Take Control of Burnout
by Cindy Ventrice

You have probably experienced burnout at some point in your life. Either your own, a coworker's, or a direct report's. It probably wasn't very pretty. Burned out workers describe themselves as bored, frustrated, overworked, irritable, angry, bitter, withdrawn, antisocial, disengaged, distracted, and unproductive. It isn't fun to be, work with, or manage someone who is burned out.

I've had my own burnout experiences. Before I was 23 years old, I held seven jobs. That's seven jobs, seven resignations, in seven years; seven cases of burnout before I graduated from college! I worked in retail, as a waitress, a purchasing agent, a bank teller, a lifeguard, and a swim instructor. I even sold mobile homes or, more accurately, one mobile home.

With each of these jobs, I experienced burnout. With some, the burnout was mild. I was disinterested and a little unproductive. In other jobs the burnout became more severe. I was moody and critical; if I hadn't quit, I probably would have been fired.

Job mismatch

The type of burnout I experienced most often was job mismatch. The characteristics of the job weren't a good match for my skills or talents. I didn't like the machine-like repetition of being a cashier, the impersonal nature of drive-up bank teller, or the boredom of life guarding. So, I quit. That's one solution.

Another is to change elements of the job. Employees can make some changes themselves. An administrative assistant told me that the structure of her job left her isolated from her peers. She needed a higher level of interaction so she started a weekly admin potluck where they all got together, did a little commiserating, and shared ideas and solutions to make their jobs better. It filled a need and helped her remove one burnout inducing aspect of her job.

Not all mismatch factors can be removed as easily as the administrator's isolation. Sometimes the only way you can address a job mismatch is if both the employee and the manager are aware of the employee's talents and are willing to work together to figure out the problem and make appropriate modifications to his or her duties and responsibilities.

One employee, frustrated with the lack of creativity in her job, spoke with her manager about the problem. The manager listened, did a little research, and ended up shifting a few duties within the department. The frustrated employee became responsible for the departmental newsletter, a chore that another employee was thrilled to lose. Both employees were more satisfied with their new assignments because this manager listened and made practical adjustments.

Too much work

Another cause of burnout is too much work. Few organizations have enough good people to handle the workload, so they overload the people they do have. Everyone works harder and faster, but they get further behind. There's too much work.

A fact of corporate life: the more you handle, the more you will be given. Work will consume every free minute of your life if you let it. Newsflash: It isn't the company's responsibility to tell you when you have had enough! It is your responsibility to decide how many hours you're willing to work.

Corporate fact number two: busy-ness rather than effectiveness is often what gets rewarded. This means if you insist on reasonable hours it could mean that you are the one who gets laid off or misses out on a promotion - if the focus stays on activity rather than results. It is up to you to put the focus on your results. When you're at work, stay focused and highly productive. Make sure your manager is aware of your accomplishments. Work less, but produce more, and keep your manager focused on results instead of the fact that you're not in the office until midnight.

If you're a manager, question the efficacy of rewarding busy-ness. I've yet to encounter a company with a strategic plan that includes a goal for increasing the number of hours each employee works. Instead there are goals for increasing market share, revenue, and profit. Somehow, those goals frequently don't filter down to measures of individual performance. At this level too many managers reward activity over results.

Few people expect to work nine to five any more, but five to nine gets old fast. Don't fall into the trap of rewarding the people who live at the office. Stay focused on, and recognize, results and you will help your team stay motivated.

Lack of control

Many people think a major cause of burnout is difficult challenges. In reality, the frustration of dealing with a difficult challenge isn't enough to cause burnout. Frustrating challenges coupled with the ability to make meaningful changes actually creates enthusiasm. You can probably think of a few examples in your own life where you coped well with a particularly difficult situation and the positive results left you exhilarated rather than exhausted. Frustration on its own can't cause burnout. Burnout only happens when we have no control over a frustrating situation.

When is comes to our jobs, we have more control than we think. I have coached many burned out employees. Few of them believed they had any control over improving their own situations. There were government employees who wouldn't take risks for fear of being fired, but at the same time couldn't name one person who had been fired in the past five years. I have also seen corporate top performers who were afraid to ask their bosses for the new opportunities that they wanted, accepting whatever responsibilities were thrown their way. Few burned out employees believe they have any power at work.

Employees have more control than they might assume. If you're good at your job, most managers would rather work with you, than lose you. If they lose you, they have to reassign all of your duties to other overworked and resentful direct reports, while recruiting, hiring, and training your replacement. Most sane managers don't want to add that challenge to their already heavy workload. Approached in the right way, most will help you adapt your job to make it more rewarding.

To take control, first figure out what's causing your burnout. Then work with your manager, communicating your concerns in an appropriate manner. Chances are good that the two of you can work out a solution that is good for you and the organization.


Cindy Ventrice is a management consultant, speaker, and workshop leader with 20 years of experience. She focuses exclusively on helping organizations improve operations, products, and services by improving workplace relationships and employee morale. Her new book, Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works, is available through any bookseller. You can contact Cindy at cventrice@maketheirday.com.

Make Their Day!
Employee Recognition That Works

by Cindy Ventrice,
Berrett-Koehler Publishers,
April 2003

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Copyright 2004 by Cindy Ventrice. All rights reserved.

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