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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

MAY 2005, Sec. II

Main Essay:

In Parts III & IV, the Stress Doc delineates and illustrates key strategic interventions for recovering from and preventing individual burnout and for effectively managing reorgnizational stress.  [See APR05, Sec. I for "Burnout Prone Organizations & Sources and Stages of Burnout."]

Burnout Series - Part III
Three Step Strategy for Dealing with Individual Staff Burnout

In a wired, 24/7 and "do more with less' world where technology transcends time zones and shortens time lines while dissolving boundaries between work and home, many of your employees are seriously burning rubber.  At some point, most will require a pit stop both to refuel and to prevent serious exhaustion, mind-body breakdown or burnout.  How do you assist your staff in making repairs and doing preventive maintenance?

Depending on the amount of individual wear and tear, some or all of these recommendations will be healing or rejuvenating.  Here are the Stress Doc's "Individual Survival Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront."  (Part IV will outline "Organizational Survival Strategies."):

1.  Schedule "R & R."  Remember, some of your best producers don't know when to turn off their motors.  Monitor their behavior:  slipups, missed appointments or a deadline, being abrasive with customers or colleagues, etc. may mean "Rest and Recreation" is no longer optional.  You don't want folks to shine in the 100-yard dash only to collapse prematurely when running a marathon.  A candidate for general exhaustion may simply need some time off.  Getting away, especially in new or relaxing surroundings, will help an employee revive energy levels and the mind-body-spirit.

2.  Facilitate Professional Coaching or Counseling.  For individuals with moderate exhaustion or just the beginning signs of burnout (see previous Q & A Essay:  Part I on the "Four Stages"), a few sessions with a career or life coach should help an employee slow down and smell the burning rubber.  However, for the individual who has been trapped in the "erosive spiral" for a considerable period of time therapeutic measures will be necessary.  If an option, encourage this employee to use the company's Employee Assistance Program.  A solid program assures confidentiality; EAP utilization must not blemish the employee's work record.  At the same time, utilization does not provide cover for less than satisfactory job performance.  (Employees at the burnout battlefront may actually be receptive to counseling.  For example, in Washington, DC, my home base, people speak of and sport their burnout experience as if a Purple Heart.)  If there is no EAP, can the company pay for a valued employee's first few therapy sessions with an outside counselor?

3.  Encourage Better Balance and Better Boundaries.  Let your employees know they can periodically turn off their cell to allow recharging of both the phone and the person.  Ironically, one way of encouraging some division between work and home, for example, is by sponsoring a company/family picnic.  The company's message:  we value home life and want to encourage employee balance.

As for the boundary issues, you may want to provide training in the areas of time management and assertiveness.  In today's world, not only does a person need good self-organizational skills, but he or she must also be able to say "No" in a constructive manner.  While previously mentioning the value of "R & R," the capacity for "N & N" may be as important:  the ability to say "No" and to "Negotiate."  It's a "No" that:
a) respects and displays understanding of the request,
b) explains why the employee cannot meet the request at this moment in time, and also
c) details what the employee can do to help immediately and in the long run.

It's much better to have your staff employ "N & N" than make false or foolish promises and then drop the ball at the eleventh hour.  My mantra:  "A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities, too."

Finally, when appropriate consider using structural balancing techniques such as flextime, job sharing and telecommuting in addition to encouraging some uninterrupted "closed door" time.

4.  Promote New Job Training and Learning Curves.  Sometimes boredom, if not burnout, occurs from having "been there, done that" too many times.  Actually, when the timing is right, you may want to encourage all employees to:
a) upgrade skills on an ongoing basis,
b) experiment with new roles and responsibilities, and
c) provide backup for a colleague through cross-training.

And for the employee just coasting, encouraging reassignment in a three-month work detail just might rekindle his or her juices.  Remember this Stress Doc maxim:  "Fireproof your life with variety!"

5.  Promote the Stress Doc's "Three Step Burnout Prevention/Burnout Recovery Plan."  Perhaps you can include this plan in a company newsletter.  Of course, the other option is to have me come out and deliver it in person.  My motto:  "Have Stress?  Will Travel!"

