Research Paper By Francis Sankey
(Transitional Coach, UNITED STATES)
Disclaimer: anyone who is having feelings or behaviors as described in this paper should seek professional assistance. While coaching is beneficial to many, it is no substitute for psychiatry, psychology or therapy. Moreover, please inform your therapist if you plan to seek professional coaching in order to have your coach act as a part of your treatment regimen.
In a 2014 article written in the Financial Times, Dr. Mark Winwood stated People have been living on adrenalin for the past few years… [a]fter a long time running on empty, all of a sudden they become very, very unwell.
It has a name: burnout. The article goes on to describe a number of competitive, self-critical, perfectionist type A personalities displaying physical warning signs of moving more slowly and changes in weight; having unexplained aches and pains, such as back aches, headaches, and shoulder pain; ceasing to look after themselves, their hygiene deteriorating and they may stop caring about how they look; no longer showing up for social engagements; no longer find pleasure in hobbies they used to enjoy; and at the extreme end considering self-harm or suicide. There is a sense of priority confusion where the priority of work overwhelms everything else and you need to achieve perfectionism in your work, Dr Winwood says.
This may sound familiar to you. Whether you are a corporate executive, in a medical profession, in a helping profession (ranging from nurse to social worker, to teacher, to minister), or even a long term student working on a Masters or PhD, the chronic or long-term stresses related to the everyday task in all of these positions, and the possible inability to make long term changes in short time can lead directly to the feelings of stress, depression and burnout described above. The good news is, with some outside, professional help, the feelings of burnout can be successfully dealt with and managed long-term.
To begin, some definitions:
In psychological terms, stress is defined as the feeling of strain and pressure. The strain could be from either external sources or internal perceptions causing anxiety, fear, anger, depression, or other “negative” emotions. This pressure can be either positive or negative. Small amounts of stress may be desired, beneficial, and even healthy. Positive stress, in small amounts or at consistent intervals, can assist to improve physical or athletic performance. Small amounts of stress also effect one’s adaptation, motivation, reactions to environmental factors and reactions to others. Excessive amounts of stress, especially over extended periods or elongated, irregular intervals, often lead to problems in the body and psyche that could be harmful. The main reason for feeling stress is due to the belief that one’s resources for coping with obstacles (stimuli, people, situations, etc.) are enough for the demands of the circumstances. When we think the demands being placed on us exceed our ability to cope, we then perceive stress.
 For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to this as distress.
Again, in psychological terms, Burnout refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in the area of interest around the burnout – usually work or employment. Most burnout is usually assumed to be a result of work overload or chronic occupational stress. Burnout is not recognized as a specific disorder in either the DSM or the ICD-10, most likely because of the few specific and significant differences displayed between those suffering from burned out workers and chronically depressed individuals. The most widely used assessment instrument for determining and measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, developed by social psychologists Susan Jackson and Christina Maslach. The Maslach Burnout Inventory operationalizes burnout as a three-dimensional syndrome made up of inefficacy, cynicism, and exhaustion.
Many theories of burnout include negative outcomes related to burnout, including measures of job function(performance, output, etc.), health related outcomes (increases in stress hormones, coronary heart disease, circulatory issues) and mental health problems such as depression. It has been found that patients with chronic burnout have specific cognitive impairments, which should be emphasized in the evaluation of symptoms and treatment regimes.
Finally, in psychological terms depression is defined as a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s behavior, feelings, sense of well being, and thoughts.
According to the DSM-IV, Symptoms of depression include the following:
- Depressed mood (such as feelings of sadness or emptiness)
- Reduced interest in activities that used to be enjoyed, sleep disturbances (either not being able to sleep well or sleeping to much)
- Loss of energy or a significant reduction in energy level
- Difficulty concentrating, holding a conversation, paying attention, or making decisions that used to be made fairly easily
- Suicidal thoughts or intentions.
One important note on depression: it may also be a normal reaction to certain life events (following childbirth, death of loved ones), a symptom of some medical conditions (menopause, diagnosis of cancer, HIV), or a side effect of some drugs (interferon therapy).
Everyone has some level of stress in his or her life; stress is the metric by which we define challenges, and which enables us to grow. Being overstressed is characterized by having “too much” – too much going on, too many demands on your time, too many people you feel answerable to. Burnout is different from both stress and too much stress. Stressed people, and even overstressed people, can still imagine a time when they can get everything back in control, even when they feel like they are smothering under responsibilities. Moreover, they can see a time when, with said control, they’ll feel better. Burnout, on the other hand, is about being beyond that feeling. Being burned out leaves people feeling empty, beyond caring, devoid of motivation. Burnout is not being able to see any hope of positive change in the situation. Burnout is being empty, not just of passion, but of interest. People are usually aware of being under stress, even a lot of stress; People don’t always notice burnout when it is occurring and often not until they are well into it. They look down and the adrenalin tank is on empty. The negative effects of burnout then spill into every area of life: home, family, and social life. It can also cause longer-term changes to your body leaving it more vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.
|Stress vs. Burnout|
|Characterized by over engagement||Characterized by disengagement|
|Emotions are over reactive||Emotions are blunted|
|Produces urgency and hyperactivity||Produces helplessness and hopelessness|
|Loss of energy||Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope|
|Leads to anxiety disorders||Leads to detachment and depression|
|Primary damage is physical||Primary damage is emotional|
|May kill you prematurely||May make life seem not worth living|
|Source: Stress and Burnout in Ministry|
And now, the numbers (as taken from the website www.ourstressfullives.com):
- 54% of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives. (2004)
- 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month. (2009)
- 42% of adults reported that their stress has increased in the past year. (2009)
- 45% of workers report that job insecurity has a significant impact on stress levels. (2004)
- 61% of workers list heavy workloads as a significant impact on stress levels. (2004)
- 25% of workers have taken a mental health day to cope with stress. (2004)
- 54% of workers are concerned about health problems due to stress. (2004)
All of the above statistics related to work stress were reported by surveys conducted by the APA.
