Chapter 8: Symptom recognition and preventing burnout – Managing Burnout in the Workplace

8

Symptom recognition and preventing burnout

Abstract:

This chapter discusses how workers and their employers can recognize and prevent burnout. The chapter uses Leiter and Maslach’s six job domains – workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values – to frame the discussion on how to decrease sources of stress in each of these areas. Additional information is offered on how to improve mental and physical resilience.

Key words

burnout

symptom recognition

prevention

workload

control and reward

community

fairness and values

time management

resilience

lifestyle and vacations

Introduction

Maslach et al. (2001) note that burnout, unlike depression or stress, is generally job-related and situation specific. What this means is that something is happening at work which is changing the way an individual thinks, feels and reacts within the work environment. Nonetheless, recognizing early warning signs of burnout is not easy, particularly as those early indications can be “confused, sporadic and short-lived” (Glicken and Janka, 1982, p. 69).

Given the confused and sporadic warning signs, it is no wonder that employees at risk generally ignore, do not notice, or do not understand what is going on (Casserley and Megginson, 2009). As Harold Sala (2009) describes it,

[s]uppose you are driving down the highway in your car and the red light on your instrument panel indicates that your oil pressure is down. The engine still sounds good. When you gun the throttle, it responds normally. What do you do? You can either continue driving and ignore the light, or you can pull over, investigate, and determine what is wrong. Even if you choose to ignore the warning light, your automobile will continue to perform for a while just as it always has. But eventually, you’ll find yourself at the side of the road with smoke pouring out from under the hood of the car. You are finished – at least for the moment. (p. 218)

Yet burnout’s red light on the instrument panel has been well documented in the literature. Employees who are burning out are likely, at first, to be overachievers and, later, to show inconsistent or decreased productivity. They become lethargic, withdraw from others, show a lack of direction, and indicate a desire to change jobs even when there is no opportunity for greater pay or status. They are also more likely to be preoccupied with issues that seem beyond the scope of their immediate employment including questions involving the meaning of life or, somewhat more mundanely, whether a new job or a change in their personal living arrangements is likely to result in greater happiness (Glicken and Janka, 1982).

Another sign of burnout is that employees will often respond to various work-related situations inappropriately, and some of their reactions are likely to inhibit the possibility of their own personal success in the future (Glicken and Janka, 1982, pp. 69–70). In other words, the way employees act or respond to their own predicament puts them at risk of derailing their career at some point in the future.

If employees have difficulty recognizing the early signs of burnout, they also will have trouble avoiding it. Yet early detection or recognition is vital if employees are to take steps to cope with the various sources of burnout.

Coping has been defined as “efforts to master conditions of harm, threat, or challenge when an automatic response is not readily available. Coping in itself does not imply success but effort. It is the link between stress and adaptation” (Pines and Aronson, 1988, p. 144; italic in original).

Leiter and Maslach (2005) note that the literature on coping techniques and burnout prevention tends to focus too heavily on individual-centred solutions rather than on changing the workplace. Sadly, the truth seems to be that workplaces are difficult to change, so employees usually must rely on personal coping skills.

Given this fact, burnout studies over time have sought to find out which methods individuals employ (e.g., setting boundaries, practicing time management, relaxation techniques, engaging in physical exercise, etc. See Gupta et al., 2012) to combat burnout. They have also explored just how effective the individuals in question feel those methods to be.

Some studies, for example, have participants try certain coping methods and strategies and then look at pre- and post-study burnout scores to determine if scores are lowered after the study. Research has been done on the use of cognitive behavioral training, counseling (van Dierendonck et al., 1998), adaptive coping (Rowe, 2000), psychotherapy (Salmela-Aro et al., 2004), relaxation training (Van Rhenen et al., 2005), mindfulness (Moon, 2009), laughter therapy (Kanji et al., 2006) and so on. While many of these strategies have been found to be effective in reducing burnout scores, keeping those scores down has proven more difficult after six months to a year (Awa et al., 2010). In other words, at first, scores recorded after participants have used a successful coping method may indicate a reduced rate of burnout, and even stay that way for some time. Inevitably though, if changes do not occur in the workplace, those rates of burnout begin to rise once again.

Why is this the case? Research has shown that burnout is generally a consequence of a dysfunctional relationship between two parties – the individual and the workplace. Techniques for burnout prevention, therefore, will only be partially successful if the individual has little or no control over the sources of stress in the workplace. When individuals alone seek to change the troubling elements within their control, but the organizational environment remains static, problems will most likely remain. Clearly then, the optimum way to combat burnout symptoms is to have both the organization and the individual participate in burnout interventions (Schaufeli and Enzmann, 1998; Maslach et al., 2001).

Realistically speaking, however, we know that many organizations are monolithic and that matters such as the amount of work, the work schedule, the supervisor and the very nature of the work itself are not negotiable. Because of this, such workplaces often cannot, or will not, give workers the autonomy necessary to make key changes in their jobs.

Nonetheless, the picture is not entirely bleak. There are steps, small and big, which individuals can take, not only to take care of themselves personally but also to attempt to change their work environment. There are also factors that more enlightened organizations can consider to make sure their employees are not at risk. Leiter and Maslach (2005) focus on six job domains – workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values – and discuss how to work out a specific action plan in order to repair the problems arising in each of these domains. Their suggestions, along with the studies and suggestions of other experts in this area, are discussed, first from the standpoint of the individual and then from the standpoint of the organization, under these six job domain headings.

Leiter and Maslach (2005), along with many other experts in this area, recommend building resilience by focusing on health. As such, we also provide in this chapter recommendations for healthier living such as exercising and eating properly, which are key to keeping the body and mind healthy in situations involving high stress.

What the employee can do: burnout prevention in six job domains

Job domain 1: workload

Of the six job domains in which problems arise, workload is number one. Leiter and Maslach (2005) along with other authors note that self-awareness and self-monitoring are critical in preventing burnout, and when tackling the problem of workload, workers need to know what fires them up about the job and what, on the other hand, drains them of energy. Is it simply a case of too much work? Are deadlines too severe? Is it the type of work? Is the employee expected to be available at all times? Coming up with a solution is easier once the right questions have been asked and the specific problems have been identified.

Following are some of the recommendations by experts on dealing with workload problems which are part of the job. Included are some widely recommended suggestions for staying mentally and physically healthy while dealing with workplace stress.

Recommendation one: limit hours

Studies are relatively consistent that burnout is a response to work overload and chronic time pressure problems (Maslach et al., 2001). Clearly, some organizations believe they can save and/or make money if they can increase workload. Workers, on the other hand, asked to give more both in the way of time and energy, sooner or later discover that an enormous conflict exists between their private, human needs and the needs of the organization.

In 2006, Columbia University economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett conducted a study on the prevalence of “extreme jobs,” i.e., those in which individuals worked exceedingly long hours. Her summary of data collected on individuals working at a number of multi-national corporations revealed that

62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week, and 10% work more than 80 hours a week. Add in a typical one-hour commute, and a 60-hour workweek translates into leaving the house at 7 am and getting home at 9 pm five days a week. If we focus on the subset of those workers who hold what we consider extreme jobs (a designation based on responsibilities and other attributes beyond pay), the hours are even more punishing. The majority of them (56%) work 70 hours or more a week, and 9% work 100 hours or more. (Hewlett and Luce, 2006, p. 51)

Not surprisingly, Hewlett discovered that half of the top group of executives she studied came home so tired that they were incapable of interaction or conversation with their families at the end of the day.

High-caliber professionals, regardless of age, gender, job sector, or continent, are working longer hours, according to Hewlett. But one does not need to work in the highest echelons of the business world to understand that the workplace is changing. Lower-ranking jobs not only demand more time, but are often more complex than they once were. Workers are also expected to fill multiple roles (i.e., multi-task) more often than they ever did.

The result is that it has become less and less possible to “turn off” the workday during personal time. Individuals headed for burnout not only work long hours, but often find themselves unable to stop thinking about work during their time away.