Burnout can be likened to digging and digging the wrong hole (and often using a spoon, not a shovel).  And because a person has invested so much time and energy, ego and money in this particular hole, process, choice, dream, etc. he or she can't acknowledge that there's no oil in the ground.  Or if he does strike a vein, it will likely yield "fool's gold."  What to do?  Try this "Three Step Burnout Prevention/Recovery Strategy":

a) Engage with the "Six 'F's."  To "let go" and begin exploring another hole (or another pursuit altogether) often requires doing emotional grief work.  Consider these "Six 'F's for Transforming Loss and Change":
1) Let go of a familiar past (or at least certain significant components that are keeping you stuck),
2) Confront an uncertain future fraught with anxiety,
3) Grapple with some loss of face or blows to one's self-esteem,
4) Acknowledge feelings of rage and sadness to achieve a renewed state of focused anger:  "I don't like what has happened, but how can I make the best of it?,"
5) Seek objective, knowledgeable and trustworthy feedback to gain a new perspective, and
6) Have faith…If you've taken these steps, no matter what the outcome of this transition trial, you will grow from this grief process.

b) Employ the "Four 'R's of Burnout Rehab":
1) Running.  A person doesn't literally have to start running; thirty-forty minutes, 3-5 times/week of brisk walking, jogging, swimming, biking, etc., are excellent ways to generate an exercise regimen.  In addition to cardio-vascular and weight management benefits, regular exercise becomes a "success ritual" providing a tangible sense of accomplishment and control.
2) Reading.  People often lose their sense of humor under prolonged stress.  Try reading books or comic strips that help reinvigorate your smile muscles. Or watch your favorite film comedians or comic actors on television.  Then, as you start feeling more in control, begin to read on the subject of stress and burnout.
3) Retreating.  When trying to recover from burnout it's essential to reflect upon how one's personal attitudes, expectations and self-defeating behaviors contributed to being trapped in the erosive spiral.
4) Writing.  Stress management research shows that writing about emotions or painful experiences from both an expressive and an analytical perspective helps reduce stress and strengthens a sense of psychological control.

c) Transition to Passion.  Burnout is often a powerful signal that one's mind-body-spirit path and/or one's job position or career path are not working, or not working effectively and harmoniously.  There's a dysfunctional fit (along with corresponding existential ennui or angst) between where one is and where one needs to be.

Upon setting in motion the first two phases of the above "R & R" -- Rehabilitation & Rejuvenation - plan the person is ready to explore avenues that encourage meaningful, fulfilling and (usually more) realistic action steps.  And sometimes "less is more."  Focus on what is essential and "let go" of the ego-baggage.  Also, experiences from the past are not always part of the heavy baggage.  One way of rekindling passion is to reconnect with youthful aspects of your life or basic aspects of your personality.   And then create professional and personal venues for expressing this vital and renewed self.  Surely this recovery process is not just a strategy for rebuilding the fire; these survival strategies in time become tools for burnout prevention.  In addition, when you and your organization:
1) Schedule "R & R"
2) Facilitate Professional Coaching or Counseling
3) Encourage Better Balance and Better Boundaries
4) Promote New Job Training and Learning Curves
5) Promote the Stress Doc's "Three Step Burnout Prevention/Burnout Recovery Plan"
then your employees are learning to…Practice Safe Stress!

Burnout Series - Part IV
Seven Keys for Organizational Intervention in Times of Transition

A global, cyberspaced and hyper-spaced business climate forever cycling between constant upgrading and reorganizing (from mega-mergers to systemic surgeries) poses great transitional challenges.  HR and the management team must acknowledge the sea change and allow employees to vent and, if possible, have some problem-solving input as the staff and organization try to navigate the uncertain if not rough and stormy waters.  How can you help your company structurally and strategically weather this transitional tempest?  Consider these "Seven Critical Interventions in Changing and Trying Times":

1.  Promoting Truth in Reorganizing.
  In this murky and anxious period, when communicating with employees key decision-makers must be as straightforward as possible about the transitional process.  In the long run your workforce will prefer hard realities than to be misled or blind-sided.  The former, at least, allows for future planning.  And sometimes management's most honest and affirming message is, "At this time, I (or we) don't know fully what's going on or what these events really mean for the future."

Providing false hope invariable fuels the mistrust and helps crank up the rumor mill.  People who are feeling like pawns will likely seek some form of active control.  And when feeling helpless and enraged some employees will act out passive-aggressively (e.g., theft or sabotage) if not "go postal."  (And as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, I am battle-tested!)

Rest assured, survivors of a restructuring won't just be grateful.  People will remember the credibility of your communication.  Truth in reorganizing should not be as dubious as truth in advertising!

