core belief that honesty is the best policy. But in order to meet this month’s sales quota (and thus continue feeding your family), you have to shade the truth and/or omit product details. This conflict is kindling for burnout.
Turn down the heat: Aside from killing off your conscience (or, if you’re being too idealistic, getting real), the best you can do is voice your concerns to your boss and then cover your butt. Articulate your ethical objections, but do so in a nonaccusatory way–and, of course, expect nothing to change. If the activity has legal ramifications, start building a file–the paper kind–containing copies of everything that shows you weren’t exactly a willing participant.
As the above examples begin to indicate, there’s a limit to the self-help strategies workers can use to adapt themselves to corrosive work environments. At some point, you may need to cut your losses and head for the escape hatch.
Of course, it’s always prudent to line up a new job before you shove the current one. A clandestine quest for a new opportunity can, in itself, be highly therapeutic, says Howard, providing you with a sense of hope and control that serves as a powerful antidote to your current misery.
On the other hand, when things are too onerous, sometimes you can’t afford to wait. “There’s another consideration,” adds Howard. “When people have crept into total burnout, it can take a year to recover fully.”
In my own case, I haven’t taught seventh grade for several decades, but I still have nightmares in which I’m back in front of a class, being heckled to death by young cannibals. So I know how hard it is to summon optimism when your brain has devolved into full scorched-earth mode. But trust me: Ashes make excellent fertilizer, and a much better life is waiting to sprout from the char.
By: Jim Thornton
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