Burnout Factory: The modern day work environment

This post is authored by guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it.  Welcome Travis!

For years, certain industries like investment banking, consulting, and medical practice have beenknown for burning people out. After all, the hours are long, and stress loads are high. Only thetoughest, hardest-working, most resilient people make it up the ladder, and the scars of stress are worn like a badge of pride.

After all, that’s why they say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”, right?

Well, two points deserve discussion. First, the same factors driving burnout in big professional services firms are also present in just about every work environment in America today. Second, working under these conditions dramatically erodes performance of both individuals and the organization.

Let’s briefly review the causes of burnout. Burnout develops over time from accumulated stress, extended periods of overwork, or simply a general lack of effectiveness and productivity. Effort goes in, but results don’t come out.

For burnout to develop, some aspect of the results, rewards, recognition, or relief that follows the effort fails to meet expectations. As this gap continues, burnout grows. People become exhausted. Shame and doubt ensue. People become callous, and finally they begin to check out as failure and helplessness set in.

Stop. What is it that causes people to feel ineffective and unproductive? The drivers are everywhere today:

1. Technology. Before the invention of electricity, we slept more. Before the invention of voicemail, email, twitter, texting, and facebook, we wrote letters and memos that took days or weeks to arrive. Now, regardless of your job, we are connected instantaneously, day and night.

The result: more activity, less time to recover.

2. Global competition. Before globalization, we competed with companies in our own town. Now we compete with everyone, everywhere, all the time.

The result: more stress of competition.

3. Multi-tasking. Rather than working on specific topics one-at-a-time, we can now check email, take calls, listen to music, watch tv, or play video games all while “working”.

The result: more interruptions and switching among activities.

Sidebar: Recent studies have shown that our brains don’t switch among activities very well. In a London study, 3 groups were given an IQ test. The top scoring group focused on the test and nothing else. The bottom performing group completed the test while responding to email and phone calls. Amazingly, the group that finished in second spot was…drumroll…stoned on drugs. Stoned! And they outperformed people working while responding to calls and email. Does that sound familiar?

4. Disconnectedness. More virtual working, distance collaboration, and focus on short-term financial results versus culture and people.

The result: greater apathy with respect to the company and coworkers.

5. Lack of reward. For three years, unemployment has been stubbornly high, revenues, salaries, and incentives have seen intense pressure, and home values have eroded. Benefits have been cut. People are doing more with less.

The results: people have worked very hard with diminishing returns.

Whether you are a teacher, a preacher, or a corporate leader, trends in the world and marketplace have turned work environments into burnout factories. In the 1970’s, burnout studies began in caregiving environments. Nurses, doctors, and teachers were considered particularly prone to burnout. Forty years later, people in professional work environments are experiencing such intense burnout, that some people are turning to caregiving roles simply to get the satisfaction of doing worthwhile work.

Want to break the burnout trend by fire-proofing your workplace, read our next post in this series.

About the author. As president of IRUNURUN, Travis Dommert works with leaders and their organizations to help them achieve their potential through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. To learn more, visit the IRUNURUN blog here.

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