2.  Getting Initial Buy-in.  To intervene effectively with an organization in transition you must design a strategic organizational development/team building process having broad-based input.  For example, a planning committee would consist of representatives of management and the unions or management and line staff.  Participation should be driven by a variety of diversity measures including different departments or divisions, supervisors and front-line staff, range of years of employee experience, race and gender, etc.  This breadth of perspective increases the chance of both generating new problem-solving paths and of envisioning an achievable "big picture."  And while achieving complex consensus may take more time, in the long run you will have troops more committed to the post-restructuring campaign to rebuild productivity and morale.

3.  Structuring Systemic Grief Work.  Just as individuals need to process a range of emotions during periods of loss and change, so too do organizations in transition.  Whether a merger of two entities or a company downsizing, for the "survivors" of this reality show there are definite themes around loss:
a) a losing team locker room atmosphere, i.e., staff thinking, "Why wasn't our work or our contribution sufficiently valued?"; or there may be anger at management's less than stellar leadership,
b) loss of friends and respected colleagues as well as the loss of institutional knowledge or an exodus of informal company historians,
c) loss of familiar roles and responsibilities; there are new performance pressures,
d) a generalized feeling of loss of control, perhaps a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of an imposed and uncertain work environment.

Letting people know they are fortunate to have a job or prematurely trying to get staff to grasp the opportunities in a changing climate misses the point big time.  An effective starting point in "Team (or Organizational) Survival in Times of Change" (the title of one of my programs/interventions) is running a workshop that allows departments or division staff (or even multiple systems) to safely express the emotion stirred by a major restructuring.  Common early reactions to significant loss and change include shock and denial, sadness and fear, and abandonment, helplessness and rage.

In my mind, an exemplary workshop program enables participants to safely vent and to transform some of this grief energy into purposeful and playful problem identification and creative team problem solving.  Then objectives and goals are preliminarily prioritized.  And upon completion of this transition survival workshop, form a "Save the Retreat" Committee.  The charge of this cross-sectional and diverse matrix team is to develop action plans and time lines while appropriately assigning implementation responsibility for the aforementioned problem-solving strategies and priorities.

4.  Working with an EAP/Outside Consultant.  Having an outside and objective workshop leader (not a management mouthpiece) trained in organizational change, interpersonal conflict and team building is critical for the success of step #3.  Dealing with grief invariably proves to be a psychologically and communicationally charged intervention step.  Consider the following two resources:

a) EAP Intervention.  Both for objectivity, complexity and confidentiality reasons, if Employee Assistance Program services are available you may want to contact the EAP Counselor.  This professional can: 1) work with individual employees exhibiting patterns of dysfunctional or disruptive behavior in the face of change, 2) help supervisors manage their own transitional emotions and 3) provide supervisors techniques and tools for more effectively managing and holding accountable the troubled individual as well as assisting the supervisor to better support all employees during this turbulent transition.

The best supervisors are those who seek out the EAP Counselor (or an EAP- or HR-referred consultant) for approaches in handling a difficult employee or complex team issue.  The worst response by a supervisor is denying or downplaying the adverse effects of a slacker or aggressive disrupter on his or her colleagues.  Simply encouraging or expecting others to ignore a "stress carrier" heightens team members' anger and anxiety.  Such concerns include, "Will this carrier explode or implode?  Will I be hurt by the fallout?"  As I once discovered first hand, "Will a borderline employee pull a knife on a new supervisor partly because the supervisor's boss downplayed the violence potential of the employee?" is not an abstract question.  In this scenario, both dysfunctional employee and dysfunctional supervisor are tumors, inevitably eroding department or division safety, morale and productivity.

b) Call on OD Consultant.  Sometimes Human Resources or, even, the EAP (often for confidentiality reasons) will recommend an outside consultant/facilitator.  Especially when large systems are involved, you want someone trained in Organizational Development and Team Building processes during periods of transition.  Most EAP Counselors specialize in clinical and substance abuse matters.

A team-building consultant can be a facilitator/role model for the first two or three non-traditional team meetings when a team is grappling with balancing task focus and group process.  For example, I recall a consultation with an IT supervisor and her staff in which all were unsure about running a more "participatory" team meeting.   Not surprisingly, these folks were overly focused on my direction (and, perhaps, my approval).  The analogy I used was trying to teach them to ride a two-wheeler.  At first, they didn't want me to let go of the bike seat.  In fact, I wound up playfully hiding under the conference table so that the participants could not make eye contact with me, only surfacing if I thought they were wildly off course.  Gradually, and more steadily, the group process began to cruise, this time hardly noticing my presence when I resurfaced.

