Recognizing, Preventing Employee Burnout

It’s rare these days to pick up a newspaper and not read something about an entertainer being hospitalized for exhaustion. Yet a review of the table of contents, index and symptom/diagnosis charts in the standard medical reference books makes one realize that there is no disease or illness actually named exhaustion.

So why are so many entertainers and thousands of regular people hospitalized for something that doesn’t even exist? Exhaustion actually exists, but since it is generally a combination of a number of different symptoms, it is difficult to categorize. 

While entertainers are prone to exhaustion, business people are too. “Some people are natural people pleasers and will end up emotionally exhausted because they feel compelled to take on more and more work,” observes John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., founder and director of the Center for Professional Wellbeing in Durham, N.C. “It is very easy for organizations to take advantage of people like this.” 

Pfifferling worked with one woman — a chief operating officer — who resigned from her job due to emotional exhaustion and is taking six months off to recover. “The company had just put more and more on her, and she had continued to take it all on,” he notes. Since she wasn’t assertive enough to say no, the organization was only too happy to keep piling the work on. 

One reason she continued to take on more work was that no one ever took the time to thank her or show their appreciation, so she never felt she was doing enough. As such, she felt compelled to continue to take on more work, hoping that someday she would be doing enough for the organization to show its appreciation. “Finally, she couldn’t handle any more,” Pfifferling says. “When she finally resigned, she was told the organization would be hiring four people to replace her.”

Emotional exhaustion is an element of a common problem that most people know as “burnout,” which includes three elements. The first is depersonalization. This involves feeling disconnected from other people and feeling the need to get away from them as much as possible. It also involves responding impersonally to others.

The second element is personal accomplishments. This involves a fear that you are failing and have few or no positive feelings about your accomplishments. The third element is emotional exhaustion. This is the most studied and common aspect of burnout. It is a feeling that you are completely drained, either by work demands or other people, or both. You are so emotionally tired that you may even lose control of your emotions. 

Emotional exhaustion leads to a number of problems including physical issues such as having no energy, suffering from insomnia, gastrointestinal problems and other ailments. Emotional side effects include experiencing sadness or depression, negativity, and/or increased cynicism.

The intellectual effects of burnout include suffering from decreased creativity and/or reduced ability to concentrate. Social effects include becoming quicker to anger, becoming defensive or edgy, blaming others and experiencing a sense of depersonalization.

Greg Jantz, Ph.D., director of The Center for Counseling & Health Resources in Edmonds, Wash., has worked with executives and other businesspeople from around the country for more than 20 years. They come to the center for multiweek “intensives” that involve healthcare, nutrition, counseling and other wellness initiatives. 

Jantz cites additional results of emotional exhaustion. “One danger of reaching emotional exhaustion is that some people may turn to unhealthy outlets such as alcohol, drugs or other forms of addiction,” he says. “Another problem is that if you don’t get help, you start making poor decisions at work.”

Why we get exhausted
There is a belief that in a pressure-cooker environment, everyone will experience emotional exhaustion. Certainly, this may be true, but the important point is to understand that the response to stress is largely an individual issue. That is, some people are more prone to emotional exhaustion than others. This can end up being good news, because rather than having to sit back and wait for something external to change, you make change for yourself.

Philip Chard, president and CEO of NEAS Inc., a consulting firm in Waukesha, Wis., identifies two types of people who are prone to emotional exhaustion. “One group includes individuals who are task-focused and want to be productive, have problems when they don’t succeed, have a high need for constant order, and are either-or types, where everything has to be right or wrong, black or white, or good and bad,” Chard says. In other words, these are people who struggle to maintain control, or become disordered or ambiguous.

Another group includes individuals who overextend themselves. These are people who pour too much of themselves into their jobs, especially with customers, co-workers and employees. “These are giving people, and they can experience exhaustion if they feel other people don’t appreciate what they’re giving, or when they feel they’re expected to give too much,” Chard adds.

Executives in particular can be more prone to emotional exhaustion because of the isolation they experience. “They often don’t have anyone else to talk to about what they’re going through,” Pfifferling explains.

Often compounding the problem is feeling responsible for subordinates. “Let’s say you are in charge of several people, but you also find yourself in the mentoring role for one or more of these people,” explains Ronald Downey, Ph.D., a professor in the psychology department at Kansas State University. “As such, these people are not only coming to you with work-related problems, but also with personal problems.”

Prevention is key
Certainly, if suffering from emotional exhaustion, it is important to recover. However, it makes more sense to prevent emotional exhaustion before falling victim to it in the first place.

“The first step is to realize that the key to success in business is to be able to run a marathon, not a sprint,” Jantz emphasizes. “A marathon requires good self care. This involves diet, exercise, sleep, and not taking on more work than you can handle.” Marathoners constantly refuel themselves. If they don’t, they cramp up and can’t finish the race, according to Jantz.

But don’t refuel by eating at your desk. “The tension from the morning will continue into the afternoon if you eat at your desk,” Downey says. Taking a break and going somewhere else to eat breaks this tension. What about working lunches with colleagues? “If you go somewhere else to eat, this may not be a problem.” However, he adds, “Don’t do this every day.”

One of the most effective ways to stave off emotional exhaustion is to monitor yourself to determine when you’re getting close. “Many people realize they’re getting close to emotional exhaustion or burnout, yet they keep going,” Jantz notes. “Finally, they cross an invisible line where they crash. They wake up one morning and suddenly realize they just can’t handle any more.” 

You might have a strong belief that prevents you from slowing down and taking care of yourself, regardless of how close you are to total exhaustion. The reason could be how one deals with the pride and ego that get in the way of being willing to admit that you can’t continue to do everything.