Six Arguments for the Existence of Burnout

A recent blog considered questions about the existence of burnout. Despite decades of research evidence tracking the syndrome and its impact, some dismiss it as reflecting laziness or malingering. The logic of the naysayers implies that people should be able to endure any work situation. Following are six points that challenge that assumption.

  1. 1. Managers can be unreasonable. Without a thorough, valid workload analysis coupled with the discipline to follow it, managers don’t really know how much demand each employee can handle. A lot of workload demand proceeds by trial and error. If employees go for a long time without voicing complaints, they may be seriously compromised before the problem becomes evident.
  2. 2. People put up with a lot. Although some do complain a lot, many people quietly go about doing their best. They believe they should be able to keep up with demand and may fear dire consequences of lagging. They may be quite worn out before problems become apparent.
  3. 3. People are finite. People have a limited amount of time, energy, and ability. Although people vary quite a bit on what they can bring to a job, everyone has a limit. In emergencies, people can temporarily over-extend themselves, but doing so incurs an energy debt to be settled with additional rest and recovery. A work situation that chronically overextends employees’ capacity will drive burnout.
  4. 4. Managers make mistakes. At every level of an organization, managers make bad decisions some of the time. Some managers make a lot of bad decisions. Even the best are fallible. A lot of these decisions affect the worklife of employees. Shaping employees’ experiences and performance at work is what managers do. Hopefully, that impact is for the better, but sometimes it is for the worse.
  5. 5. Management decisions affect employees’ energy, involvement, and efficacy. Some people are entirely inner-directed. They ignore their surroundings while working away on projects. Most people, however, respond to their management environment. Excellent management can nudge them towards engagement; poor management will nudge them towards burnout.
  6. 6. Resilience cannot last forever. Even the most experienced and resilient employees can become exasperated with poorly managed operations. Those less tolerant of setbacks will start to unravel much sooner. Expecting employees to tough it out during hard times is an unenlightened management strategy.

Managers make a difference in employees’ experience of worklife. Having the capacity to inspire greater engagement brings with it the capacity to create distress.

The logical question now is what can managers do to prevent burnout. What do you think?

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