5.  Experimenting with Team Meetings.  Transforming a typical supervisor-driven team meeting into a gradual team building process doesn't require the group going on some touchy-feely retreat or participating in some formulaic or chaotic (that is, leaderless) TQM-like training program.  With a little advanced coaching and group training along with some operational shifts, a team can become a catalyst for improved coordination, morale and productivity.  Consider these hands on strategies:

a) Staff Facilitation.  Have staff members replace the supervisor as meeting facilitator every 4-8 weeks (assuming the team meets once or twice/week).

b) Two Hats Phenomenon.  Staff facilitation means the supervisor or department head wears two hats: as much as possible, in the meeting this individual is team player first and management representative second.  Surely, letting up on the authority reins may be a challenge for some managers.  However, this shift can be initially uncomfortable for other team members as well.  Employees who are used to deferring to authority or who don't want to risk being open with ideas and beliefs will have a steeper learning curve.  Also, across the organizational hierarchy, there are individuals reluctant to assume responsibility for making decisions and being held responsible for outcomes.  Such a perceptual and procedural shift requires trust and, depending on the quality and integrity of the communication, this trust will evolve or erode over time.

c) Build In a Wavelength Segment.  In a "lean-and-MEAN" climate, not surprisingly, most meetings, from team and department to branch and division, are short fused if not "T & T" -- "Time and Task"-driven.  The content is often still exclusively focused on goals and objectives, timelines and deadlines and outcomes and return on investment issues.  Which makes sense; there's a business or organization to run.  My recommendation calls for carving out ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the meeting -- the "Wavelength Segment."  A group member comfortable with group process initially facilitates the meeting.  Then, as noted above, as experience and trust builds the role of facilitator can be rotated.  And, of course, this can be initiated as an experiment, that is, a time-limited pilot project often allows various parties, especially the authority figure, a sense of some control when implementing a new or uncertain change process.

Three purposes of the "Wavelength" are:
1) Relationship Check -- this closing segment focuses on any barriers to communication and cooperation bypassed in the "T n T" section of the meeting, e.g., regarding operational coordination, how are team members relating with each other or with other departments?  Appropriate emotional venting is encouraged.
2) Peer Recognition -- in addition, "the wavelength" is also a time and place for recognizing individual and group efforts that have heightened morale and/or productivity.
3) Restore Trust -- finally, perhaps most important, the wavelength is designed to restore trust, especially between a supervisor or manager and team members.  Based on my broad organizational experience, there is often a fear of speaking up (the chain of command).  This fear is fueled by the prospect of being judged negatively, being retaliated against in a performance evaluation or being blocked from fulfilling one's career path.  Such a restricted, if not repressive, environment does as much to stifle morale and induce burnout while undermining initiative and innovation as any other toxic elements or hazardous workplace conditions.

d) Plan Informal Gatherings.  In a "do more with less" environment, some organizations practically dispense with meetings; others have employees feeling "meetinged to death."  Either extreme is self-defeating in terms of optimal team coordination and individual productivity.  Consider these alternatives:
1) Morning Huddle -- briefly get as many team members together in the morning or just before the shift starts.  Identify any looming surprises or crises and areas of unfinished business, or whether a team member may need extra support or backup coverage.  This is a 5-10 minute "heads up," "all on the same page" gathering.  And if you add some humor -- "joke of the morning" -- it can get the team off to a lively and cohesive start.
2) Communal Lunch -- each Friday, one federal government branch would have lunch together.  Especially if employee hours are staggered, having more than one opportunity to gather informally makes sense.  For other units, Friday afternoon pizza parties serve a similar function - informal "food for thought" and laughs.
3) Chief's Cookout -- twice a year the above head of the aforementioned branch, invited team members to her house for a half-day "visionary" cookout.  (The food was real.)  This mini-retreat setting helped the group maintain the currency of their branch vision while creatively massaging vital "big picture" goals and action plans.

