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.

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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