Pines and Aronson (1988) note that, although organizations are largely to blame, at least some of the fault may reside with the employee. They write,

… people must learn to make a clear discrimination between the concrete demands of the job and the demands they place on themselves that they sometimes erroneously attribute to their “supervisor” or their “organization.” Thus, some people regularly overwork, assuming that this is a demand placed on them by their organization. But if they examine the situation closely, they would realize that they were much harsher taskmasters than their employer. They would then realize that they did have more control than they realized – and would have to deal with the issue of whether or not they wanted to exercise that control. (pp. 30-31)

These authors urge employees to be severe about keeping the spheres of work and home separate. This means that the employee should try to be fully at work while at work, and then fully at home while at home. The strict separation of these two areas, if it can be accomplished, is less likely to lead to burnout.

Most important, however, is this: employees need to understand that a backbreaking workload is unsustainable in the long run. This is why employees working long hours must attempt to exercise some control and to make a commitment to themselves to reduce those hours by some amount, even if only by 15 minutes a day or one hour a week. A commitment to reducing hours has a double effect: it makes workers more cognizant of the time they are committing to the job and it starts the process of beginning to slow down the pace over time. Cutting back or cutting down on hours worked is the first major step one must take to avoid burnout.

Recommendation two: learn to say no

Individuals headed for burnout are often idealistic, enthusiastic and reluctant to turn down any new work assignments. Taking on too much work, however, results not only in exhaustion but also in certain tasks being given less attention than they require simply because an employee has no more time to give. As a result, employees feel they are doing a job which is less than adequate and the sense of themselves as competent workers suffers.

Even though some workplaces don’t give employees much room to say no, there is often some wiggle room at the margins. For professionals, that might mean cutting back on volunteering for committees or doing less work outside the job with professional associations. Also, if there isn’t enough time in which to do a proper job, the employee needs to say so up front.

But how you say it is as important as why and when you say it. Vaccaro (1998) discusses several ways to say no, and emphasizes that being polite, firm and honest is key. The “pleasant no,” for example, is one in which you say pleasant things about the project and the person asking you to volunteer but then say no. She gives as an example the following: “[that project] sounds a lot more fun than what I’m going to be doing at that time, but I’m going to have to say ‘no.’ Thanks.”

Another option for Vaccaro (1998) is a “conditional no,” i.e., to offer to do a very small piece of the project while still saying no to the larger project. For example, an employee can explain that she can’t be at the meetings, but might be willing to do some research or look into some small matter which is part of the project, leaving the rest to others involved. With the conditional no, it is vital to set boundaries and make sure that people know what it is you will and will not do.

With the “sleep-on-it no,” Vaccaro suggests an employee can explain that she would like to think about it and will get back to the person making the request the next day. This avoids being put on the spot. It also gives the employee some chance to think about the pros and cons of saying no. As for the person who is asking you to do more work, it shows that even if you do say no, you have given it some serious thought.

The “alternative solution no,” according to Vaccaro, gives the person looking to download more work another place to look for help. For example, an employee might say, “I can’t do it, but I know Emily might not mind getting involved.” It’s good to know in advance, though, that Emily or whomever else you name won’t resent your recommendation.

Finally, Vaccaro’s “secret-weapon no” is simply to say no without explaining. The individual can simply say, “It’s not possible for me to do that at the moment” and resist any efforts to explain further. The secret weapon, of course, has to be used judiciously; like all secret weapons, it needs to be reserved for special occasions and is not meant for daily use.

Of course, as noted above, sometimes no is an answer that will not be tolerated in the workplace. In cases where no is not an option, another possibility is to negotiate. The negotiation can be for more time in which to do the work, some assistance from others in getting the project done, doing the project on a smaller scale, or changing the parameters of the project. Also, if by taking on the job the employee won’t have the time to do other important tasks, then the supervisor needs to know and to set the priorities. It is the supervisor who should decide which tasks can be left undone if the employee must say yes to this particular task.

Recommendation three: delegate

High achievers are unwilling to delegate, not only because they feel they can handle one more task, but also because they think they can do a better job than others even at the most mundane tasks. Management consultant Bonnie Elliot notes that employees who are unwilling to delegate don’t know how to separate the wheat from the chaff:

I find there’s a common underlying assumption that [these workers] have to be involved in everything, because they fear that if they delegated management tasks, someone else wouldn’t be able to do them as well … They wear it as a badge of honour that they have it all in their head, but I point out that’s one of the reasons they don’t have the time or attention to focus on their work. (Immen, 2012)

Nonetheless, Elliot also notes that, when questioned, overburdened employees often don’t delegate less important tasks which fill their day because these are the very tasks they find most enjoyable. The key, she notes, is for the non-delegator to determine which, among the less important tasks, are the most enjoyable, and to keep doing those. Once these are identified, there should be some attempt to delegate or cut down on other work which is less enjoyable and which is preventing workers from getting some of their more important tasks done.

Recommendation four: manage time wisely

Individuals headed for burnout often have difficulty managing their time and have trouble cutting down on distractions, particularly from electronic devices. What follows are suggestions from a variety of experts in the field for getting the most out of each working day, and for thinking seriously about how time should be managed during the course of one’s career.

a) Prioritize the work week

Employees need to monitor their work day to determine which hours are less busy and more suitable for certain types of tasks. So, for example, if it is easier to concentrate on difficult tasks (e.g. writing reports, working on budgets) when the office is quiet, then workers should try to schedule doing those difficult tasks for that optimal time. If that happens to be first thing in the morning, then more mundane tasks such as returning phone calls and checking email should be left for later in the day. Setting the phone so that it goes to voicemail directly and turning off email is crucial in order to make the most of this time.

Where long hours are a problem, the key is to make a list of most important to least important jobs in descending order and to stick to it. This technique involves setting goals for the work day and work week. Workers need to identify what must be accomplished immediately and what needs to be accomplished longer term. Of course, longer term projects can’t be ignored and they will remain an acute source of stress unless a small amount of time is set aside for working on them throughout the week. By no means should longer term projects be left entirely to the last minute.

Once work has been prioritized in this way, pressing tasks should be addressed first, followed by a small amount of work each week on long term projects. If any time is left over, the less important tasks near the bottom of the list should be tackled.

Along the same lines, time should be scheduled not only for tasks and projects but also for higher level activities such as reflection or strategic thinking. Some time, no matter how small, should be built into the work week for these activities. Without scheduling, time for strategic thinking is something that is likely to be given short shrift or to fall between the cracks entirely.

No scheduling is required for daydreaming, however, and experts remind us how important it is to let your mind wander from time to time:

“[p]rolonged periods of intense concentration can fatigue your brain,” says Eric Klinger, Ph.D., a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “Allowing yourself a couple of minutes to daydream can provide just enough rest for you to regain your focus and be more creative and productive in the long run.” The next time your mind takes a midafternoon meander, indulge your fantasies, like where you might go on your next vacation or what you would do if you won the lottery. (Wiener, 2007)

Scheduling or just finding a few minutes for some quiet time, whether it is done at home or at work, is also important, even if that quiet time is only a few minutes each day of deep breathing, meditation or staring out the window.

b) Minimize electronic interruptions

Constantly checking, monitoring and responding to email is a major stressor on the job, so much so that it even affects heart rate. Research has shown that employees who constantly check their email on the job tend to have ‘high alert’ heart rates which have been linked to higher levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) in the body (UCIrvine Today, 2012).

A recent study found that cutting out email not only resulted in better focus for workers but it also changed their heart rates. Employees who were not permitted to check their email for five days were found to have more natural and variable heart rates. They were also less distracted. Researchers found that these employees switched between computer screens half as much as their email distracted counterparts – from 37 times an hour to 18 times an hour (UCIrvine Today, 2012) – resulting in better focus on the task at hand. As a result, limiting access to email or checking email only at certain times during the day is one concrete way to reduce stress.

c) Schedule family time and downtime

Scheduling family time and downtime, and setting boundaries between work and home life, is enormously important to keeping burnout at bay. Researchers have found that people without children tend to burn out more often than people with children. Part of the reason has to do with investing emotional and physical resources disproportionately in the workplace when you are not forced to manage your time in and around family (Senior, 2006). Another reason has to do with the emotional support that family provides.

