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.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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