A New Way to Work

Success and change without burnout by Dr. Geri Puleo

Archive for the month “January, 2014”

10 Ways Organizations Create Burnout: An Overview

It has been well documented that 70% of change initiatives fail.  While numerous reasons exist for these failures, I am convinced that it is primarily because many of the employees – whether they are change leaders or change “targets” – are frustrated, angry, apathetic, and burned out.

While many managers believe that it is the employee’s fault that he/she is burned out, there is an increasing body of research that argues the important role that organizations play in the creation and continuation of burnout.  My own research over the past 12 years supports this conclusion.  Too often, we focus on the individual when we should also be focusing on the environment in which that individual must work.

My Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short) found that employees who burn out tend to go through a series of stages.  They move from feeling hopeful about the changes to eventually becoming frustrated.  Because they are thwarted in their attempts to do their jobs, they then become angry.  In order to control their anger and gain some control over what is happening, they revert into apathy.  But this lack of caring only builds the stress because it contradicts their normal way of working.  Eventually feelings escalate into the über stress known as “burnout.”

As I mentioned last week in Warning Symptoms of Burnout:  6 Symptoms That I Didn’t Ignore, burnout continues because each time you try to deal with your physical and emotional symptoms, something happens in the organization that adds fuel to the fire.  Thus, burnout continues to sizzle until – as one of my participants so aptly described it – you become “crispy.”

So what are these organizational factors that all but guarantee that workers will burn out?  What takes an employee from a hopeful contributor to an apathetic, burned out shell?

BDOC - Organizational Factors

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

Out of the 10 factors in this figure, how do you think that they rank in their ability to cause or maintain employee burnout?  Take a minute and rank them based on your own observations or experiences.

Did you think that it was workload?  That’s what I originally thought – so the results of my research were not only surprising, but also quite enlightening.

Based on the frequency of organizational factors that contributed to employee burnout, this is the Top 10 List of Organizational Factors Leading to Burnout: 

1.       Poor leadership:  The #1 mistake that companies make when trying to introduce organizational change is having inadequate change leaders – particularly when they provide little support and simply tell employees to “make it happen” regardless of the emotional and physical cost.

2.       Lack of caring by the organization:  When the poor leadership is pervasive, burned out workers tend to believe that the organization as a whole neither acknowledges nor helps them to deal with the stressful changes occurring around them.  The psychological contract binding employee and employer begins to unravel, leading to frustration, anger, apathy, and burnout.

3.       Role of other employees:  Negativity by coworkers tends to spread like a virus throughout the workplace – it can even minimize the good relationships and camaraderie that you have with a few close colleagues.

4.       Politics or sabotage:  Experienced by over 50% of the participants in my study, burnout often occurs when actions by the organization are perceived as deceitful or giving unfair or preferential treatment – add malicious gossip throughout the organization and you have a “perfect storm” for burnout.

5.       Lack of organizational resources:  Surprisingly, this was more acutely felt by the change targets rather than the change leaders – so what does this tell you about the importance of front line managers in creating and sustaining organizational change?  It’s also related to poor leadership and a perceived lack of organizational caring.

6.       Over-emphasis on return on investment (ROI):  Those infamous cutbacks to reduce expenses in order to bolster the bottom line – closely related to perceptions of the organization’s lack of caring (#2 above).

7.       Work overload:  Are you surprised that this came in near the bottom?  Remember, most people who burn out during organizational change started out with high hopes – they were known as the “can do” workers before they burned out.  Many initially refuse to admit just how much work they are required to complete until they realize that they’ve burned out.

8.       Poor communication:  This was a huge stress inducer for women, but over 64% of my participants (male and female) just wanted to know WHY and HOW the changes were going to take place.  “Surprises” were generally viewed negatively.

9.       Unethical or illegal requests:  Since many organizational changes are reactions to decreased share in the marketplace, requests to “cut corners” in ways that don’t align with employees’ sense of values are far too common – even if civil or criminal penalties could result.

10.   No vision or direction by change leaders:  Despite the constant reminders by change management consultants, over 35% of workers who burned out during organizational change were uncertain about both the end goal and the way to achieve it.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel – or, if there is, it might be a train coming our way!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing my own personal experience with each of these organizational mistakes that were made during the change initiative at a university where I had started teaching full-time.  It was fascinating – although extremely stressful to experience – how each of these errors built upon and reinforced each other.  Recovering from burnout required that I not only identified what was happening, but also developed reasons as to why a company would make these mistakes.  As I’ve said before, I thought it was a job, but the experience turned out to be research.

Warning Signs of Burnout: 6 Symptoms That I Didn’t Ignore

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I inadvertently became a participant or statistic in my on-going research into what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  The situation:  I was a new full-time faculty member at a university that was attempting to transform itself and I had no control over the constantly changing expectations that were being demanded of me.

