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Smoke Signals I
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A passionate letter from a reader highlights a key issue: does one attribute burnout to self-defeating mindsets and behavior patterns or to dysfunctional work environments? Of course, invariably both are involved. In his response, the Doc provides strategic suggestions for the reader and scrutinizes environmental conditions that foster "The Erosive Spiral."

Organizational Burnout Smoke Signals Person-in-the-Situation Analysis

Dear Stress Doc:

I read your article on "The Four Stages of Burnout." (Email if you'd like to receive the article.) I am clearly suffering from all stages. I do have a comment to make on the article. I am really tired of the personal qualities of perfectionism and responsibility being down graded. Employers look for individuals who are responsible, detail oriented, (which usually translates into perfectionist) and who have a genuine concern for getting the job done right. Yet, these are the very qualities that are picked upon or labeled negative when burnout occurs. I happen to think that people with these qualities are trustworthy, dependable, and an asset to any organization. How does an individual change WHO they are, when the change appears to be a backward motion? How do you become less dependable, less detail oriented, (and still do a good job) or less trustworthy?

As far as setting appropriate limits and boundaries, that only works if you have superiors that understand your position. When my director is told by me, that a previous project will have to be delayed in order for me to get her current demand finished on time, she responds with, "I am sure you will find a way to complete both these projects and get them to me by their deadline. She has no clue has to how long a project takes or what it takes to get it done. "That is my job"

My Director is also a crisis manager, everything is urgent and important. She herself is not organized, or responsible, but expect the people around her to pick up the slack. I believe that burnout is not always because of an individual's personality type, but many times it is caused by the reactions of other individuals around you, who do not hear your requests, demands, or your boundaries. They are always telling you, you can do it, in spite of your efforts to make yourself heard. I have had several positions where I never experienced burnout. The work flow was more organized, and my superiors allowed me to decide my priorities. I do not feel burnout is an individual's problem, alone. Much of the burnout workers experience is part of the organizational structure. Poor management, lack of organizational flow, not allowing workers the latitude to do their jobs, all contribute to job burnout.

Thank you for your time.

Hi,

I absolutely agree with the above regarding dysfunctional work environments and managers/supervisors. When in a position with a superior who doesn't want to prioritize and continues to hold you accountable for unreasonable demands, if: a) he or she is immune to a productive one-on-one with you, b) you attempt to enlist colleagues in a confrontation and that fails, and c) upper management is not willing to intervene, then it's time to move on.

Also, I think there is a difference between a creative and dysfunctional perfectionism. I call the dysfunctional perfectionist the HE MAN (though perfectionism is gender blind). This rigid individual is self-defeatingly driven by feelings (most troublesome when disguised) of "Humiliation" and "Emptiness." I ascribe to selective perfectionism: I don't have to use the same precision and persistence in writing this letter as I do an article. I won't fine tune it till it's just right.

So I've learned that sometimes I can do B work. Again, if your work absolutely requires perfect precision every time and your work environment won't support that, get out. Go into business for yourself. If you feel your spirit and essence is being devalued, trivialized or crushed, don't take it anymore. Achieve "Emancipation Procrastination." Start planning for your liberation now!

I'll place you on my free mailing list; sending past and present newsletters; eventually it becomes a weekly. I'll paste another piece that I've written below; actually a segment from a chapter on burnout-inducing organizational stressors:

Organizational Burnout Smoke Signals

While understanding stress smoke signals and individual psychological dynamics is critical, don't overlook the person-in-the-situation nature of burnout. The erosive spiral likely involves more than one man's (or woman's) self- defeating expectations and defensive or grandiose goal-seeking strategies. Burnout is not simply an individual problem! Individuals and organizations must accurately assess the burnout-prone nature of their work/relationship environments. Don't use a solitary sacrificial scapegoat to cover up a smoking organization.

The individual who's been downsized, as well as the employee waiting for the next reorganization needs to acknowledge the following organizational stressors in order to: a) be less self-blaming and self-punishing for our actual or anticipated wipeout, b) apportion fault or causation more equitably or rationally and, most important, c) confidently know what future work environments are emotionally and physically hazardous to our well-being. Or, at least, know that certain jobs or assignments are better viewed as tours of duty. After a certain point, encroaching burnout is to be expected, but should not necessarily be worn as a badge of honor. Such positions or roles involve some combination of high caseload, intense action, high challenge, ego-building prestige, killer deadlines, adrenaline rushes, and little time for debriefing or destressing: a law enforcement or child abuse/child welfare worker; a small, understaffed and under funded team planning the relocation of thousands of employees; a computer programmer in a precarious high tech startup; being a stress and violence prevention consultant for a 6,000 person, twenty-four hour/day US Postal Service Processing and Distribution Plant. (And your biorhythm never does adjust to the night shift.) Rotation before exhaustion and termination is the mantra.

