Friday, December 15, 2020

Understanding Burnout (Part 2)

Macho Management is a Major Culprit

This is part 2 of a three-part posting on burnout. Part 1 was posted yesterday. Today’s segment looks at how poor management practices make the likelihood of burnout greater. The final segment, to be published on Monday, will turn to ways of dealing with potential burnout, wherever you may be on the burnout curve.

What indicates burnout best is a feeling of inner emptiness: a sense that work no longer matters because success is impossible to achieve, not that getting there is too hard or laborious. When people start to feel that there is no correlation between effort put in and satisfaction gained as a result, they are well down the path towards suffering true burnout.

Unfortunately, many aspects of modern management styles—especially Hamburger Management—are particularly likely to induce such feelings. Here are some of them:
  • Constantly increasing expectations, coupled with continual cuts in resources. Staffing cuts and continual demands to “do more with less” are all steps along the descending curve of burnout. It’s already becoming common for people to come in to work while sick, or cut short vacations, simply because they cannot face the idea of yet more work piling up in that overflowing in-basket. If you begin to feel that no amount of effort, however superhuman, is ever going to result in emptying the in-basket, even for a day, you’re getting into the burnout zone.

  • Success “rewarded” with higher challenges. When people do finally get a result, and look for some recognition (or even a simple “thank you”) and a chance to rest for a short time, what they get instead is an new set of objectives with still higher demands. The continual escalation of demands swiftly produces a sense that doing well is only going to put you under more pressure—until you cannot handle the extra demands any longer, and so crash and burn.

  • Hard work coupled with limited or no rewards. All the authorities on burnout agree that a prime component is a mismatch between expectation and outcome. People generally expect some reward for increased effort. If this doesn’t materialize, they feel cheated and devalued.

  • No control over your own workload. It used to be that one of the defining characteristics of “professional” work was being trusted to manage your own time and workload. Nowadays, many so-called professional staff are subject to closer supervision and greater controls that even unskilled manual workers were in the past. Not being able to control your own workload induces feelings of helplessness and low self-worth.

  • No time to do work properly. It’s hard to get any sense of satisfaction from work that you know you have had to rush. And if you need to finish as quickly as you possibly can (or quicker), then jump to the next task without a pause, there’s no time to develop any feelings of accomplishment. You are on an accelerating treadmill.

  • Pressure to cut corners and lower quality. The feelings of low job satisfaction are made infinitely worse if you know that the work you just did was skimpy and sub-standard. It doesn’t matter that you also know it wasn’t your fault. Feeling some pride in what you have done is an essential component in job satisfaction.

  • Exhaustion treated as “weakness.” From this point, things start to go downhill very quickly and a critical situation emerges. In World War I, many soldiers suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue or post-traumatic stress syndrome, were court-martialed on charges of cowardice. The term used for their “crime” was “LMF” (Lack of Moral Fiber). Many were shot. The same attitude is around today in more than a few organizations. Anyone admitting to feelings of exhaustion or burnout is told to “shape up” and accused of “not being able to cut it.” The implied, but very obvious, threat is demotion or dismissal. By forcing such people to try yet again or face punishment—even though they are already in dire need of professional help—is callous in the extreme. Organizations that condone this type of behavior by executives have stepped across a moral threshold into evil territory.

  • Demands to compromise ethics. Once an organization has signed a metaphorical pact with the Devil to sell their corporate souls for profit, no dishonesty is out of bounds for long. And since dishonest acts need to involve others, they are forced to play along or face ejection. There is now no sense of pride left an any work done.

  • Growing belief that expectations are impossible. Hopelessness is a major component of burnout. When organizations lose touch with reality, and make foolish claims to shareholders and analysts that the staff then have to make good on—usually in the “good cause” of increasing bonuses and stock options for those at the top—being asked to do the impossible has become the norm. No hope is left.

