It’s been a month since my last blog post – but the reason for this delay was an exciting one. I was given the opportunity to present at a TEDx event on February 19, 2014. My topic? Burnout and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: More Similar Than You Think… Don’t panic – this wasn’t a dry, medical-based presentation!
Over the past 14 years, I’ve been researching and analyzing just what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change. One of the most shocking discoveries was that burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are frighteningly similar.
“Look – I’m like shaking! It still like hits me.” It’s an interesting story how I first made the connection between burnout and PTSD – in fact, it was really the observation of one of the interviewees in my research. This woman was an experienced, articulate executive at a nonprofit organization. As we continued to delve into her burnout experience, she began to have a very difficult time putting her thoughts together and was actually shaking as she described her burnout.
After taking a brief break in the interview, she laughingly compared how she felt with PTSD. Her emotions were still raw and she was actually reliving the experience during the worst stages of her burnout.
The scary thing was that she had left the organization in which she had burned out 20 months prior to our interview.
The similarities between burnout and PTSD. As I delved more into PTSD, I was shocked at its similarities to the burnout symptoms that my participants had identified. Although commonly observed in soldiers’ war-time experiences, my participants’ experiences with very poorly led organizational change initiatives created the same reactions: extreme stress, frustration, fear, and hopelessness. Not only were these the same characteristics, but the extent to which these symptoms were experienced was nearly identical.
Enter the new amendments to the ADA (ADAAA). To the best of my knowledge, burnout has not yet been classified as a form of PTSD. But I am hoping that this will soon change. Under the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA), PTSD is now recognized as a physical disability AND employers must provide reasonable accommodations.
In other words, employers must not only be more understanding of the symptoms of this condition, but must also find ways to adapt the work environment or work schedule in order to ensure that the employee with PTSD can perform the duties and responsibilities of the job. (NOTE: Reasonable accommodations are just that – reasonable adjustments that enable a qualified employee to be able to complete the duties and responsibilities of the job.)
If burnout would be considered as a form of PTSD, then the protections afforded to workers under ADAAA would be triggered.
Just think what it would mean if employers were required by law to acknowledge the presence of employee burnout AND provide adjustments to the employee’s work environment:
- Additional time would be provided for projects – in fact, it would mean that unreasonable time frames might be abandoned.
- Vacations would be encouraged – employees would actually use their time off and disconnect from the workplace without fear of reprisal.
- Stress-invoking situations would be identified and avoided or mitigated – this would be a major shift from” management by control” to “leadership by inspiration.”
- The 24/7, 110% mentality would be overturned – employers would need to remember the “humanity” in their human resources.
But isn’t burnout a “natural” part of the modern workplace? Some of you might be laughing at this point: after all, isn’t burnout a “given” in today’s hypercompetitive, 24/7 world?
Even though burnout is in epidemic proportions in the workforce, I firmly believe that it is not a “given” and unavoidable workplace condition. The physical and psychological manifestations of burnout have far-reaching consequences and cannot be denied. Neither can their eerie similarity with the symptoms of PTSD.
Just as important is the fact that a burned out workforce tends to be an indicator of the overall health and well-being of the organization itself. Companies with burned out workers tend to experience high turnover, productivity issues, customer complaints, and a reactive (“me too!”) attitude toward innovation.
Burnout, therefore, is not just the problem of a single employee. It is a powerful indicator of a company that is in trouble.
We human beings are not replaceable robots with on/off switches. We have an incredible capacity for commitment and creativity – but we also have the very real need for respite and recognition. We simply aren’t wired to give 110% 24/7 indefinitely. Let’s hope that the ADAAA will remind employers of this. Let’s further hope that companies start putting the “human” back in human resources.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is a change management and HR consultant. A popular speaker at regional and national conferences, she can be reached at gpuleo@ChangeWithoutBurnout.com.