BURN-OUT AND WHY IT DOESN'T EXIST
The first thing we have to clear up before I start is the difference between semantics and substantive differences in interpretation. As I am writing this; I will make the definitions. For our use semantics is the literalmeaning of a word or set of words. A substantive difference is when those definitions are viewed or used in a manner that conveys an impression that doesn't reflect reality.
This is the accepted definition of "Burnout". I will propose that this is a definition that leads us to make erroneous assumptions and poor decisions regarding our colleagues and subordinates. This definition lists "burnout" as a noun and accepts that this collapse exists. I would suggest that this is not accurate. My question is, "does burnout even exist, and if it does should it be viewed as an infirmity or a symptom"? Even worse, is it more often merely an excuse for unacceptable performance?
Over 67 years of work and recreation I have yet to have witnessed a true case of "burnout". Now, I have seen many cases of those who were exhibiting symptoms that could fit under the umbrella of the "burnout" label but that is different from having an actual infirmity. I know, some of you will provide anecdotal evidence of a friend who had a nervous breakdown and swear it was caused by his/her being overworked. I suggest that a close examination will reveal that there were a plethora of problems that led to the final, actual diagnosis. Family problems, money problems, competitive colleagues all have caused a loss of attention to detail that has resulted in lagging performance on the job. Is this "burnout"? I propose that it is most often a reflection of terrible management and not the individuals failure to survive.
Another major cause of what we love to term as "burnout" is also an indicator of one of the best preventatives that an astute manager can apply to this problem. "Burnout" is often used as the reason an employee begins to produce unsatisfactory results or less output. I would like you to reflect on your own careers. Few of us can say that we haven't gone through periods where we are less than satisfied with our output. So, what is the real problem? It's really rather simple. The employee is feeling that his/her efforts are yielding no significant results. This is quite common with employees that have been within the system long enough to make day to day operations a matter of routine. As they sense less and less challenge to excel and an inability to demonstrate their worth they begin to take less and less interest in the quality and quantity of their efforts.
We quickly pigeonhole these employees, expressing it by saying they are "burned out". Managers begin to seek other, more motivated, workers to recognize and to assign to remedy problems within the organization. Can anyone see the inevitable result? The worker who, at one time, was one of the best but has "burned out" is now relegated to a "window seat" within the organization. He/she no longer has any stake in the growth of the organization or influence over the policies and procedures. Why should he/she bother to be productive or produce an exceptional product? Couple this with the effect it is having on his attitude at home and among his colleagues and we have just guaranteed erratic behavior and a potential "breakdown".
What is the solution? Well, its two fold. There is the individual remedy and the organizational or management remedy. The individual who recognizes the symptoms can become involved with other stimulating and challenging activities, begin Quixotic escapades within the organization, or, like those who walked away from Omelas, they can simply depart. This is personal and we won't address those personal choices at this time. The management or organizational corrections are simple but critical to long range productivity within any organization. Without these remedies being applied and a constant review to see the need organizations place themselves in a perpetual cycle of short term/start-stop policies and procedures. By allowing qualified workers (most burnouts occur among exceptional employees) to "burnout" we lose continuity of effort and the advantage of experience. As a result we often make the same mistakes over and over as newly ordained workers replace the "burnouts" in the boardroom. In order to correct this problem management must first approach EVERY case of a decrease in worker productivity or quality of effort as though it is a potential "burnout" issue. This is critical because the management is responsible to maximize the employees efforts. Secondly, management must begin reincorporating the "burned out" employee into the decision making process. Understand, that this doesn't mean the employee will instantly respond. They have withdrawn and must feel you are sincere and not "throwing the dog a bone". Often the bridging effort might include a non-related assignment where the worker has some control and supervisory responsibility. Depending upon the budgetary concerns, it often helps to assign an assistant or internship to the individual to allow them to feel their experience is respected and needed.
Ultimately, "burn-out" is a symptom of organizational deterioration. It reflects a management style that is:
1. focused on the short term.
2. Hesitant to take the steps necessary to return productive workers to the team.
3. Unaware of their responsibility for the "burn out" effect. and
4. Willing to accept "burn out" as a given terminal disease.
Sadly, this leads to a reduced productivity of the organizational team as a whole and leaves the manager as an island amongst a constantly fluctuating and evolving whirlpool of flotsam with no consistent direction.
I hope I have given you something to think about the nest time you work with or have an employee who was once the shining star and is now considered, "burned out".