August 2005

 Job Stress and Burnout

Stress is a major problem in the workplace. Chronic stress — that is, long-term unresolved stress — can lead to burnout, an occupational hazard that affects all industries at every level, from the mailroom to the boardroom.

Early signs of job stress are headaches, short tempers, trouble sleeping and low morale, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). And it’s not just physical health. An estimated 60 percent of work absences are from psychological problems — at a cost of more than $57 billion yearly — according to the American Psychological Association. Health costs are almost 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress according to the Journal of Occupation and Environment Medicine. Body systems start to fail under excessive stress and things begin falling apart.

Too much multi-tasking appears to be one cause of work overload and stress. You cannot accomplish two things at the same time as efficiently as you would if you were doing them separately. A lot of accidents and a loss of efficiency can occur from requiring excessive multi-tasking.

A Fatal Work Ethic
In Japan, burnout is known as “karoshi,” or death from overwork. The Japanese government has reported 10,000 cases a year of managers, executives, and engineers who have died from overwork, a fallout of the country’s prolonged economic slump.

With mass layoffs, pay cuts, seemingly endless workdays and disappearing vacations, Americans are coping with an enormous amount of job stress. Feeling unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs, many are reaching burnout levels.

Some people suffer burnout because they are unable to handle stress; others, such as police officers or firefighters, because their occupation is very stressful; and others because their working environment may be toxic or stressful.

Christina Maslach, in her book The Truth About Burnout calls burnout “the erosion of the soul.” She theorizes that organizations unknowingly foster burnout by creating one or more of the following conditions:

  • Work overload. Many companies often reduce their work force and increase the workload to remaining employees. This strategy may backfire in that having too much to do and not enough time to do it, is one of the primary causes of stress.
  • Lack of control. An employee needs some control over job performance. An individual may feel powerless if a supervisor dictates everything. Eventually the worker may simply stop caring.
  • Inadequate compensation. Both productivity and interest in one’s job may decline significantly if an individual feels inadequately compensated.
  • Breakdown in community. Enthusiasm and energy wane if the workplace fails to provide a community of caring or participation. If an office fails to work collaboratively, an individual may become marginalized within it.
  • Unfair treatment. Favoritism may be a pernicious influence in certain places of employment. It is important to treat everyone fairly. This can be a major source of burnout.
  • Conflicting values. Sometimes burnout results from a demanding boss requiring performance and duties that conflict with personal honesty and social correctness.

There are numerous ways to find relief from job stress and job burnout. Maslach provides six strategies for coping by eliminating cynicism, exhaustion, and stress-related problems:

• Cut back excessive hours.
• Get a personal life.
• Seek more control over your job.
• Get organized.
• Develop a comfortable pre-work routine.
• Ask yourself if you are being appropriately challenged.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, says American companies that want to compete in a global economy should follow the European model of shorter workweeks and month-long vacations. “There is no evidence that excessive hours are necessary for competitive success,” says Pfeffer. “But somehow we’ve gotten in our minds that to succeed in this world is to work yourself to death.”

Sometimes the only recourse to finding a better job is to find a more able or sympathetic supervisor, better working conditions, a higher salary, or more compatible co-workers. Your long-term health is critical and all options should be considered.

Need more advice or assistance? Contact:

 Julie Swaner, Alumni Program Manager
 (801) 585-5036

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by the University of Utah Alumni Association
Questions? Concerns? Contact Linda Marion, editor (801-587-7837)
or Marcia Dibble, assistant editor (801-581-6996)