Individuals at risk for burnout need to make an effort to re-establish proportionality between work and home. One way to do this is to decide to eat at least one meal a day with friends and family rather than with work colleagues and to limit making work calls from home. Also, just as work commitments are pencilled into the calendar, family commitments need a place there as well. As one commentator notes, “Keep the commitment once made and expect to experience withdrawal symptoms and guilt [about work]” (Kaufman, 2005). Once the commitment becomes more of a routine, the guilt should subside.

Downtime means taking time for yourself by scheduling time alone and away from electronic devices and cell phones. This time should be devoted to activities such as hobbies, reading for fun (instead of for work), taking a bath, or getting a massage. It can also mean time for sitting quietly in a garden and day dreaming.

d) Periodically re-evaluate commitments

Sometimes employees find it difficult to say no to more work because they are not certain what they want from their job or clear about where they hope the job will eventually take them. Before agreeing to additional work, employees should ask themselves what the benefit might be in saying yes. Will it lead to greater control and autonomy, for example, or to a better position? Will it make the job less boring or difficult? Will it allow for the opportunity to network with others who might help advance their career in the future? Saying no is easier when it’s clear what important factors should be in place in order to say yes.

Baird and Baird (2005) note that professional or workplace commitments which do not add to any of one’s long term career goals should be abandoned. They also suggest re-evaluating and prioritizing commitments depending on the stage one is at in one’s career. For example, new employees are more likely to volunteer for certain activities or opportunities in order to build a career. Once that career is established, however, it might be time to re-examine those commitments and start paring them down so that only the most important – those necessary to sustain a career – remain.

Recommendation five: take vacations

The benefits of vacations on one’s physical and mental well-being are real and yet individuals are frequently reluctant to take them, often because of workload issues or because taking a vacation might be perceived negatively by the employer. A survey in the UK by the travel reservation website Expedia conducted in 2010 found that 20 percent of those surveyed do not take their annual leave because of work pressure (expedia.co.uk, 2010) and half of those who do take vacation feel compelled to check email and phone calls while on vacation (Expedia.com, 2011).

Americans are not much better. On average, workers in the US were allotted 14 vacation days a year but only used 12 (Expedia.com, 2011). At the end of 2011, approximately 57 percent of working Americans had not used up their allotted vacation. The most common reason given was that they had too much work (Censky, 2012).

Sixty-two percent of Canadian workers reported that they continued to check email and voicemail while on vacation (Expedia.ca, 2011). In addition, Canadian workers tend to leave one day of vacation on the table, taking an average of 15 of their 16 allotted vacation days. This leaves a total of 17 million unused vacation days overall in Canada (Expedia.ca, 2011). Thirty-eight per cent of Canadian workers have cancelled or postponed their vacation because of work commitments.

Not surprisingly, research has found that levels of stress drop significantly immediately after a return from a vacation (Etzion, 2003). People are more active on vacation, they tend to sleep better, and have the time to rejuvenate mentally. Lower levels of stress have been found in employees who took longer vacations compared to those employees who took shorter vacations; nonetheless, the ameliorative effect on burnout was found to exist whether vacations were short or long (Etzion, 2003). Rates of burnout dropped for approximately one month before rising again. As a result, several short breaks throughout the year (for example three one week vacations as opposed to one three week vacation) are thought to achieve the maximum, positive long-term effect in ameliorating stress (Etzion, 2003).

As important as the lowering of stress levels, time away from the office also gives an employee some distance. As mentioned earlier, employees often don’t notice or don’t understand the signs of burnout. Getting away from the workplace gives the employee the time and space necessary to analyze why he or she is feeling stressed. Having the time to mull it over might also lead to ideas on how better to cope with the situation.

Recommendation six: break the routine

Boredom is as stressful as too much work and some experts believe that, as workplaces are becoming more boring, workers are becoming less willing to tolerate boredom (Hoare, 2012). Studies have shown that even though the busiest employees are the happiest (Joyce, 2005), it is difficult for organizations to find a balance between the type of “busy” which is just right, versus work which is overwhelming or underwhelming. This shows in the statistics: 55 percent of all US employees do not feel engaged at work or psychologically connected to the organization (Joyce, 2005), and one in four British workers reports feeling chronically bored (“25 percent bored,” 2012).

Despite numbers which indicate a relatively wide scale boredom problem, organizations are generally unwilling to address it because of the signal it sends about the institution and the work itself. As a result, when the organization is unwilling to deal with boredom, it is up to an employee to find some way to shake up the routine at work. Even making small changes in the work day is important for both mental and physical well-being.

For example, incorporating new activities into the work day or carrying out old activities in different ways or at different times is a start. Employees who eat lunch at their desk each day while trying to work not only have no chance to unwind, but they risk the physical problems which result when eating while under stress. As Ashley Koff, RD, a Los Angeles dietitian, notes,

[s]carfing down your sandwich may help you plow through that todo list, but it certainly won’t help you feel calmer … “When you’re stressed out, your body diverts its resources to release hormones that help you cope, decreasing the production of the hormones associated with digestion,” she explains. So if you eat under duress, you’ll likely experience indigestion or bloating, which only makes you feel worse. “A half-hour break may not be realistic on a busy day, but you can close your door, turn off your e-mail, and concentrate on eating your food one bite at a time,” Koff suggests. (Wiener, 2007)

Another way of combating stress is having lunch away from the office, eating lunch outside or walking at lunch.

Experts also recommend identifying a hobby or a pastime which you feel passionate about and trying to engage in that activity over the lunch hour:

[w]orking on your hobby puts you in a zone, allowing you to forget about other stressors, which is especially useful at the office … If you’re a foodie, use your lunch break to browse new recipes online; knitters might tote their needles and yarn to the office cafeteria. (Wiener, 2007)

Along the same lines, organizing a lunch-hour activity among co-workers who are interested in a specific pursuit, or becoming involved in an activity already underway is another way to lessen stress.

Breaking up the daily routine by getting up at a different time, taking a different way to work or a different way home can also help. Reorganizing work space is yet one more way of inserting some change into the daily routine (Elson, 1979).

Finally, in order to break up the routine, Pines and Aronson (1988) suggest that individuals who work in cerebral, verbal jobs should look to incorporate more physical and non-verbal activities into their off-hours, and vice versa. For workers who sit at a computer each day, more walking, biking and spending time outdoors should be incorporated into time away from work. In contrast, workers who do physical work all day are better to read, listen to music, and find other ways of incorporating more cerebral hobbies during their time away from the job.

Recommendation seven: increase resilience

Shawn M. Talbott in The Secret of Vigor (2012) explains that eating wisely, taking dietary supplements, getting enough sleep, employing stress management techniques and exercising are necessary in order to increase resilience and combat stress and burnout. Talbott calls these “Vigor Improvement Practices” (VIPs) and emphasizes the importance of each of these in maintaining both mental and physical health. Talbott’s VIPs are discussed below.

a) Eat healthy foods

Employees at risk of burnout often neglect their physical health and this includes eating healthy foods. Constant stress is hard on the immune system which also relies on a nutritious diet for its proper functioning. A healthy diet is one way to combat stress, and food “can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison” (Steckler, 2012). This means that eating properly can prevent, cut down or eliminate a wide range of health problems including obesity, hypertension, inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, sleep and mood problems, etc. In contrast, a poor diet will stress the body, and lead to greater susceptibility to disease as well as poor concentration, mental exhaustion and fatigue.

Individuals who work in chronic stress environments often have difficulty eating healthily. They might skip meals altogether or conversely use food as a way of reducing stress. Comfort foods which are high in calories, fats and sugars trigger the release of certain chemicals in the brain which results in feelings of pleasure and a desire to eat more of the same types of foods. Done too often, the comfort food results in additional weight gain turning pleasure into pain as it adds to the stresses placed on the body.

