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Jenny Rough, The Washington Post:

Ninety-five percent of human resource leaders say burnout is sabotaging workplace retention, often because of overly heavy workloads, one survey found. Poor management contributes to the burnout epidemic.

“Organizations typically reward employees who are putting in longer hours and replace workers who aren’t taking on an increased workload, which is a systematic problem that causes burnout in the first place,” says Dan Schawbel, research director of Future Workplace, the firm that conducted the survey along with Kronos.

Burnout is a term easily tossed around, the way somebody might claim to be starving when they’re simply hungry, or freezing when cold. That’s harmless if a person is describing a tired day or week. But somebody who is actually burned out should be prepared to take serious action because it’s a condition that needs attention.

Amelia Nagoski was juggling the demands of a doctoral program when she experienced such severe abdominal pain she was hospitalized. Doctors concluded it was “just stress” and told her to relax. Turns out, she had stress-induced inflammation from burnout.

Part of the difficulty of pinpointing true burnout may be because burnout is a nonmedical term — at least in the United States. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t list it as an illness. But other countries including France, Denmark and Sweden, do recognize burnout syndrome and consider it to be a legitimate reason to take a sick day from work.

Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors, the Nagoskis say in their book. It’s important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Stress, on the other hand, “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter [stressors],” the Nagoskis write.

To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. They must allow their body to complete its stress response cycle. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors.

Davis-Laack practiced commercial real estate law before the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The fast-paced environment gave her a constant adrenaline high as she closed deals and kept so busy that she barely left time to grab a handful of peanuts for lunch. Her frequent headaches, stomach aches and colds threatened to drag her down, but no doctor could give her a diagnosis.

One day, drafting a document in her office, she says she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She bolted out of her chair and raced to a nearby health clinic. “Help me!” she gasped. She was having a panic attack. After two more medical crises landed her in the emergency room, she feared a mental or physical collapse if she kept going. She decided to walk away from the law.

“It was like a 50,000-pound weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

Davis-Laack traces the beginning of her burnout back to her teenage years.

“There were a lot of messages to be a high achiever,” she says. “Those check-the-box matrix measurements were important to me. I internalized them.”

The messages took an even stronger hold once she started working.

She returned to graduate school to study well-being, the effects of stress and their effect on the workplace. In 2013, she opened the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute in Wisconsin. She now teaches workshops on burnout.

For those who suspect they might be on the road to burnout, there are practical tools to mitigate it. Among others: physical exercise, sleep and positive social connection (the real kind, not the Facebook kind).

“There’s nothing fancy about what it would take to turn things around,” says Ziegler, the “Mommy Burnout” author. “But it’s a huge shift in the cultural mind-set. That’s the challenge.”

Paul Ciano

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