Last week I posted my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short).  Unlike most participants whom I interviewed as part of my research, I did not “suddenly” realize that something was very wrong.  Instead, I was acutely aware that I was exhibiting some of the various symptoms (or warning signs) of burnout.  These are the Top 6 symptoms that can occur at any stage in the cycle — from frustration and anger to a full burnout:

BDOC - Manifestations-Warning Signs

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

Like most people who burned out, I displayed all of these symptoms at one point or another during my descent into burnout.  It’s fortunate that I experienced them in varying degrees and at different times — otherwise I would have been totally incapacitated if all of these symptoms were simultaneously present!  (Warning:  When all 6 burnout symptoms are present in a high degree, people literally shut down as a form of self-preservation.)

  1. Decreased accomplishment.  I’ll admit it:  I’m an over-achiever and I’ve always loved what I do.  I had earned accolades for my teaching when I was an adjunct at this university, yet I was put on a performance improvement plan as soon as I was hired for not meeting requirements that I knew absolutely nothing about.  (Lack of knowledge was not considered to be a defense.)  Even though I was still getting positive feedback from students, it was taking me longer to get things done (probably due to second-guessing myself) and I was not permitted to be creative in order to make sure that my students grasped the material.  (Warning:  50% of my participants were disciplined when they were burned out based on their inability to meet known or even unknown performance standards.)
  2. Physical.  Because I was literally working 7 days per week to teach +100 students each quarter, I was exhausted.  I did not have a day off for over a year.  While some burned out workers sleep all the time, others (like me) wake up every 1-2 hours, every night, for weeks (even months) on end.  It wasn’t surprising that I was diagnosed with a very bad case of swine flu (yep, swine flu) that lasted over one month – and I was still working 7 days per week!  (Warning:  A study by Taris, Geurts, et al., 2008, found that working long hours will not necessarily trigger health problems unless the individual is unable to detach from work.)
  3. Transfer to personal life.  I just wasn’t “me” any more – and I knew it.  I’ve always cared passionately about what I do and I’ve always had high (but achievable) goals and standards.  Conversations with friends turned into gripe sessions about work.  I had become boring and felt like a cog in a wheel.  Positive goals and an easy sense of humor were replaced with frustration, anger, and a sense of futility.  (Warning:  Losing your sense of humor is a very common symptom of burnout and was seen in over 50% of the participants in my research.)
  4. Grief and loss.  After finishing my Ph.D., I was excited to move from an adjunct to full-time faculty role and had high hopes for my ability to contribute to enhancing the students’ experience at the university.  Instead, I was micromanaged and I hated losing the sense of control over my own life.  I was warned to not “rock the boat.”  In other words, do what I was told and quit caring about the quality; if not, I would be another former employee.  Since I have always owned my own consulting practice, fear of job loss was a new feeling for me.  (Warning:  Fear of job loss is more common in women who are burning out than men – 70% compared to only 20%.)
  5. Psychological.  “Just do it” was not an inspirational Nike slogan, but was a warning to do what was asked without question – or risk losing your job.  Plus there was intense micromanaging of every nuance in teaching.  Eventually I was forced to take actions that I felt were not only not in the best interests of my students, but also conflicted with my value system.  (Warning:  Surface acting requires the individual to deny their authentic feelings and is a common symptom of burnout.)
  6. Alienation or isolation.  This is probably the toughest part for anyone who has ever burned out.  My colleagues had given up on trying to make things better and, because they no longer cared, advised me to also quit caring.  The problem was that I did care.  Going through the motions, putting on a noticeably fake smile, or feigning concern about the student’s welfare were actions that violated my core values.  Because I didn’t fit in, my only recourse was to psychologically withdraw.  (Warning:  64.3% of burned out workers report feeling alienated or isolated during organizational change.)

You’re probably wondering why I just didn’t stop the downward spiral into burnout.  This is where I became a participant in my own study:  I discovered the powerful potency of the interplay between an individual’s personality, the organizational environment, and physiological manifestations of burnout.  As you attempt to resolve one area of this Burnout Triumvirate, another area surges in urgency and causes you to continually redirect your focus.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing specific things that organizations do to create and maintain burnout in their employees during organizational change.

© 2014 G. A. Puleo

Spiraling Downward: The Path to Burnout During Organizational Change

As I mentioned last week, I inadvertently became a case study over the last year in my on-going research into what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  Even though I had worked as an adjunct prior to accepting a full-time faculty position at this university, I was unprepared for the radical difference in expectations required to teach there.  Coupled with constantly changing requirements and standards set by the university, I felt like I had absolutely no control over what I taught, how I taught, or even where I taught.

As a high achiever, I consequently have high standards – but these standards could not be met even by working 7 days a week, 50-60 hours per week, and constantly thinking about what still had to be done even when I wasn’t working.  Is it any surprise that I felt burned out?

In 2011, based on extensive research and interviews with burned out workers, I created the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC ,for short) to help understand what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  This is what burnout “looks like” – and I proved it in my own experience:

BDOC Model

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

As you can see from this model, the path to burnout tends to be much steeper and quicker than the journey to overcome it.  Although nobody takes a job with the intention of burning out, workers who burn out during organizational change initiatives tend to follow this same pattern.