Burnout has been shown to play a significant role when it comes to problematic eating patterns. Recent studies have shown that women who burn out are prone to both emotional eating and uncontrolled eating (Nevanpera et al., 2012). Emotional eating occurs when an individual is stressed or unhappy and eats not because she is hungry but because she wants to alleviate those feelings. Uncontrolled eating, in contrast, occurs when an individual constantly feels hungry and can’t stop eating until the food at hand has been consumed. Both are serious problems in that individuals who are stressed are more likely to eat food that is bad for them rather than binge uncontrollably on healthy food such as fruit or vegetables.

Stressed employees tend to neglect their own health and that includes forgetting to eat regular meals consisting of a variety of healthy foods including proteins (milk products, eggs, fish, meat and meat alternatives), vegetables, fruit and whole grain products such as whole grain bread, oatmeal, brown or wild rice, and whole wheat pasta. How one eats is also important. Throwing back a meal in the car or at the desk is more likely to result in overeating or eating unhealthily since no attention is being paid to the activity.

Finally, experts recommend a daily multi-vitamin to supplement the nutrition that is not being ingested when workers fail to eat the recommended number of servings of fruits, vegetables and other foods each day (Talbott, 2012). Certain vitamins or minerals prevent diseases or carry out other functions in the body not performed by any other vitamin or mineral. Missing out on any one of these can mean missing out on a vital health benefit.

b) Get enough sleep

Sleep has a restorative function and proper sleep is necessary for, among other things, tissue renewal, proper brain functioning including concentration and mood, and a healthy immune system. A lack of sleep has been linked to obesity (Brody, 2011) and to premature death (Smith, 2010). Researchers who have studied the effects of lack of sleep on levels of attractiveness have found that sleep-deprived individuals are perceived as being less attractive and healthy than their sleep-refreshed counterparts (Brody, 2011).

In addition to the problems associated with health and physical appearance, not getting enough sleep has also been shown to predict clinical burnout (Soderstrom et al., 2012) and may be linked to the excessive fatigue which is a hallmark of burnout. If this is the case, researchers comment, it could mean that burnout has a confirmed physiological as well as a mental component (Ekstedt, 2005).

c) Exercise

Not only is exercise a reliable way to relieve tension and stress, but researchers have discovered that employees who exercise are less likely to suffer from burnout and depression (Toker and Biron, 2012). Individuals who exercised four hours a week were found to be half as likely to suffer from job-related mental health problems as those who did not exercise at all.

As for the best type of exercise to combat stress, the American Running Association recommends that

using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best. This type of movement seems to foster a kind of muscular meditation. Running is a prime example, but even walking for 20 minutes can clear the mind and reduce stress. Vigorous workouts like elliptical training are even more popular stress reducers, perhaps because you gain a sense of “taking it out on” something, yet in a productive way that ultimately contributes to your self-image. (American Running Association, 2011)

In addition to running or walking, experts add swimming, cycling, tai chi and other aerobic exercises to the list. Exercise helps the body release the feel-good chemicals endorphins and serotonin which help to reduce stress and to lighten mood. Regular exercise also makes people feel more energetic and helps them to sleep better.

d) Employ relaxation techniques

Relaxing is an important way of dealing with stress. Relaxation is more than merely putting one’s feet up; in order to get the benefits, specific relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga need to be employed to bring about mental and physical changes which calm the mind and help fight stress.

The reason why simply sitting down and putting one’s feet up is not good enough is that in order to be effective, a relaxation technique needs to “break the train of everyday thought, and decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system” (Goleman, 1986). The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight response” which occurs when the body secretes hormones necessary to help the body either challenge or run away from a perceived threat.

Employees don’t need to be facing an actual “fight or flight” situation in order to have their bodies respond the same way. Simply working in a stressful environment can overwork the adrenal glands and leave them no longer functioning optimally. Adrenal fatigue is characterized by a number of symptoms including inability to sleep well, excessive fatigue, irritability, craving excessive salt or sweets, poor concentration, low stamina, low blood pressure, lower resistance to colds and other health problems, etc. Luckily, adrenal fatigue can be helped by eating a healthy diet, taking vitamins and practicing relaxation techniques to alleviate stress and bring about a physiological state called the “relaxation response” (Goleman, 1986).

The relaxation response is responsible for changes in hormone levels that help the immune system fight infectious disease. Relaxation releases muscle tension, lowers blood pressure and slows the heart and breathing rates. Research has also discovered that relaxation techniques improve blood flow to the heart, lower cholesterol levels, improve the body’s ability to regulate glucose, and alleviate chronic pain (Goleman, 1986).

Job domain 2: control

We move now to the second of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) job domains – control – and to what an individual employee might do to deal with a control problem in the workplace. Control has to do with how much say workers have over the job, including such matters as how the work is done, the hours during which one does the work, and even when one is permitted to take breaks or vacation. Research is clear that the amount of control workers have over various aspects of their job is important in determining whether they might be at risk for burnout. In this section, we discuss two aspects of control: autonomy and supervision.

a) Autonomy

Autonomy problems exist when workers have little or no control over how the job is to be done, or when their point of view seems not to be valued by management. Additional control issues include being micromanaged, having no scope for creativity, or dealing with weak leadership or ineffective teams. Issues also include having responsibility for a job over which one has little authority or decision-making power. As one burned out worker noted,

I started having less and less faith in the direction the senior management was taking the organization, but they didn’t want to hear anything that differed from their own view. I felt like I had the responsibility of being on a team without any possibility of having any input…. It was always clear to me that I did not lose faith in the work. I lost faith in the work relationships. And in my ability to make any difference in them. (Glouberman, 2002, pp. 30–31)

Lack of autonomy, studies tell us, is responsible for higher rates of burnout (Aiken et al., 2002; Verissimo et al., 2003; Keeton et al., 2007; Day et al., 2009). Not surprisingly, workers who are given greater autonomy and the ability to make choices about how the work is done have been shown to have better morale (Ward and Cowman, 2007), greater job satisfaction, more commitment to the organization, greater involvement in the job, better performance, fewer mental and physical problems, less absenteeism and less turnover (Spector, 1986).

The problem for most workers is how to gain more autonomy in an environment which offers little. Leiter and Maslach (2005) suggest identifying the type of control which is absent in the environment and then responding accordingly. For example, in an environment in which the employee is micromanaged, they suggest micromanaging back; i.e., shaping the flow of information that returns to the supervisor in order to better steer responses and outcomes. They also suggest testing the limits of control by starting small and determining whether acting with more authority at the edges of the job might lead to a loosening of oversight.

Another way to increase job autonomy is by building a record of exceptional performance on the job and earning the trust of management. This, of course, is something which can take some time to accomplish.

Volunteering to take more control is also an option. Workers who are aware that their supervisors are themselves overwhelmed on the job can suggest that some control be shifted their way. In this type of situation, offering to take on more responsibility might be a welcome suggestion to a supervisor struggling to tread water.

Finally, the way an employee might achieve more autonomy in the workplace is through external validation. Volunteering for professional associations, and receiving kudos through these associations, is useful in shifting the balance of power in the workplace as managers are often unable to ignore the opinions of their peers in other institutions (Leiter and Maslach, 2005).

b) Supervision

Weak or inefficient supervision is considered a control issue (Leiter and Maslach, 2005) and has also been associated with increased job dissatisfaction and higher levels of burnout (Hyrkas, 2005). Leiter and Maslach (2005) suggest ways to deal with weak or inefficient leadership by taking creative control, critical control or supportive control.

Creative control involves keeping the boss up to date on innovation, new ideas or new concepts and working with the boss to make both the monitoring and the implementation of new ideas part of the job. Supervisors may have little time to keep an eye on what is new in the field and offering to take on this role may serve to relieve some of the work burden of management and shift some control to the employee.

Critical control involves taking more interest in job performance and working with the supervisor to enhance quality in the workplace. This is a somewhat trickier role as employees who monitor the work or output of others quickly find themselves unpopular. Quality and performance are often best discussed in groups or teams where everyone has a voice and can offer suggestions. Employees interested in critical control might offer to lead or facilitate this type of group or team. Seeking to improve the quality of the work democratically is more likely to be acceptable to the group as a whole and to be less divisive in the workplace.