Burnout can smolder, blacken and wipe out all levels of the organizational hierarchy -- employees, supervisors and middle and top management -- as well as teams, departments and, ultimately, the entire organization. Here's a serious list of the daily dozen systemic smoke signals for which you and your organization should be vigilant:

Dirty Dozen Organizational Stress Toxins

1. Cynicism and Apathy. People are constantly complaining about problems; or worse, they've stopped voicing their frustrations as they are convinced it's useless to make suggestions or attempt solutions. Indirect potshots and subtle and not so subtle putdowns may puncture the heavy meeting air. Perhaps most painful, a once cherished belief in the job and mission has been eroded, trivialized and/or compromised.

2. Pessimism and Inertia. Not quite as bad as 1., but organizational uncertainty is taking a toll; the glass always is half empty. Afraid to rock the boat, productivity slows; people are going through the motions. Sometimes this leads to little staff turnover and Bjorn Bored Syndrome: When mastery times monotony provides an index of misery!

3. Heads in Survival Shells. Lack of initiative or rigid fear of making mistakes. As confidence in self and leadership diminishes, staff tolerates perfunctory performance appraisal or robotic team meetings, or none at all. No real discussion regarding team effectiveness and support. When the survival shell is a management enclave, "The Tower," capable of spying on employees...(Big) Brother better watch your back.

4. Fear of Criticism and Misguided Loyalty. As self-esteem and defenses wear down, people are quick to overreact to criticism; they take feedback too personally without considering the source. Also, "good employee" hypersensitivity or "fairness contracts" appear, e.g., "I don't deserve any criticism since I'm sacrificing my life and health for the company."

5. Unhealthy Group Alliances. As leadership disintegrates, coalitions form to defy authority and/or to band together for self-protection. Destructive competition among team members and cliques - looking good at another individual's or group's expense overrides the greater good. People spend more time gossiping and rumornating in the hall or behind closed doors than doing actual work.

6. Actual or Perceived Favoritism. Employees believe that supervisors or managers play favorites or cover for them, e.g., bias in the way work is assigned, avoided or passed on to others. There's unfair or inconsistent discipline, along with ignoring hard workers with dysfunctional interpersonal skills who incite personnel problems. (Sometimes bureaucratic rules, good old boy fraternization and undue union protection make it difficult to deal effectively, swiftly and fairly with problematic employees and managers.)

7. Smoldering Rage. Many folks are walking around overstressed, overstretched and chronically deadlined…"the working wounded." Too much overtime and not enough downtime. There's no structure to openly acknowledge frustrations or air grievances with a supervisor, or in a team or union meeting. If this continues, better start installing a metal detector…Take it from a former US Postal Service stress and violence prevention consultant.

8. Rigid Meetings. Time and task-driven agenda; feedback from group members is superficial. There's no honest communication or assessment about the quality of relating and team cooperation and coordination. With leader- dominated meetings backed by submissive followers or an "amen" chorus, conflict identification and genuine problem-solving is squashed.

9. Selfish and Secret Prioritizing. Sense of isolation along with a selfishness and mean-spirited atmosphere prevail. "Do more with less" becomes "hoard more with less." Each department jealously guards information while selfishly pushing their interests or priorities over others' needs, timelines or concerns.

10. Rigidly Customer Driven. Customer is king, employees are peasants. Bend over backwards for customer needs; beware sacrificing and burning out staff in the process. Employees resenting skewed standards, may sabotage company goals or falsify records to create illusion of high performance and customer satisfaction.

11. Feel Like Pawns. Classic stress environment: high demand with low autonomy or control. Little system concern for employee or supervisory input, grievances, need for training, recognition and career advancement. Place feels too big, too impersonal. Can't get through to people; little coordination between departments. Top down decision-making; micromanaging headquarters is out of touch with daily operational realities.

12. Reorganizational Wreck. Sense of high uncertainty and chronic vulnerability -- more work with less people and resources -- is taking its toll. Good people, experienced leaders are starting to bail out or buy out. What's that great big sucking sound? Sounds like we've reached The Big Burnout Bermuda Triangle -- reorganization and, especially, company or agency downsizing.

And as always...Practice Safe Stress! Mark Gorkin, LICSW, is a therapist, speaker, trainer, author and "Online Psychohumorist" known throughout the internet, America Online/Online Psych and the nation as "The Stress Doc." He specializes in stress, organizational change, team building, career transition, creativity and HUMOR. The Doc also leads the online "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" for AOL/Digital City-Washingtn. Mark writes for such the national publications as Treatment Today and Paradigm Magazine and for the popular electronic websites/newsletters, Financial Services Journal Online and Mental Health Net. For more info, call (202) 232-8662 or check his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - at: www.stressdoc.com. Or email Stress Doc@aol.com for his free newsletter.