6.  Increasing Management Visibility.  At some regular interval the teams and/or departments of the division, center or entire organization need to congregate.  The purposes include:

a) Installing Windows In the Silos.  To develop a sense of "we-are-all-in-this-together," management must share "big picture" information to help employees and units see their give-and-take involvement with the whole, including the larger or "outside" environment.  For example, this is especially salient for preventing a dysfunctional disconnect between HQ and field operations.
b) Interdepartmental Clarification and Collaboration.  Create a forum that allows teams and departments to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas of overlap, identify potential joint venture areas, and announce hot projects that may have larger appeal or impact thereby motivating interdepartmental collaboration.  And, of course, this venue will broadcast inter-team coordination successes.
c) Matrix Teaming.  From parts to whole, there must not simply be top-down information flow unless in a state of urgency.  (Remember, the urgent must get done now, the important is negotiated and prioritized.)  If time constraints or meeting size prove unwieldy, then a matrix team comprised of a small sample of department managers, supervisors and employees across varying units should convene for task and process problem solving as outlined in the above "Wavelength Segment."
d) Conflict, Not Greed, Is Good.  Competing perspectives, if not conflict, among top management or between the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors is to be expected.  Actually, it's probably needed to avoid the greed and groupthink that has been fostering "irrationally exuberant," deceptive and criminal actions.  Too often, however, executives deny or cover-up their own and/or colleagues' performance inadequacies; or long-standing dysfunctional relating between some of "The Big Five" (as I dubbed a federal agency Center Director, her Deputy and the three Branch Managers) lead to communicational and problem solving inertia.  Now the status quo is triumphant.  No one risks the conflict necessary to change and rejuvenate a tired and outmoded operating system or leadership.

7.  Following the Way of the Acronyms.  Consider these two acronyms to bolster survival capacity during these trying transitional times:

a) Balancing the Triple "A". To affirm an employee's sense of professionalism and sense of responsibility, blend "The Triple 'A':  Authority, Autonomy and Accountability."  Management must recognize and support an employee's utilization of skills and knowledge, and the desire to have input in relevant decision-making ("Authority").  Workers also want some control of their turf, time frames, tools and operating procedures ("Autonomy").  At the same time, employees must accept the objective and timely review of their work performance (Accountability).

b) Investing in Organizational IRAs.  When people are chronically doing more with less, don't assume they will be (or should be) grateful just having a job in a tight economy.  A management team that's concerned about motivation and loyalty or, at least, about the longevity of workplace survivors, makes sure people can earn those IRAs:  Incentives, Recognition & Rewards and Advancement Opportunities, including opportunity for needed and desired training.

Closing Summary

Part IV of this Burnout Series has examined "Seven Critical Interventions in Times of Major Organizational Transition."  These strategic plans and action steps include:

1.  Promoting Truth in Reorganizing
2.  Getting Initial Buy-in
3.  Structuring Systemic Grief Work
4.  Working with an EAP/Outside Consultant
5.  Experimenting with Team Meetings
6.  Increasing Management Visibility
7.  Following the Way of the Acronyms

Exploring and implementing these interventions will help an organization transform transitional dangers into individual and systemic opportunities for learning and morale-building and help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Identifying burnout in your staff is a two-step process.  The first requisite is an honest and comprehensive assessment of your workplace environment.  Next comes a mind and body, motivation and morale assessment of your personnel.

 Burnout Series – Part I

Characteristics of a Burnout-Prone Work Environment:The Dirty Dozen

 In a 24/7 always on, “do more with less” world that seems to cycle between constant upgrading and the next downsizing should it be surprising that employees increasingly alternate between feeling “lean and Mean” or exhausted and burnt out?

 Three key questions need to be on an employers’ and HR professionals’ minds:  1) what are some of the signs of an organization fueling the burnout fires and 2) how can I identify burnout in my staff?  And finally, how can I deal with these burnout issues both from an organizational and an individual perspective?

 Let’s begin with the “dirty dozen” of dysfunctional organizations:

 1.  From TLC to TNC.  People are always on call.  There’s little boundary between work and home.  Work environment driven by "time, numbers and crises" not by "tender loving care."  Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings while treating employees as peasants; it's a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.

2.  Rapid and Unpredictable Change.  Can be either a downsizing or an expansionary mode.  Unstable leadership and a revolving work force; adjusting to new personnel along with a loss of institutional history and wisdom.  Rules and procedures don't appear to be operational; "the book" has lost some critical pages.  Chronic uncertainty and mistrust from lack of timely information or from communication not perceived as genuine or accurate.