Finally, supportive control involves paying more attention to the supervisor and communicating more about frustrations and accomplishments in an attempt to model supportive behavior. The hope is that it will eventually be returned in kind (Leiter and Maslach, 2005). Supportive control is about being a shoulder to cry on or a safe person in whom to confide. The theory is that supervisors who find social support in their employees are more likely to return that support when the employees themselves are in need of assistance.

Clearly, how one responds to a lack of control depends on the specific problem encountered on the job. But these suggestions remind us that, even in a job which appears to have no room for autonomy whatsoever, there might be a small amount of room at the margins for ways to begin to improve the situation.

Job domain 3: reward

This is the third of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains, and these authors offer several suggestions for employees whose job rewards are insufficient. Reward, as we are reminded, is often equated with money; however, it can also mean a great deal more including more recognition, greater status, or work which is more satisfying.

At its most basic level, trying to fix the problem of insufficient compensation is not always easy; many organizations have pay charts which prevent employees from negotiating any salary other than the one they have. Also, supervisors in larger institutions have no authority to re-negotiate salaries once an employee has been hired. On the other hand, where salary is negotiable, Leiter and Maslach (2005) suggest doing one’s homework, coming equipped with empirical data and discussing the topic dispassionately. It’s also good to have a Plan B; where money discussions are off the table, perhaps something like more time away from the office, better hours or an improved physical environment might be attainable.

It is, of course, possible that the organization might be unwilling to commit to non-monetary rewards and remain firm about no additional compensation. Where that is the case, these experts recommend reducing output so that it is more in line with the salary. Interestingly, research has shown that workers seem to do this as a matter of course when salary and workload are seriously mismatched. It seems we naturally do less when the compensation for the job is thought to be correspondingly less than it ought to be.

Sometimes money is not the issue and what workers are missing is a pat on the back. Where acknowledgement is the problem, these authors suggest discussing the situation with one’s supervisor and asking for more feedback on the job. Another possible suggestion could be bringing various accomplishments to the attention of the supervisor. If the supervisor seems to be slow in getting the point, these authors suggest that workers try, in the meantime, to reward themselves. This could involve bringing accomplishments to the attention of others in the workplace, or finding some private way to celebrate accomplishments. Employees who feel undervalued might also want to seek recognition beyond the workplace such as working in the community or with professional associations.

Where better job assignments are the desired reward, Leiter and Maslach (2005) suggest either negotiating better job assignments or working on expanding or increasing the parts of a job that are enjoyable. Changing the way the job is done might also lead to greater satisfaction.

Job domain 4: community

This is the fourth of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains. When problems arise in the area of community, it often means co-workers can’t get along, supervisors are disrespectful or undermining, subordinates are angry and resentful and clients are problematic. Healthy communities are those in which people can easily talk to each other, will co-operate with one another, and will assist one another in solving problems. Not surprisingly, then, social support in a number of studies has been found to act as a buffer against burnout.

Conflict in the workplace has been linked to burnout, whether it involves supervisors, co-workers or others. For example, the matter of support from co-workers has been found to contribute to predictions of burnout (Greenglass et al., 1997); in other words, the greater the support, the less likelihood there is of being at risk for burnout. In contrast, co-workers who are competitive, distant, back-biting, indifferent and/or unpleasant clearly contribute to a more stressful environment.

Along the same lines, the population group with which a professional works can be a source of stress. Conflict with clients, for example, has been found to be significantly associated with emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (Fujiwara et al., 2003), as well as a major cause of burnout.

In terms of management, poor supervision has also been found to be not only one of the leading causes of burnout but also responsible for low productivity (“Much worker burnout,” 1992). Where subordinates perceive their supervisor to be abusive, for example, they report greater emotional exhaustion (Tepper, 2000) and depersonalization (Yagil, 2006). In contrast, when supervision is supportive, supervisors can actually provide a buffer against stress. Supportive supervision means that supervisors communicate with workers, provide constructive and encouraging feedback, and are involved with their employees on a regular basis rather than just when a crisis looms (Pines and Aronson, 1988).

Where the workplace “mismatch” for an employee is one involving community, Leiter and Maslach (2005) recommend as a first step determining who the problems are – co-workers, supervisors and/or clients – and where the solution might lie. If there is serious conflict in the workplace, it must be addressed in some way, either by using conflict resolution techniques available through the workplace or by trying to set something up through management.

Ultimately, building a better community starts with better communication and by reaching out to others in the workplace. Sometimes, however, communication itself is the problem. In cases such as these, staff meetings are one area in which poor communication might be remedied. Meetings are a place in which shared goals can be discussed, and employees should feel safe enough to bring complaints, let off steam, and discuss problems. Pines and Aronson (1988) suggest establishing rules for these meetings in order to ensure that they do not become one more area in which employees do battle. They see meetings as a place in which complaints and problems can be aired, but solutions must be explored without criticism, sarcasm or judgment. Once this has been done, the best solution, they recommend, should be chosen from among those suggested. Meetings such as these let staff members feel that they have a voice and some control over problematic situations, and that it is the job of the collective not only to air grievances but also to work towards solutions together.

Where there is little conflict, but also little cohesiveness, employees need to work on building more collegiality and team spirit. This can be done through social activities and group events which can be organized and built somewhere into the work week. Leiter and Maslach (2005) suggest reaching out to others in the organization, organizing a support group or a community service project. Both asking for and giving support are yet other suggestions to try to build better relationships in the workplace and to create alliances.

Job domain 5: fairness

This is the fifth of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains. Fairness in the workplace has to do with treatment which is even-handed, non-discriminatory, and does not favor certain individuals over others except when it is merit-based. As Maslach and Leiter (1997) note, “[a] workplace is perceived to be fair when three key elements are present: trust, openness, and respect” (p. 52).

Perceptions of fairness are important for more than contributing to job satisfaction – bad bosses also have a significant effect on physical health. Workers who reported their supervisors as acting unfairly were found, in one study, to have “a 16 per cent increased risk of heart disease and a 38 per cent increased risk of stroke” (Naish, 2005). In contrast, those employees who felt that their supervisors acted fairly were found to have one-third less heart disease than those who rated their managers as unfair or neutral (Naish, 2005).

Fairness involves equitable treatment; it also involves respect. Leiter and Maslach (2005) note that promoting respect in the workplace means promoting civility. One of the first ways to address incidents of disrespect or discrimination is to talk about the incident with the offending party, or when that does not change the behavior, to talk to a supervisor. Where this fails to resolve the problem, the aggrieved employee should consider making a formal complaint through the organization’s human resources or equity officer.

Where a formal complaint fails to resolve the problem, the employee should then consider taking the complaint to an external organization or government body. Taking legal action is also an option. These are more drastic steps and not all organizations welcome them. The response will differ depending on the organization – anything from complete assistance to full-blown reprisal. An employee looking to take a complaint to a human rights body or to the court should first seek advice in order to consider the various options. Leiter and Maslach (2005) counsel that employees should weigh the risks of going outside the organization and understand the consequences.

Job domain 6: values

The sixth of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) job domains involves values. Work values are an employee’s perspectives or standards which help guide him or her on the evaluation of what is right and wrong in the workplace. Mismatches in values occur when employees are required to choose between the values of the workplace and their own personal values. An employer might ask an employee to do something which he or she feels is unethical, even to tell lies on behalf of the organization. For example, employees might be asked to explain to clients that a change in service is for their benefit when, in actuality, the change is only being made to save the organization money.

A mismatch of values is relatively common; a study published in 2007 found that 30 percent of employees surveyed said that their employers’ values were not always aligned with their own (“30 percent of workers’ values,” 2007). Leiter and Maslach (2005) note that when mismatches occur between the values of the organization and the values of the individual, the first thing an individual must do is to try to pin down the specific problem. Employees might, for example, perceive the organization itself or the supervisors within the organization for which they work to be destructive or dishonest. Somewhat less dramatically, employees might feel that, even though their organizations are engaged in honest and ethical pursuits, their own individual jobs or tasks within the organization are meaningless. Each problem is significant, but each calls for a different response.

