Beating professional burnout
An unintended consequence of modern technology and all that it allows us to accomplish is the “burnout syndrome.”
Burnout occurs when the excessive stressors of our work lives aren’t balanced by adequate rest and recovery. The hallmark symptoms of burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective in our work. These symptoms can develop acutely or over an extended period of time.
Factors that promote burnout are multiple and varied. They include excessive workload, and a chaotic and inefficient work environment. Low inner work-life satisfaction occurs when there is a lack of alignment on values, mission, purpose and degree of meaning derived from work. Those who have difficulty with work-life integration or lack social support outside work are also at greater risk.
The effects of the chronic stress can result in a number of physical symptoms and illness. Warning signs of burnout include poor sleep, poor concentration and reduced job performance. Chronic stress compromises the immune system leading to decreased physical conditioning and increased absences due to illness such as colds and flu. At the extreme, it can lead to chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, anxiety and depression. Interpersonal relationships are affected, leading to disruptive employees, employee negativity and lack of engagement in work-related activities.
Organizations that have high rates of burnout experience greater employee turnover, lower employee satisfaction, increased number of absences due to illness and inability to perform the job well. Every day, about 1 million employees miss work because of stress-related concerns. The cost can be enormous. It has been estimated that excessive employee stress can cost from $150 to $300 billion dollars annually. Excessive workload affects employee performance through decreased ability to focus, poor organization and decreased engagement in work.
As individuals, there must be a commitment to personal wellness through proper diet, exercise, sleep and social engagement. Employers can incentivize this through discounts in health insurance for meeting specific health goals, discounts to wellness facilities, offering healthy food choices in employee dining rooms and team-building events.
Mindfulness techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises, practiced throughout the day, also help to reduce stress. “Quiet spaces” where employees can engage in these practices should be made available.
Companies should offer productivity solutions that promote personal fulfillment. Executive coaching has been shown to help reduce the incidence of burnout and improve employee satisfaction, creativity and engagement in work. Teaching managers and leaders how to coach individuals improves teamwork creating more effective problem solving and sense of autonomy in co-workers.
Individuals must be empowered to seek help when feeling overwhelmed. Providing mental health or counseling services should be an essential employee benefit.
Aiming for balance
Increased work stress also affects personal life balance that can carry over into the workplace. Workers should assume permission to detach from work and prioritize that which brings meaning and balance. Flexible scheduling and working off site to accommodate for the family should be considered. Taking work home and answering emails at night should be discouraged.
Organizations must engage their employees to recognize burnout and build resiliency. A corporate culture of expected wellness developed through a commitment to employee well being leads to more engaged employees empowered to solve problems at the local level and focus on providing quality work.
MICHAEL S. PARKER, MD is an OB/ GYN at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation (Cleveland, OH). He is also director for caregiver wellness for the Women’s Health Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, tasked with addressing physician burnout and productivity, and is trained as an advanced peer coach to help fellow colleagues through coaching, mentoring and wellness. He is current treasurer of the National Catholic Medical Association. Along with Dr. Will Turek, he co-hosted the “Catholic Doctors Show” on St. Gabriel Catholic Radio, AM 820 for more than five years.