What is Burnout?
Submitted by rfay on
This article is one of a series in preparation for the Burnout core conversation at Drupalcon London. This article will discuss what burnout is; future posts will cover how individuals can respond to burnout, what about burnout is unique to the Drupal community, and what the Drupal community can do to deal with burnout.
What is burnout? Many of us "just know" the answer to this, as we've we've struggled with it ourselves in our professional, personal, or community work. I found a couple of high quality discussions of burnout. The first is the book The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It1, written by the leading researcher in the field, Christina Maslach. The second was the seminal article Burned Out2 from Scientific American Mind magazine.
First, a more formal definition of burnout from Preventing Burnout3:
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
Most of us have days when we feel bored, overloaded, or unappreciated; when the dozen balls we keep in the air aren’t noticed, let alone rewarded; when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be flirting with burnout.
Maslach describes three dimensions of burnout:
- Exhaustion: Feeling overextended, both emotionally and physically
- Cynicism: Taking a cold, cynical attitude toward responsibilities.
- Ineffectiveness: When people feel ineffective, they feel a growing sense of inadequacy.
She goes on to describe these causes of the syndrome:
- We feel overloaded.
- We lack control over what we do.
- We are not rewarded for our work.
- We experience a breakdown in community.
- We aren't treated fairly.
- We have to deal with conflicting values.
The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual: People burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. In other words, *people* are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.
But our research argues most emphatically otherwise. We believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the *social environment* in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs.
The Scientific American Mind article describes twelve stages of burnout.:
- A compulsion to prove oneself (demonstrating worth obsessively) "It tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily."
- Working harder and longer; an inability to switch off.
- Neglecting our own needs (erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction)
- Displacement of conflicts (problems are dismissed, we may feel threatened, panicky and jittery)
- Revision of values (values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant, work is only focus)
- Denial of emerging problems (intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined, social contacts harder. Cynicism, aggression. Problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes)
- Withdrawal (social life small or non-existent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs)
- Odd behavior (changes in behavior obvious, friends and family concerned)
- Depersonalization (Seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.)
- Inner Emptiness
- Depression: Feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark
- Burnout Syndrome: Can include total mental and physical collapse. Time for full medical attention.
This has been a quick list-oriented discussion of burnout, but the book and article I used as sources are recommended.
In the next post, we'll talk about what individuals can do about burnout.
The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997 ↩︎
Scientific American Mind, June/July 2006, "Burned Out", by Ulrich Kraft ↩︎
Preventing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies ↩︎