Employees looking to deal with problems of dishonest behavior in their employing organizations have several options. The first is preemptive; e.g., they might approach management to request training on ethical decision-making for their group and then take advantage of any discussion that arises from that training to suggest changes in work practices. But where subtlety is ineffective, employees can attempt to change the environment by going to a figure in authority and blowing the whistle. Whistle-blowing requires careful preparation; organizations often respond defensively either by attempting to downplay the problem or by punishing the whistleblower himself. Termination of the whistle-blower’s job is, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence.

Employees must prepare carefully if they plan to shed light on illegal or unethical activity. One of the most important things is choosing the right individual(s) to contact. It is also vital that employees have enough evidence before making an accusation (Leiter and Maslach, 2005). Sometimes, there may be no fix for an employee who is involved with an organization that is involved in seriously unethical or illegal activities. Leiter and Maslach (2005) note that when all else fails, a serious mismatch in values might mean looking for a new job.

Where the organization is involved in practices which an employee feels are destructive but change does not appear hopeless, Leiter and Maslach (2005) recommend taking steps from within to change the organization’s values. This could involve volunteering for committees or working on projects which give an employee a chance to voice his concerns from within the organization. Changing the values of an organization involves promoting discussion on organizational impact, responsibility and constructive initiatives. Working from within the organization might prove slow and frustrating, but keeping at it could eventually lead to constructive change.

When working within the organization fails to pay any dividends, working outside with professional associations, charities or volunteer groups might help to make a difference to the individual. So, for example, in the case of a library which has new policies designed to make it more difficult for homeless individuals to spend much time there, an employee who is unable to change the policies from within might be interested in volunteering at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in her spare time.

Sometimes, though, the problem is not a clash of values, but simply the feeling that the work is not meaningful. In a survey of job seekers in 21 different countries, 60 percent of the survey participants selected “challenging and interesting work” as the primary thing they were looking for in a job, followed by 58 percent who chose “recognition and reward for their accomplishments” (Beauchesne, 2006). “Meaningful,” of course, has different significance for different people, but is nonetheless important. Employees who feel they have meaningful work, however that term is defined, are likelier to be healthier, happier at home, and to have better relationships (Bruzzese, 2010).

To build meaning into a job, these authors recommend finding ways to take pride in the quality of the work or to focus on providing better service to clients. Employees can also add meaning outside of work by having the workplace become involved with charitable causes, or by finding volunteer work which has meaning.

What the employer can do: burnout prevention in six job domains

Introduction

Supervisors and their organizations have many reasons to prevent burnout in employees. For example, burned out employees suffer from an all-encompassing fatigue which manifests itself in a number of ways, including signs of boredom and depression. Employees who were once sociable now seem to deliberately withdraw from contact with others, while employees who were once withdrawn might now exhibit signs of anger towards others. As Glicken and Janka (1982) explain,

[t]he burned out individual is smoldering in place, riddled with stress and dissatisfaction and responding with an ever intensifying loss of energy and interest. The burned-up individual has progressed to such a degree of lethargy and immobilization that he or she is generally destined for a radical event, such as mental or physical illness, sudden resignation, or involuntary termination. (p. 69)

Employers, unfortunately, have a tendency to view burned out employees as weak – unable to muster the physical and psychological strength needed to get over the bumps. These employees are seen as being difficult or suffering from some psychological disorder. Some organizations write off employee burnout as simply failing to keep up with the organization’s high performance standards.

This approach is more transparent than organizations would like to admit. Employees in one study who were asked about organizational practices and the extent to which they felt cared for as they burned out noted that

their organizations made the right noises about ensuring people didn’t burn out, but in practice tended to take a passive, reactive stance on work/life balance; they acted in a crisis or when asked to do so. Some mentioned that their employer had set up systems to try and prevent burnout but few would be willing to use them because of an endemic lack of trust in the organization’s motives. Indeed, in some organizations, there was a stigma attached to seeking support that was available. Overall, most felt that their organization saw burnout as a sign of weakness or failure. (Casserley and Megginson, 2009, p. 41)

This is, of course, a problem for organizations. To see burnout merely as the result of personal shortcomings or personality is to risk losing employees who were once high achievers and who now either fail to perform adequately or attempt to cope with their symptoms in ways which are personally and professionally destructive.

Instead, the savvy workplace will build in prevention programs, intervention assistance and treatment programs to shield employees against burnout. Prevention programs such as stress management training courses and information on stress management are aimed at workers generally. In contrast, stress management intervention and treatment programs are often tailored to the needs of specific individuals. In the case of stress management intervention, managers can be trained to keep an eye out for behavior that is unusual from their employees including reduced productivity, absenteeism and increasing self-isolation. Managers can have a private talk with the employee to find out what is going on, and can then recommend help if that seems like the appropriate next step.

Organizational fit

Managers should have some understanding of the personal characteristics of the employees in a particular role and whether there is a “fit” between these characteristics and the demands of the job. This can be accomplished through career development programs which help individuals understand their own strengths and weaknesses on the job. Fit can also be identified in terms of how well an employee is meeting the demands of a particular job and seems to be aligned or comfortable with the values and goals of the workplace.

There is more to job–person fit, however, than simply having an accurate understanding of what the job entails. Maslach et al. (2001) note that organizations often think of “fit” simply in terms of hiring the right individual or seeing that that individual adjusts to a new job. Burnout, however, is not a problem which affects only newcomers; instead, it is as, or more, likely to affect individuals who have been doing a particular job for some time and who are chronically mismatched with the job. In this context, “fit” is not merely the match between an employee’s skills and the tasks involved in a particular position; it also takes into account an employee’s emotion, motivation and response to stress, along with the larger organizational context.

Given this broader and more complex view of job–person fit, these authors have considered six specific job domains which we discussed above: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values (Leiter and Maslach, 2005). Each of these areas provides fertile ground for dissatisfaction with one’s worklife. We have discussed these areas from the standpoint of the employee and what that employee could do when fit in one or more of these areas was a significant problem. Now we turn to an examination of the same six job domains, but this time from the standpoint of organizations. The following are recommendations from Leiter and Maslach (2005) as well as other experts and researchers who offer advice on what organizations can do to reduce burnout in their employees.

Job domain 1: workload

Recommendation one: reduce excessive workload

The first of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains – workload – is a problem when workload is excessive, when time pressures are too severe, when work is too complex or when workers feel they must be on call constantly. Managers must take steps to deal with these matters or face personnel problems such as illness, absenteeism, reduced output and turnover further down the road.

When, for instance, workload is expected to be busier than usual, but only temporarily, managers need to let employees know what has brought about this change, how long the increased amount of work is expected, and why additional staff are not being hired. They should explain their expectations but also ask employees if there are any scheduling problems or potential conflicts such as family or other commitments that might make it more difficult or impossible to meet an increased workload. An effort should be made to help such employees meet their commitments by tailoring the workload and the schedule if possible so that the disruption to the employee is kept at a minimum.

Managers also need to lead by example. Where employees are expected to take on an excessive load for a special project, for example, managers should be doing the same (Tunick, 2000). Employees are unlikely to go the extra mile if they suspect that the pain is not being shared by their supervisors.

Recommendation two: identify and reduce boredom

While an excessively demanding workload can lead to burnout, an undemanding workload can be equally as stressful and bad for the organization as a whole. Indeed, in certain circumstances, even employees with demanding workloads can find themselves as bored as those with not enough work to do (Hoare, 2012).

The problem with boredom in all its forms, however, is that workplaces are particularly unwilling to admit that their workers might be bored. Not to do so, however, is a problem. Bored employees harm their organizations in a number of ways: by picking on others, by deliberately failing at tasks or sabotaging work, by stealing, and horseplay. Bored employees also tend to be late or absent more often, or to take longer breaks (Hoare, 2012). They spend the day surfing the Internet, writing emails or taking care of personal business (Joyce, 2005). Studies have shown that workers who anticipate a day with a light workload are two and a half times more likely to call in sick (“Work boredom,” 2012). Accordingly, even though busy employees might be bored, they are less likely to be prone to absenteeism.

