Psychological burnout in the workplace is a painful, silent crisis receiving inadequate attention from both organizations and individuals. The social stigma of appearing weak prevents victims from speaking up and the need to be seen as virtuous in light of such a debilitating condition keeps organizations (i.e., leaders in control) from accepting blame, much less do anything about it. Despite, and as result of this comorbid “coverup,” everyone both knows what psychological burnout is, and knows a victim of it. This is a very personal affliction. What’s worse? Recovery from psychological burnout is extremely difficult – even with lots of help.

Anecdotal evidence of the increasing problem of burnout at work can be found in my typical day. Lately I’ve been taking an increasing number of calls from self-claimed victims (or near it). And these calls come from individuals both at, and out of, work. It’s clear to me that this is not a simple matter of the binary reality of having or not having work. Those who call “with work" wrestle with the question of whether or not they should quit, and those “without” work struggle with whether or not to finally give up the search for meaningful work. This is evidence of a third brutal truth beyond hushed victims and organizations in denial. No two people experience the stressors that lead to full blown burnout the same way. What one calls stressful to the point of ruin, another claims to be exhilarating. What all calls have in common is a deep and painful sense of lost relevance -- and loneliness.

Naturally, prevention is the best course of action. But for the reasons already mentioned, few (and increasingly fewer) organizations are ready or able to take action before it’s too late. The worse things get, the less willing and able organizations are to reckon with the causes of psychological burnout. The problem is more ominous than the mere absence of some innocuous organization stressors such as employee engagement or basic satisfaction with working conditions. Psychological burnout is squarely on the dark side of organizational behavior.

But the survival instinct is strong, and people experiencing stress will turn to independent means when outside help isn’t available. Too frequently, however, independent action exacerbates the problem causing more stress despite seeming innocent enough. Stress is like quicksand, you don't know how deep it is, it's very difficult to escape, and the struggle to do so can dig you in deeper. Some of these behaviors are actually helpful in the right circumstances but things change under stress. For example, taking time off is an obvious and popular means of reducing stress. The paradox here is that work and the stressors at work don't take a vacation, in fact they actually accumulate over the time when one is experiencing chronic stress. But some "go to" behaviors are clearly dysfunctional in the case of burnout and may create an even worse, vicious cycle, e.g., abusing alcohol.

Here I provide a list of simple behaviors one can take to reduce stress and ward off burnout that a) don’t depend on someone or something else to help and b) pose {little} risk of making things worse. As such, they avoid the complications apparent for stress in the workplace (which may be the same place as home). {Note: Special and significant caution is advised for items 6 and 7 for reasons I will address to follow.}

  1. Smile - Smiling makes people feel happy – even when nobody sees them. In addition, smiling is associated with the psychological trait of “agreeableness” which is associated with success at work. Most beneficial, smiling and its consequences is contagious.
  2. Move around - Movement improves cognitive functioning and re-focuses attention so as to avoid stress.
  3. Clean up – When someone declutters their workspace they may also “declutter their head” by putting away distractions that can cause stress. Cleaning up also demonstrates “conscientiousness,” another trait that, like agreeableness, is associated with high performance, for good reason. Organizing behavior, a component of conscientiousness, serves as a form of non-verbal communication that allows others to know what or where something is when “the organizer” isn’t available (or is taking a vacation).
  4. Exercise – The link between physical fitness and mental fitness is clear and strong, exercise improves self-image and releases high amounts of endorphins. In fact, being physically active improves health as much or more than dieting or even quitting smoking (which is still very harmful).
  5. Meditate – Studies consistently reveal the power of meditation to improve psychological health. Mindfulness is one form of meditation with especially impressive positive results. When combined with physical activity (i.e., exercise) the benefits multiply.
  6. Be with others – People are social animals with a fundamental need to interact. Even passive interaction helps to make people feel better. By interacting with others, individuals build their social network which is probably the number one predictor of well-being. (Caveat – it is not helpful to be around others who similarly are experiencing stress or burnout. This can create exaggerated anxiety that results in one or both becoming even more stressed and at risk of burnout.)
  7. Do someone a favor – People who help others can receive more benefit than the person they’re helping. A simple favor makes the individual useful and builds social relationships. (Again, it’s vitally important that the favor not pertain directly to psychological stress or stressors.)

As the potential for these suggested remedies to allay burnout increases, so does the risk (in terms of likelihood and severity) of unfavorable results. I have listed them by increasing order of potential benefit AND risk. Incremental risk for items 1 through 5 is relatively constant, but the risk spikes for items 6 and 7. Due to the social nature of these two items caution is advised, the risks can outweigh the benefits. A mistake here can create bigger problems not just for one, but for two or more people. Only when properly managed and kept within the scope as defined here can the benefits of behaviors #6 and #7 be realized with minimum negative fallout. Should there be any doubt, these are not advised. Dumping stress on someone else is a burden to even willing receivers who aren't trained as a counselor.

Psychological burnout and the stressors that cause it is a painful and pervasive problem that increasingly is not receiving adequate attention. That said, individuals don’t have to simply “get over it” without any help. The behaviors described here have scientific support for their ability to make a difference in an individual’s experience and management of moderate levels of stress without outside intervention. In cases that approach true burnout more substantial intervention is necessary. Though burnout may be silent, help is desperately wanted.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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