Burnout is one of the hottest organizational topics (sorry about the pun). What causes it? More importantly what can you do to prevent it?

According to New York psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, PhD., who coined the term, burnout is a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by excessive devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that fails to produce the expected reward. Put more simply, it’s what happens when you work flat out and find you’re getting nothing back to make all that effort worthwhile. Hard work itself isn’t the problem; many people work extremely hard—top athletes for example—and do it willingly because it allows them to enjoy success and fame. It’s the combination of unrelenting hard work and limited (or no) reward that brings people to their knees.

Symptoms of Burnout
The onset of burnout is usually quite slow. Early symptoms include a sense of emotional and physical exhaustion, followed by feelings of alienation, cynicism, impatience, or negativism. This develops into profound a sense of detachment, with a growing resentment of work and the people who are a part of that work. In the final stages, people insulate themselves to the point they no longer care about much at all. Those who suffer burnout are no longer angry; they’ve stopped even trying; they’ve become so exhausted they’ve lost their capacity for feeling anything beyond numbness. The irony of burnout is that it often happens to the very people who were most enthusiastic and full of energy and new ideas at the start. It’s a problem born of good intention, when people try harder and harder to reach unclear or unrealistic goals and deplete all their energy reserves in the process.

Organizations Are Causing Burnout
People usually think of burnout as an individual problem, maybe due to an excessively demanding schedule, too high a drive for achievement, or an individual boss who expects too much for too long. But organizations cause endemic burnout by imposing impossible targets, faulty structures and poorly defined roles. Burnout starts when people lose their belief objectives are attainable, regardless of how hard they work; when effort and outcome aren’t linked in any rational and understandable way; or when they feel their work is misjudged and they no longer understand clearly what is expected of them.

These are the most common organizational factors leading to burnout:

  • Role Conflict: Someone trying to cope with conflicting responsibilities quickly becomes disheartened. They feel they’re working against themselves. The longer the conflict persists, the less possible it is to achieve anything worthwhile. The result will be the feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion associated with burnout.
  • Role Ambiguity: It’s impossible to do a good job if you don’t know clearly what’s expected of you and your role; or if your understanding of the job isn’t the same as the one held by your boss. It’s even worse if neither boss nor subordinate is aware of the problem. Each thinks the other sees the role as they do. The boss sees lack of progress as incompetence. The subordinate sees the boss’s judgment as arbitrary and unfair. As a result, neither is capable of accomplishing anything worthwhile.
  • Role Overload: A major cause of burnout is faulty performance expectations. Often the boss doesn’t bother to understand the subordinate’s abilities or circumstances, so adds extra responsibilities in the belief they can be easily handled . Or there’s a boss (or an individual) who can’t say no and so keeps taking on more responsibility. Tasks then pile up to the point where dealing with them becomes impossible. Many jobs have long since lost any resemblance to what’s set down in the job description; and it’s surprising how often neither the boss nor the subordinate is able to provide a clear rationale for current workload and expectations. When this happens, the only possible results are resentment, frustration and either burnout or an acrimonious parting.

If you’re starting to experience any of the symptoms of burnout, the first priority is to slow down and take a long, objective look at your working life and what’s causing the problem. Here are some postings that can help:

Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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