- 40% of workers report that their job is "very or extremely" stressful. Survey by Northwestern National Life
- 25% of workers view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. Survey by Northwestern National Live
- 26% of workers report they are "often or very often burned out or stressed by their work". Survey by the Families and Work Institute
- 29% of workers report they feel "quite a bit or extremely stressed at work". Survey by Yale University
- 75% of the general population experiences at least some stress every two weeks. National Health Interview Survey
- According to a 1996 survey conducted by Prevention magazine, 73% of Americans experience great stress on a weekly basis. The Everything Stress Management Book by Eve Adamson, Avon, MA 2002
The coaching connection.
Any CEO asked about why he or she is in business will likely answer with one of the Three S’s: they enjoy making and distributing their particular consumable (SERVICE); they do it for the money (SALES); they do it for the feeling they get from the positive feedback the product brings (SATISFACTION). All of these are threatened by the loss of productivity associated with employees suffering from burnout. In a 2011 article in the Financial Times, Jeremy Lemer wrote: An inability to handle the pressure will manifest itself in many different ways: people lose their temper, they struggle to focus and perform poorly, says one leading executive recruiter who has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies. There is no question that it is part of the reason many chief executives are let go. It is just not often vocalized.
This type of emotional upheaval is damaging everywhere along the production and distribution chain. It affects everything from company morale to production to customer relations to employee retention. The average tenure of a global chief executive has dropped from 8.1 years to 6.3 years over the past decade, edging turnover up from about 12 per cent in 2000 to about 14.3 per cent in 2009. Whether this stems from overstress, burnout, or a mood disorder is moot to the company who now has more responsibilities to redistribute over the remaining employees.
Many (if not most) companies have some manner of employee assistance program, either in-house or contracted out, to help employees with stress related issues and maintaining some kind of work-life balance. While coaching is seen as highly beneficial to the executive on the rise to focus and clarify his or her vision, it can also be a boon to those employees, from the corner office to the mailroom, who are struggling to maintain that work-life balance.
Of course, there remain the issues around having employees who are aware they need assistance in this area and who are willing to accept some level of help. Executive burnout is rarely discussed in the corporate world, where working a 120-hour week on minimal sleep is still – despite companies’ pronouncements on the importance of work-life balance – seen as an impressive sign of endurance. But the phenomenon is more common than employers admit Lemer writes. Moreover, there is often the stigma of looking weak for needing help that has to be dealt with. There is a sense of priority confusion where the priority of work overwhelms everything else and you need to achieve perfectionism in your work,
Wallace writes. These are only a few of the visible signs of a possible problem. Others include:
|▪ Change in appetite or sleep habits|
|▪ Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment|
|▪ Detachment, feeling alone in the world|
|▪ Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated|
|▪ Feeling tired and drained most of the time|
|▪ Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches|
|▪ Increasingly cynical and negative outlook|
|▪ Isolating yourself from others|
|▪ Loss of motivation|
|▪ Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot|
|▪ Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done|
|▪ Sense of failure and self-doubt|
|▪ Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early|
|▪ Taking out your frustrations on others|
|▪ Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope|
|▪ Withdrawing from responsibilities|
Coaching, along with any needed therapies, can assist employees to deal with the impact feelings of burnout can have in their lives. Wallace writes about the mindfulness trainings occurring at the UK Home Office, Google and even construction companies. They also mention setting boundaries. When work stress is becoming too intense, it is a good time to think about establishing boundaries in your work. “Have some time without the BlackBerry, when you are not reachable on the phone,” Dr. Winwood says. Whether a program includes stress management, healthy eating, break times and boundaries, or adopting healthier habits, coaching can augment and help reinforce this new behavior.
In those cases where the burnout is at its most severe, the solutions include what I call the C.A.V.A options:
- Clarify your job duties. Obtain an updated description of your job duties and responsibilities from your boss or Human Resources. Clarify those things that are direct responsibilities. Point out things you’re expected to do that are not part of your job. Possibly gain a little leverage by showing that you’ve been putting in work over and above the parameters of your job.
- Actively address issues. Be proactive in your approach to issues in your workplace, including stress at work. Talk to a supervisor or other superior if you don’t have the authority or resources to solve the problem.
- Vacation. Take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, remove yourself from the situation. Use the time away to reexamine perspective and recharge.
- Ask for new duties. Ask to try something new: a different grade level, a different sales territory, a different unit. Especially if you’ve been doing the exact same work for a long time.
Coaching can assist in any or all of he C.A.V.A. steps, and hopefully allow any employee to retain both his position and the ability to carry out the duties attached to it. If that is not an option, coaching can help bring about the perspective to find a position that is refreshing and uplifting in a new job.
“Stress in the executive suite” http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ad8b1708-1777-11e0-badd-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk#axzz3905AeM6d
“How to recognise signs of impending workplace burnout” http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/64b81d90-a38e-11e3-aa85-00144feab7de.html#axzz3905AeM6d
Bianchi, R., Boffy, C., Hingray, C., Truchot, D., & Laurent, E. (2013). Comparative symptomatology of burnout and depression. Journal of Health Psychology, 18 (6), 782–787.
Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E, & Leiter, M.P. MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996.