  • Constant fear of punishment for failure. Organizations that have strayed into territory like this, face the problem of getting people to work under conditions that even those at the top must realize are little short of slavery. The “high fliers” who comply are given huge rewards, plus the promise of joining the select clique at the top who reap 90% of the rewards. For the rest, if lying won’t work (and it usually won’t), the final step is constant punishment for any form of dereliction. That is why some professional firms plan for at least 30-40% turnover annually. Those who cannot be driven any further must be cleared out to make way for new staff, as yet unaccustomed to what they will face.

  • Sense that it will never end. there is an enormous difference between “pulling out all the stops” to deal with a crisis, or achieve some spectacular result, and working in all-out crisis mode on a daily basis. Despair is the final stage in burnout. Believing that your misery will never end is what makes such despair absolute.

In the final part of this series, due on Monday, we’ll look at how to reverse progress down the burnout curve and rescue yourself, or your organization, from a steady descent into corporate Hell.

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impactednurse said...

I work in a busy emergency department which is burning its staff out at an alarming rate right now.

You can read our staff comments on the current situation here:

Your article on understanding burnout sums up our own situation with almost scary accuracy. And I think the hospital executive would do well to examine your "how management worsens the burnout curve"
I will be very interested to read your solutions to these problems.

2:26 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Well, impactEDnurse, what can I say?

First of all, thank you so very, very much for your comment and the link.

As I read the comments on your original posting, I didn't know whether to be utterly furious at the stupidity of bureaucratic systems and crazy priorities, or humbled and amazed by the dedication and resilience of the people who work within them and still manage to help people close to death.

If any thing that I write can assist, even in a tiny way, it will have been worth it. But I fear this level of organizational bungling is probably beyond such understanding as I may have.

Thank you again.

6:06 PM  
Ian Welsh said...

Excellent post, and the curve you put in eerily parallels my personal experience. (I ain't there anymore, thank God.) The exhaustion as personal failure stage particularly resonates as do the levels below that.

11:37 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Ian.

Glad to know that you got yourself back up the curve again.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:47 PM  
Phil M said...

Great posts as always. The curve looked very familiar to me, fortunately I've only gone as far as extreme cynicism and regarding everyone as idiots :-) I start to push back after that.

I did have the misfortune of seeing a very good colleague, and really nice guy, burn out 9 months ago. He emailed on the day a customer delivery was due to say he couldn't make it, and would leave and commit suicide to take responsibility. Fortunately, he was found alive in another prefecture a week later. I still feel really shocked to think of it.

The customer was relatively understanding, they occasionally had had the same thing happen with their staff.

5:51 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Phil. I'm glad that you managed to pull yourself back from the edge,

As you wisely point out, burnout isn't something to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, some organizations still confuse it with wekaness or laziness, and simply tell people to "pull themselves together" or "shape up." That's worse than useless.

It would be so much better if organizational leaders took responsibility for making sure that the conditions that lead to burnout no longer exist within their corporations.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:44 AM  
burntouthacker said...

Thanks for these articles Carmine, it's been helpful for me in reflecting on my current situation. Although as a freelancer, I'm my own manager, so I guess in a lot of respects I have no one to blame but myself :-)

In your last comment, you mention that telling people to "shape up" is the worst thing to do...

I find interesting the correlation between this and clinical depression (from which my wife has suffered) - the worst thing you can tell a depressed person is "stop feeling sorry for yourself" - most of the time they're more than aware that the way they feel is often irrational. My wife used to say that thinking about the reasons she had to NOT be depressed made things worse - I can relate in my current situation, where no matter how often i try to reason with myself, I just can't get past the misplaced sense of futility I feel.

7:30 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Burntouthacker.

I'm glad that these posts have been useful to you, and I hope that — with enough rest and reflection — you manage to get away from your sense of futility soon.

No human being — no creature — is ever futile in this universe. All exist because they exist, just like the stars and constellations. That is enough.

7:43 AM  

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