By Douglas Hardwick, Ph.D.
Stress seems to be an inevitable part of any job. Even minor things can lead to feelings of stress. Petty arguments with supervisors and conflicts with co-workers are among the most common every day stressors. For some employees, however, the level of stress experienced goes far beyond job strain and the irritation of daily hassles. For some employees, the level of stress experienced on the job builds up until it is overwhelming and leads to a condition called burnout.
What is burnout? In general, burnout is described as emotional exhaustion. The most common symptoms associated with this emotional exhaustion include overwhelming fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, and impaired sleep. And, as burnout develops, it often leads to a deterioration in social skills. Individuals in the midst of burnout just do not interact with others as they did in the past. They often withdraw from others. They may lose patience more easily. They may become more abrupt and abrasive in their dealings with others. Their language on the job may become cruder. They may appear to be moody and depressed.
Over time, burnout has profound effects on job performance. Simply put, job performance suffers. Victims of burnout are likely to reduce the amount of work they do. They may avoid tasks that they find most stressful. Their absenteeism is likely to increase. In the worst case, they may suddenly quit their jobs with little notice to their employers. Supervisors may not be able to recognize burnout for what it is, but they certainly will notice the effects of burnout on job performance.
Burnout often occurs in those jobs we think of as the helping professions. Professions such as teaching, law enforcement, nursing, and social work are all potential breeding grounds for burnout. Interestingly, within these professions, burnout tends to strike the most dedicated and most idealistic individuals. While burnout has been observed for years in the so-called helping professions, it can occur in a wide range of jobs. The key seems to be the presence of inescapable, day-to-day frustrations which build up overtime.
The frustrations that lead to burnout can take many forms. Studies of professions such as teaching and nursing have suggested that burnout occurs when workers begin to believe that no one appreciates the work they do or the help they provide. Over time the difficulty of their task and the presence of ambitious, but ambiguous, goals may lead them to believe that their efforts have no real impact. When the feeling "it doesn't matter what I do" sets in, burnout is not far behind. Of course, these feelings are not limited to the helping professions. Anytime workers feel overwhelmed by the demands of their job and think that there is little support for their efforts, burnout becomes a threat.
Fortunately, there are several things that can be done to eliminate or reduce the development of burnout. First of all, it is important for supervisors to actively support their subordinates, to treat them fairly, and to provide them with appropriate feedback. Second, it is important for employees to develop a realistic view of what they can accomplish on the job. Unrealistic goals are a recipe for frustration and stress. Third, employees need to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Individuals who blur the boundaries between work and home are good candidates for burnout. Finally, employees need to learn specific techniques for reducing and managing their own perceived levels of stress. These techniques may include exercise and various relaxation procedures. Meditation, tai chi, and qigong are all examples of holistic health practices that might prove helpful. Practitioners have long argued that these disciplines enhance relaxation and reduce stress in the individual.
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