10 Ways Organizations Create Burnout: An Overview

Symptoms of Stress - Ball

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: 

 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.

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.

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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