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What does work burnout look like —and how to avoid it

Stressed-out employees can have short fuses like kids at nap time


Bosses and employees alike know all about the dreaded “burnout”—the physical, emotional or mental exhaustion caused and exacerbated by stress at work. The mass phenomenon is much discussed and well researched, explains Peter Bamberger, professor of organization and management at Tel Aviv University.

But what managers might do to help or, rather, what they’re already doing wrong is inconsistent and often conflicting. Bamberger’s team zoomed in on how organizations are —or aren’t— helping in their new paper, Assisting Upon Entry. We caught up with him and got a crash course on burning out.

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What exactly defines burnout?

There’s general consensus in the industrial and organization psychology community as to what burnout is and how to measure it. It’s usually viewed as comprising three main elements: emotional exhaustion (feelings of being depleted of emotional resources), cynicism (negative attitude like frustration, disillusionment and distrust) and inefficiency (feelings of decline in confidence, productivity and accomplishment).

Is there a particular moment that you know you have it?

Not really; it’s a chronic condition that occurs as we deplete our psychological resources, so the level just increases. I guess you could say that if at a certain point you are simply unable to get it together to get to work, you’ve reached “peak” level.

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Yikes! How can a boss spot burnout before it gets that bad?

Exhaustion is often accompanied by diminished cognitive function—lower processing speeds, limited ability to juggle multiple pieces of information simultaneously, and reduced attention to detail. Individuals may have a diminished capability to collaborate, make more mistakes than usual and have a shorter fuse—just like a child when it’s “nap time”.

What can managers do to avoid a grown-up tantrum?

In advance, it’s helpful to ensure that job demands do not exceed one’s ability to meet those demands. It’s also important to provide employees with a greater sense of agency or control over those demands. Finally, support from peers and supervisors often plays a key role in buffering the adverse effect of work-based stressors.

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Your study looks at “instrumental” and “emotional” help—what’s the difference and which one’s better?

Instrumental help aims at giving the recipient task-related assistance, like helping a co-worker do an IV in a hospital. Emotional help aims to offer more personal support, like taking a co-worker aside to let them open up about their problems at home. Both types can be beneficial, but we found that unless the help provider tries to help the recipient learn to help themselves, emotional help in fact exacerbates feelings of burnout.

Are there specific kinds of tasks that help people learn to help themselves?

Yes! Tasks that are designed to challenge and engage the role without placing qualitative or quantitative demands that they can’t hope to meet, or structured tasks to offer the job incumbent a high degree of autonomy or control, or tasks that offer the ability to develop and maintain supportive relations with co-workers.

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What’s one thing a boss could do different today to combat burnout in their team?

Our study found an after-event debriefing (team discussions reviewing what went well, what went poorly, what lessons were learned) had a significant effect in lowering burnout and enhancing team performance.