How To Prevent Burnout

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

Burnout in the workplace and what to do about it.

Why do your employees go home from work with a headache, stiff neck, sore back and so tired they don’t have any energy? Why is it your employees seem to be sick and late so often and unable or unwilling to work as efficiently as they once did?

If your people haven't been partying like a bunch of sailors on an overdue shore leave, it is probable that they are suffering from stress and are in danger of burning out. Unfortunately, stress has become the common ailment of the '80s and it is affecting everyone. The problem is so pervasive that almost every major corporation in North America has recognized stress as a normal problem in today’s workplace — one that must be trolled. Medical research has proven the cause and effect relationship between stress and illness, interpersonal difficulties, absenteeism and productivity problems.

In fact, a recent study of California corporations showed the current costs of dealing with stress-induced illnesses have doubled in the last five years. Stress related compensation claims in the U.S. have reached $150 billion a year and are rising as the problem worsens. Stress is not an insignificant problem. It interferes with health, life, and family. As a manager, you know it creates serious and often unforeseen difficulties in relationships and effectiveness with others. So what are you going to do about it?

One approach is to identify stressors (things that cause stress) and eliminate them. Another approach is learning to live with inescapable stressors. While the first course of action has an obvious appeal, it may be difficult to do for your employees, especially if one of the major stressors is you, as their boss. It's also unrealistic since we all need some stress to prevent us from getting bored, falling asleep at the switch or becoming dullards. The rule of thumb here is that some stress is good but too much can kill you.

Employees should realize that even if a job is creating burnout, moving to another position or company wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem or reduce their stress. This is because it is lifestyles as much as jobs that cause stress. We all seem to be pressed for time these days and everyone (even our children) live by a calendar filled with appointments, meetings, deadlines and due dates. We even schedule our time for relaxation and socializing. We all suffer from what one researcher has called hurry up sickness (the fruitless attempt to do more and more in less and less time). Not only are we leading truly busy lives, we are constantly making more and more changes than ever before.

We know that change itself is stressful even if we welcome it. Consider the number of changes we are faced with on a regular basis. A dual career couple will juggle a myriad of role changes in the course of a single day as they switch back and forth among roles: parent, lover, boss, subordinate, home keeper, shopper, cook, handyman, care giver, wage earner, son, daughter, driver, financial advisor, planner, and bill payer. Add to this any extra pressures brought on by a salary cutback, a pro motion or demotion, a layoff, a company merger and any of the expected pressures of marriage, divorce, buying a house, a sick child, aging parents or even a leaking roof and it's no wonder that we feel pressure. Well, if we can't escape stress, how should we learn to live with it? Providing a complete answer to this would be impossible and very stressful, but there are some practical suggestions for relaxation techniques, all involving learning to relax.

It sounds ridiculous but you would be amazed at the number of people who can't relax. They are so stressed and uptight they can't let themselves achieve a restful, rejuvenating state of mind. We've all met people like this. And we may even see ourselves in this category. They are people bored unless they have one important thing to do and one waiting to be started. These people often feel a sense of unease and guilt on vacation. Unable to simply sit on a beach or read a book in the shade, they fill their hours with a mad rush of activities, party’s or sightseeing and wonder why they come home tired. Learning to relax means developing the skill to be able to tune out the rest of the world and achieve a state of restful, peaceful relaxation that allows you to recharge your batteries.

Some techniques can be applied in. five minutes at your desk, some require a peaceful location and more time, but anyone can learn. If you have ever had a massage, you know how good it feels and how relaxed you feel at the end. Try giving yourself a quick, five minute massage. Close your eyes, relax your shoulders and neck muscles. Shrug your shoulders and roll your head around a few times to lessen built up tension. Rub your hands together rapidly until they generate some heat, then place your hands on your forehead and let the warmth penetrate. Move your hands over your eyes and rub gently. Do the same with your temples, then your cheeks. Move to your neck and massage the sides and back. Finally, massage one shoulder and then the other. If you take just five minutes to do this and try to relax during it, you will find it will give you a quick pick up and release muscular and mental tensions.

Progressive relaxation is another useful technique. This one takes practice but it is very effective. Choose quite time and get into a comfortable position. Shut your eyes and focus your attention on your muscles and the tension in them. Experience the difference between tension and relaxation by tightening your fist and one arm and then relaxing. The more you are aware of the tension, the easier it is to control it. Simply tense and relax your muscles starting with your feet. Work slowly toward your head, taking about 20 minutes to complete. You should be completely relaxed. If you have trouble getting to sleep, this exercise should work by the time you get to your neck.

Other techniques include meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis and something Peter Hanson (author of The Joy of Stress) calls the power nap. The power nap is a refinement of the progressive relaxation process but with practice, it can be applied in the midst of your daily working schedule or during any free time. There are many aids and resources you may find useful. The public library will have several good books on stress reduction and your local bookstore will carry a selection of self-help books as well as a variety of cassette tapes to help you learn and apply these and other techniques. And rather than leaving it up to individuals to reduce their stress, many organizations are sponsoring onsite seminars and workshops. Some are sending employees to take public courses. Whatever approach you may choose, reducing stress and learning to handle it will lead to a richer, healthier and happier life.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.