One way to combat boredom, experts suggest, is to create “a culture of ‘psychological safety’ in which ‘it’s okay to ask questions’” (Hoare, 2012). Allowing employees to talk about the doubts and worries they have, along with their feelings on boredom, boosts morale. Organizations which can learn to be less defensive about this type of honesty will see better results in the long run.

Supervisors may also have it within their power to organize work such that employees are given some relief. This involves allowing workers to change tasks periodically, to rotate through various duties, or to experiment with new ways of accomplishing the same tasks. Providing workshops and additional training sessions, not only geared to the work itself but also to mental and physical health, helps to alleviate the stress and to provide guidance on coping. Shorter work shifts, allowing personnel to take more breaks, or providing opportunities for lateral job swaps also offer some variety in the workplace.

Recommendation three: model desired behavior

Managers need to be aware they model behavior including work-life balance. Where managers work excessive numbers of hours and do not take time out for family or vacations, they signal to subordinates that this is expected behavior and, in turn, increase the levels of stress in the workplace.

A stressed-out manager may exhibit signs of irritability, impatience, frustration or irrational thinking. Employees are less likely to be creative or candid with such a manager, and are less likely to communicate openly (Kaufman, 2005).

In contrast, when managers model healthy behavior, they improve working conditions for both their employees and themselves. One example is scheduling a “walking meeting” where meetings take place while going for a walk around the block. Walking meetings are healthy in that everyone is getting some exercise and fresh air; changing how meetings are done may also stimulate creativity. Managers also need to remember to take breaks from time to time in order to let employees know that it’s okay to occasionally step away from their desks (Ray, 2012).

Recommendation four: don’t skip vacations

Because excessive workload is consistently linked to burnout, steps should be taken to ensure that employees are taking vacations. Employees who take vacations are more likely to be physically and mentally healthier and more productive than their non-vacationing counterparts, but the organization must take some responsibility to ensure that employees do not forgo vacation (Dixon and Wills, 2010).

Among the steps that organizations can take is drafting a vacation policy which mandates that employees use their vacation time. The same expectation must be set for managers. Employees and managers should also be given guidance on how to schedule vacation time (i.e., scheduling in advance, scheduling around the vacations of other workers, and indicating the optimal amount of time, from the organization’s perspective, to take for any vacation) (Dixon and Wills, 2010). At the same time, organizations should also be careful to give employees enough latitude in determining for themselves the dates and duration of their vacations so that they can work out scheduling around family and other personal commitments.

Recommendation five: consider sabbaticals

In 2012, one-quarter of the companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For offered paid sabbaticals, and many more offered unpaid leave (CNNMoney.com, 2012). More companies are now offering sabbaticals as a recruiting and retention tool and to ward off burnout. Sabbaticals are primarily associated with academia in order to foster professional accomplishment. Outside of academia, however, sabbaticals are often taken for the purpose of pursuing education (job-related or not), additional training, research or for personal or family reasons.

For employees who are burning out, a sabbatical might be the first big step towards recovery. Ironically, individuals who are at risk for burning out might be those most reluctant to relinquish control of their specific area of work. Getting time away is crucial in terms of establishing some perspective about the job. Sabbaticals alleviate stress; employees who take them talk about coming back feeling relaxed and rejuvenated (Gardner, 2007).

Organizations which offer sabbaticals see them as a means of attracting, retaining and rewarding employees. In addition, both the organization and the employee benefit when the employee returns revitalized and with renewed enthusiasm for the job.

Sabbaticals are not a universal panacea, however. For one thing, not everyone can take advantage of the opportunity – in cases where sabbaticals are unpaid, some employees may not be able to afford forgoing remuneration. Others might have family commitments which prevent them from travelling or taking advantage of various opportunities.

Also, while sabbaticals help heal employees at risk for burnout, employees returning from sabbatical will face a similar risk upon return if changes have not been made to alleviate key stressors in the workplace (Giancola, 2006). What makes the sabbatical so ideal in this situation, however, is that time away is likely to help the employee pinpoint the specific problem or source of stress, allowing the employee to try to address it with the organization and to make changes upon her return.

Job domain 2: control

The second of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains – control – is one that is often difficult for organizations to share, and yet not sharing control with employees is one of the key ingredients of job strain. Job strain has been defined as “a measure of the balance between the psychological demands of a job and the amount of control or decision-making power it affords” (Wilkins and Beaudet, 1998, p. 47). Robert Karak’s job-strain model posits that workers most at risk physically and mentally from stress are those who have high job demands (such as workload or time pressures) and little say in how the work should be done.

Policies in the workplace generally give workers little scope to change their jobs even if those changes would allow for improvements. Instead, workers are closely monitored and work is expected to be carried out in a “narrow, cookie-cutter, one-size fits all-approach” (Maslach and Leiter, 1997, p. 12) which sends employees a message that “you can’t be trusted, we don’t respect your judgement, you aren’t very smart, you are incapable of doing this yourself” (Maslach and Leiter, 1997, p. 12).

One Statistics Canada survey found that older workers were four times more likely to retire early if they felt they had little or no job autonomy (Turcotte and Schellenberg, 2005). As a result, organizations intent on keeping valuable older employees must consider giving them more leeway to make decisions.

When workload is a problem, allowing employees some latitude in choosing how they will schedule additional hours, for example, is one way to provide more control. Another is to allow employees to have some say in what types of additional work they will take on. Workers who are given more control over their environment and the way in which they carry out the work are also more likely to report greater satisfaction with the job and to be able to mitigate the stress of demanding jobs.

Job domain 3: reward

The third of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains – reward – is also a thorny issue for management. Organizations have typically used money as a reward for performance either in the way of salary or bonuses. Nonetheless, reward programs are approached, like issues of control above, in a “narrow, cookie-cutter, one-size fits all-approach” (Maslach and Leiter, 1997, p. 12).

They are narrow and mechanical in that they overlook equally important ways to reward employees. For example, in an age of lay-offs and downsizing, job security is increasingly seen as a material reward. For some employees, career advancement, greater responsibility (accompanied by the requisite support) and/or control over how the job is done are also seen as rewards. In other cases, a reward might involve adjusting an employee’s schedule in order to accommodate continuing education or training. Some kind of brief downtime (i.e., time away from the most hectic part of the job), or time away from the job itself may also be desirable.

Research over the years has shown that employees of all ages value non-monetary types of reward as much as money. Hewlett et al. (2009), for example, found similarities among the most junior and most senior employees regarding the rewards considered as important as money. “Gen Y” workers (those born between 1980 and 1994) were looking for such rewards in the following order:

– High-quality colleagues

– Flexible work arrangements

– Prospects for advancement

– Recognition from one’s company or boss

– A steady rate of advancement and promotion

– Access to new experiences and challenges. (Hewlett et al., 2009, p. 76)

Along similar lines, “Baby Boomers” (those born between 1945 and 1960) were looking for these rewards in the following order:

– High-quality colleagues

– An intellectually stimulating workplace

– Autonomy regarding work tasks

– Flexible work arrangements

– Access to new experiences and challenges

– Giving back to the world through work

– Recognition from one’s company or boss. (Hewlett et al., 2009, p. 76)

The good news for organizations, then, is that it’s not all about the money. Satisfying an employee’s compensation needs is, indeed, just one way of keeping an employee happy. For there to be a ‘fit’ in the organization with regards to reward, however, organizations must also keep in mind other employee aspirations which are often as important as salary itself.

Job domain 4: community

Number four of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains – community – becomes a problem for employers when employees are unable to find positive social contacts and shared values. Research has shown that employees who have high-quality relationships or positive connections with co-workers are more likely to value and enjoy the workplace, and less likely to burn out over time (Fernet et al., 2010). High-quality relationships are defined as those which are “enriching, harmonious, satisfying, and that inspire trust” (Fernet et al., 2010; Senécal et al., 1992). Relationships of this sort act as a buffer for stress; in contrast, conflict with co-workers or feelings of isolation on the job are more likely to result in burnout. The increasing trend towards contract and short-term workers in workplaces creates a problem for building and sustaining community since full-t imers see little point in cultivating relationships with people who may only be working temporarily.