 3.  Destructive Communication Style.  The norm is condescending, explosive or passive aggressive styles of communication; there’s excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating.  Managers are talking over employees; nobody is truly listening.  Either defensive counterattacking or robotic groupthinking is common.

 4.  Authoritarian Leadership.  Rigid, militaristic mindset; "superiors" vs. "subordinates" or "inferiors."  Typical slogans:  "You don't get paid to think" or "My way or the highway."  Leaders blow up if challenged and break up any participatory decision-making or team building efforts.

 5.  Defensive Attitude.  There’s an overall dismissive attitude regarding feedback with little interest in evaluation of people and policies.  Only numbers count.  Not safe to give feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected.  Yelling or intimidation or, conversely, avoidance, are the preferred ways of dealing with conflict. 

6.  Double Standard.  Different policies and procedures, bias in application, for management and employees, blue collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination – "Workfloor vs. Tower" dichotomy.  Double standard also manifests as management gets substantial training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get minimal orientation and ongoing support.

 7.  Unresolved Grievances.  No mechanisms or only adversarial ones – "us vs. them" – to settle grievances.  Or, dysfunctional individuals protected or ignored because of contractual provisions, red tape, old boy network or union cover, etc. 

8.  Emotionally Troubled Personnel.  Management not actively assisting troubled employees get the help they need; no Employee Assistance Program (EAP) option.  No coaching for supervisors dealing with dysfunctional personnel.  This gap can create a tumor for the work team – scapegoating, loss of respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.

 9.  Repetitive, Boring Work.  Not just assembly line syndrome.  Also, "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome":  When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery!  Your niche of success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation.  There’s a lack of opportunity for job rotation or not enough new blood is coming into the system.

 10.  Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training.  Equipment or procedures (or lack of same) that don't allow people to work effectively or efficiently…and then workers are criticized for not being productive.  Also, rapidly inundating people with new equipment and operational standards while not providing sufficient time and resources for successful startup.

 11.  Hazardous Setting.  Disruptive ambient work conditions – temperature, air quality, repetitive motion issues, overcrowded space, problematic noise levels, excessive overtime, nocturnal schedule and interrupted sleep, etc.  Personnel shortage results in lack of backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and conditions.

 12.  Culture of Violence.  There is a culture or past history of individual and/or systemic violence and abuse, e.g., family battering, gang membership, etc.  The person has been exposed to violent or explosive role models often with a context of alcohol and drug abuse.  Finally, under sufficient stress, employees with lingering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be set off.

 This “dirty dozen” provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work environment.  While somewhat "blue" in tint, the "white collar" world also needs to pay heed.  No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background.  A seemingly trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual.  Of course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments.  And Part II captures the warning signs of burnout for the individual employee. Until then, of course…Practice Safe Stress!


Burnout Series – Part II

Sources, Definition and Stages of Burnout

 In a rapidly changing, uncertain yet always on wired world, three major sources of burnout standout:

1) the boundary between work and home is eroding; there’s less recovery time and space with today’s exhausting pace,

2) when ideals, high expectations and critical or especially, pride-driven goals prove elusive or are continuously thwarted despite significant investment of time, energy, money and self-identity, and one can’t step back or “let go,” an employee’s motivational fire will likely be extinguished, and finally

3) when a once successful person simply rests on his or her laurels, tries to cruise to retirement, resists new learning curves, or just habitually performs a repetitive job or starts sleepwalking through a career path then such a person is susceptible to what I call the “Bjorn Bored Syndrome” (BBS).  BBS is named for Bjorn Borg, the late ‘70s-early ‘80s Swedish tennis great who seemingly burnt out and dropped out suddenly from the tennis circuit.  Maybe it was winning four or five back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon titles.  (Was the thrill gone?)  Maybe it was the drudgery of the all too familiar mind, body and spirit numbing hours and hours of practice.  (Perhaps his inner core had been gradually weakening and suddenly seemed depleted and hollow.)

 Whatever the forces and factors of this “erosive spiral,” how can you recognize signs and symptoms?  First, let me provide a definition:  Burnout is a gradually process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain.  The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusion, a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.  Doesn’t sound like fun.