  • Ironically, burnout begins with hope.  It’s a new job, a new adventure, and a chance to learn new things.  But, probably more than anything else, the job is often seen as a chance to make a difference.
  • I found both in my research and my own experience that a variety of organizational factors leads to frustration in what were originally hopeful and committed workers.  (More about these specific organizational factors in a later post.)
  • As the environment continues to undermine or thwart the employee’s actions to do their jobs well, it’s not surprising that anger (either expressed or internalized) emerges.
  • Since being angry is not a good way to live your life, my participants and I both eventually quit caring – but apathy is the immediate predecessor to burnout.  In many ways, no longer caring was literally the only way to survive the stress.
  • The culmination of this downward spiral is burnout.  No matter how burnout was defined by those who experienced it, the results were the same:  the initial hope was extinguished and all that was left were the burnt embers of what was once a committed employee.

How long did this descent take?  About 6 months for change targets like me.  (Since I was a new full-time faculty member, I was not part of the leadership that was planning and directing the continuous changes.)

To overcome the burnout and arise from its smoldering ashes, the #1 strategy used by my participants as well as me was to psychologically remove ourselves from the stressful environment.  We still came to work, we still did our jobs, but we no longer cared passionately about meeting the unreasonable expectations or going the extra mile (because our efforts were not appreciated).

For most of, psychological removal was followed by attempts to physically remove themselves from the workplace.  In my case, a reduction in force changed my status to adjunct – a lot less classes, but a lot less pay.  According to my research, nearly all of my participants (over 90%) eventually left their employers as a result of their burnout (either voluntarily or involuntarily).

These psychological and physical removals represent the darkness before the dawn.  Many burned out workers acknowledged that once they had removed themselves (either psychologically or physically) from their stressful work situations, self-knowledge and acceptance were the unanticipated “gifts” of their burnout.

CAUTION:  The burnout cycle doesn’t end there.  To fully recover from the effects of burnout requires the creation of a personal revised psychological contract with work.  After burning out, people who have taken the time to acknowledge and accept what happened will draw distinct lines in the sand as to what they will and will not do for an employer.  There is a better understanding of what is essential for one’s success on the job.  Perhaps most importantly, the “deal breakers” have become visceral and this emotional context provides a stalwart determination to never tolerate such treatment in future work situations.

I proved my B-DOC theory in my experience as a full-time faculty member at this university.  However, neither I nor any other worker recovering from burnout is “out of the woods” yet:  any situation can trigger residual burnout in which we can rapidly move back into any of the previous stages of descent (frustration, anger, apathy, and even a new round of burnout).

My goal for this year is to move forward and, by sharing my experiences of burnout during transformational organizational change with you, I hope to give you some ideas to move beyond burnout, too.

I Thought It Was a Job…But It Turned Out to Be Research

Shocked manIt’s been a long time since I posted to this blog.  I had accepted a full-time faculty position shortly after my last post, but never thought that the workload would literally overtake my waking hours.  Even though I have taught business and HR classes at universities for over 12 years and have always loved the experience, this wasn’t anything that I had anticipated.  In fact, I inadvertently proved my theory on what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change!

My Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short) was based on extensive interviewing and research of employees who had burned out when their organizations were attempting to create transformational change.  I found important differences in not only the way in which these workers burned out, but also when they started on burnout’s downward spiral.  These are the 3 basic burnout-creating categories (what I call the Burnout Triumvirate – or Triple Whammy):

  1. The individual’s personality and expectations
  2. Organizational factors that were outside of the employee’s control
  3. The physical malaises that emerged as a result of these high levels of stress

I also discovered that change leaders burned out at a much slower rate than the change targets (those workers who could not control the changes that they were required to make).  Here are the time frames that I found:

  • Change leaders usually felt burned out after approximately 1 to 2 years from the launch of the change initiative.
  • In sharp contrast, the change targets burned out within 6 months of the start of these changes.

That’s a big difference.  Since I was only a faculty member and not in a university leadership position, I too burned out right on schedule at the 6-month mark.

I also found that women tended to burn out much more quickly than men.  Once again, I proved my findings by burning out in less than 6 months.

However, one important finding in my initial research was not supported by my experience:  I did not deny my symptoms.  (My research found that over 35% of workers initially denied that they were beginning to burn out.)  Maybe that’s because I’ve been researching burnout during organizational change for over 10 years…

Fortunately, I am no longer involved with this university as a full-time faculty member.  However, I think that my experience is very important in fully understanding the burnout phenomenon that is (in my humble opinion) taking over American workforces and consequently leading to poor organizational performance.

It is said that writing about your experience is the best way to fully understand it.  If you’ve also been burned out, come with me and follow my journey as I talk about how I descended into and eventually arose from the ashes of burnout. Perhaps I can give you some ideas so that you, too, can once again take control of your life.

Here’s to a GREAT new year!

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