A study by career consultancy firm Sanders and Sidney reported that the majority of a worker’s friends are now made on the job. Friends are also a huge source of job satisfaction; like pay and benefits, they help to keep employees from moving to other jobs. According to the study, 80 percent of employers realize they should be working to create a positive atmosphere at work; however, most don’t understand that doing so is better for business (Hilpern, 2000; Collins, 2000) and good for the bottom line.

For organizations to benefit from cohesive employee relationships, they need to understand something about what it is that promotes or undermines community amongst employees. Some workplaces, for example,

seem designed to promote conflict between co-workers rather than cooperation. Co-workers may find themselves in competition with each other for favored positions, recognition, bonuses, and promotions. If this is the case, one-upmanship, backbiting, and putdowns are the order of the day. People are concerned about “me first” and may try to look good by making their peers look bad. Obviously, there are few attempts to help “the other guys” since there are no rewards for doing so and the helper only gets left behind as they move up. Furthermore, people are unwilling to ask for help or share their feelings, since doing so is often interpreted as a sign of incompetence or weakness. It may be used against them later on when a promotion report notes a lack of independence and overemotionality … The lack of trust that exists in such job settings puts invisible walls between potential allies. (Maslach, 2003, p. 70)

Employers need to do what they can to bring down these invisible walls. To begin, they can encourage a sense of community by sponsoring more social activities, allowing for a relaxed dress code and designing work and social areas in such a way that they encourage positive interaction.

Employees must play a part in designing these social activities so that it isn’t seen as something imposed top-down which they must endure to keep management happy. By allowing employees to set aside a small amount of time each week to come together and do some activity that interests them, employers increase the possibility of making productive friendships in the workplace, and productive friendships lead to a better atmosphere, greater retention of valuable employees, and increased motivation.

Nevertheless, building a better community in the workplace involves more than just workplace friends, it also requires supportive managers. Research has shown that in workplaces lacking supportive managers, employees are more likely to have higher emotional exhaustion (Edwards et al., 2001; Hannigan et al., 2000) and more likely to have negative attitudes towards the individuals whom they serve (Hannigan et al., 2000). Where managers are given training in providing additional support to their subordinates, however, those subordinates not only had greater job satisfaction but also fared better both physically and psychologically (Deci et al., 1989). Employees who are treated with respect and made to feel valued in the workplace have less difficulty handling heavy work demands than their less respected co-workers (Galt, 2006). They are also less likely to want to quit; researchers have discovered that when employees see their supervisors as supportive, they are less likely to pack in the job (Leung and Lee, 2006).

Job domain 5: fairness

Fairness, the fifth of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains, is a broad concept which covers various types of inequity in the workplace including the amount of work, remuneration for work, performance evaluations, and promotions. Fairness issues also include favoritism, discrimination, lying, cheating, and the way in which complaints or grievances are dealt with by the organization.

Fairness is hardwired into our systems, and treatment which is unfair touches a very old and primal part of our being. Research has shown that the amygdala, an ancient primitive part of the brain which controls feelings of anger and fear, also reacts strongly and automatically to issues of fairness. Specifically, researchers have found that humans react both instantly and aggressively when others are perceived to be acting unfairly. Individuals who perceive themselves as being treated unfairly will respond by making decisions that hurt the person acting unfairly even if it also means hurting themselves. For example, in studies involving how to split a certain sum of money, where the person in charge takes 80 percent for himself and leaves 20 percent for the other individual, that other individual will often refuse to take his 20 percent share even though it is not in his best interests to come away with nothing (ScienceDaily, 2011).

As a result, employers who act in ways which are perceived as unfair are likely to create a work environment in which employees not only act irrationally but are often openly hostile even if it means they are also hurting themselves by responding this way. To counteract this, for example, promotions should be handled fairly, and employees should have some understanding not only as to why one individual was promoted but why others weren’t. The reasons behind decisions regarding distribution of work, pay and other resources should also be communicated openly, and the opportunity provided for frequent and constructive feedback to employees.

Workers who feel they are being passed over for promotion or other rewards should not be ignored. Instead, supervisors should consider having them attend certain courses in skills and professional development or provide them with some other form of mentoring. Procedures should also be put in place to ensure that the same “high flyer” employees are not feted over and over again but that other employees have a chance to be recognized and to shine as well.

In addition to procedures to deal with the meting out of rewards, all organizations should have policies in place to handle harassment, bullying and other forms of abusive behavior which can also lead to inequitable treatment. Abusive behavior, discrimination and favoritism can have implications for employee behavior and morale that can reverberate throughout the organization and beyond.

These behaviors on the part of management can also lead to trouble with the law. Most jurisdictions in the industrialized world prohibit abusive behavior or bullying on the job. These laws also prohibit discriminatory behavior and various government agencies, boards and judicial and quasi-judicial bodies exist to deal with complaints involving discrimination. Organizations which are unable to handle these problems internally sometimes find themselves exposed publically and dealing with the negative publicity that accompanies it. Through education and training, management must understand what kind of behaviour is unacceptable in the workplace and employees must be provided with information regarding what they can do if they are the target of this kind of behavior. Similarly, both employees and supervisors must be given training in cultural diversity in order to avoid unpleasant incidents which lead to trouble with the law.

Having clear procedures in place in an organization is crucial as is open communication. Some employers, for example, have also experimented with weekly group sessions in which employees were encouraged to discuss any perceived inequities in the workplace (van Dierendonck et al., 1998). When these employees were later compared with a control group, the weekly group participants reported a significant decrease in emotional exhaustion which could lead to burnout, and an increase in perceived equity within the organization.

Job domain 6: values

Finally, the sixth of Leiter and Maslach’s (2005) six job domains – values – is also problematic even though at first glance this would not appear to be the case. Indeed, organizations like listing their values in their public documents and/or on their websites; doing so allows them to post heartwarming and inspirational statements about their goals and vision. Real values, however, have little to do with heartwarming words on promotional materials, and more about beliefs and opinions on what matters in the workplace. In order to know what an organization really values, one has only to look at the behavior which it rewards and punishes. This translates into a problem with fit when employees experience conflict between their individual or professional values and those of the organization, or between what is expected of them in the job and what they feel is the right thing to do.

For example, organizations which claim to value integrity and yet reward dishonesty, or which claim to value input and open communication and then develop plans in secret are sending a specific message to employees. Similarly, organizations which assert they care about work-life balance and then only reward employees who work long hours, or those which claim to have the client foremost in mind and then make decisions which hinder the delivery of frontline service are letting employees know what they really value. Management sows the seeds for discontent and burnout when it claims a commitment to quality, service and excellence, then undermines it in these and other ways.

Some experts suggest that organizations may occasionally want to conduct a “values inventory” or assessment in order to uncover any discrepancies between perceived and actual values (Benedictine University, 2012). Understandably, management and employees are likely to view a values inventory or survey as unimportant or as some “hoop jumping” exercise. Nonetheless, both organizations and employees can benefit not only when values are re-assessed honestly from time to time but also when they are reinforced. So, for example, if work–life balance is truly important (and not just something to which the organization pays lip service), then it is vital that supervisors talk to employees who are in the office day and night about going home at a decent hour. When management and employees take the time to define values and then to reinforce them with consistent behavior, employees are less likely to experience the stress that mixed messages send and less likely to have it affect their work performance. Also, organizations are less likely to have to address problematic behavior when values are clearly understood and reinforced in the workplace.

Conclusion

This chapter has explored mismatches in six job domains – workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values – from the perspective of the worker as well as that of the organization and has suggested ways of overcoming problems from each. Mismatches must be addressed; according to Maslach (2003), not to do so is to expose employees to burnout and to leave organizations more vulnerable to unpleasant after-effects.

Nonetheless, as this chapter has shown, there is much that both individuals and organizations can do to repair the problems which arise in each one of these domains. Individuals can, for example, protect themselves by staying healthy, drawing a clear line between work and home, and responding to stressors on the job in a way that will minimize their effects.

But employees alone can’t do it all. Organizations must understand that the sick or dysfunctional work environment affects not only the worker, but also the work and the bottom line. By showing leadership and taking measures to bring about or restore a healthy work environment, organizations ensure their own success as well.

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