 Now a concise summary of the “Four Stages of Burnout”:

 1.  Physical, Mental and Emotional ExhaustionDo you recognize this sequence?  Maybe you’re holding it together at work, but as soon as you get home, right for the fridge, get out the chocolate ice cream or the lite-beer, put on the tube, hit the sofa…and you are comatose for the rest of the evening.  (Of course, I’m frequently hearing, “Doc, you mean there’s something wrong with that!”)  Consistently doing more with less not only can induce a case of the brain strain but people often start becoming “lean-and-MEAN.”

 2.  Shame and Doubt.  When someone asks you to take on a new project, despite wanting to help does a voice inside insist, “Who are you kidding!”  Will colleagues, friends and family members sense there’s something wrong?  Uncontrollable sighing may punctuate your day.  A dark cloud of uncertainty and vulnerability may be following you.

 3.  Cynicism and Callousness.  Eventually, some folks have enough of feeling anxious and vulnerable.  They start putting on the heavy armor:  “Look out for #1,” “Cover your derriere,” “Get out of my way,” or “I could care less.”  In the short run there may be some payoff – you become abrasive enough and people start avoiding you.  In the long term, not only are you projecting a dysfunctional image, but you are bottling up or covering up all this fear, frustration and sense of failure.  And the risk is not only a hardening of the psyche; you may be encouraging a hardening of the arteries – high blood pressure and premature heart attacks or brain attacks – as well.

4.  Failure, Helplessness and Crisis.  In the final stage one may feel, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t; damned if I stay, damned if I leave.”  Your coping strategy is coming unglued.  In this vulnerable state, you may be especially sensitive to criticism and feel paralyzed.  In fact, prolonged stress can inhibit the functioning of such brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, biochemicals instrumental in mood state.  And when a person has genetic predisposition or family history, early childhood loss (e.g., the death of a parent) or unresolved trauma then such biochemical disruption combined with prolonged stress may even foster clinical depression.

So can there be light at the end of the burnout tunnel?  Most definitely.  And Parts III and IV of this Burnout Series will be your individual and organizational guides.  Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

 Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker (including with Celebrity Cruise Lines), and an OD/Team Building Consultant.  Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is America Online's "Motivational Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ – www.the-bright-side.org – a multi-award winning mental health resource.  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

Heads Up:  Successful Programs [References on Request]

1) Sociey for Professional Journalists.  Practice Safe Stress Workshop.

2) Estrin Legal Eduction.  Rebuilding Passion in Your Job.  Cambridge Mass.  For Paralegals.

3) Van Ness Feldman.  Managing Stress and Team Morale for law firm support staff.

4) Suffolk, VA City Govt. Leaders.  Managing Stress and Team Morale for City Manager, Department Heads, Elected Officials

5) Fairfax County Govt.  Balanacing Stress & Stressing Balance.  Keynote for 350 admin staff across all departments.  Two testimonials:

Fairfax County Administrative Resource Team
Department of Community and Recreation Services
12011 Government Center Parkway, Tenth Floor
Fairfax, VA  22035-1115

April 27. 2005

Dear Mark:

The members of the Administrative Resource Team and the Department of Human Resources would like to thank you for your outstanding presentation at the ART conference on April 22.  We had an overwhelming response to the conference, and that is due in large part to your exciting presentation on stress in our daily lives and how we can develop strategies for managing that stress.

From the moment you were approached about the possibility of being our guest speaker, your enthusiasm conveyed your commitment to making this conference vital and interesting to participants.  Within the first few minutes of your presentation, you had captured the audience's attention and had encouraged them to become active, eager participants.  The [team] artwork was an excellent way of getting the audience to creatively express their feelings of stress and tension.  The important benefit, of course, was for them to realize that art could be a positive outlet for these feelings.

Again, thank you so much for such an entertaining and informative presentation.


Marian M. Matthews
Administrative Associate


Keynote Address (350 attendees)
"Practice Safe Stress:  "Balancing Stress and Stressing Balance"

Mark Gorkin (also known as "The Stress Doc" ™) is a psychotherapist, author, speaker and organizational and team-building consultant.  In a 24/7, do-more-with-less, constantly-upgrading-and-reorganizing world, cell phones and e-mail can wear out the boundary between work and home.  Learn how to identify smoke signals indicating personal, family, and workplace imbalance.  Develop key skills and strategies for recovering from exhaustion, managing change, and transforming conflict while gaining control over your daily schedule.  Learn, laugh and have serious fun!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker (including with Celebrity Cruise Lines), and an OD/Team Building Consultant.  Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is America Online's "Motivational Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  
Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2005

Shrink Rap Productions