Burnt-out from work? Watch out the decisions you make at your workplace

28 Jun 2018

Have you ever felt burnt out? Occupational psychologist and CIM lecturer Dr Evie Michailidis discusses stress at work - something that concerns us all.

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Stress is acknowledged as a major health hazard in modern societies. Given that we typically spend about one third of our days at work, it cannot be denied that the workplace is one of the major causes of stress in our lives. The cost of workplace stress on businesses and the economy has been variously estimated; in all cases, it has been found to be huge. According to the Health and Safety Executive, in 2015/16 1.3 million working people in Great Britain were suffering from a work-related illness. Work related illness is also a growing concern for employees and employers in the European Union. According to the Fourth European Working Conditions survey carried out in 2005, 22 % of European workers reported suffering from stress and other work-related illnesses such as fatigue. Regardless of people’s occupation, accumulation of chronic workplace stress can be emotionally draining and poses the risk of burnout.

Burnout is an individual experience that is exclusive to the work context. Burnt out individuals are characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Emotional exhaustion captures the stress dimension of burnout as it refers to the depletion of emotional resources. As emotional resources are depleted, employees feel that they are no longer able to give their best, as they do not have enough energy to devote to their job and this prompts actions to distance oneself emotionally and cognitively from one’s work, as an attempt to cope with the work pressure. Depersonalisation describes the process whereby employees detach from their job and develop a feeling of indifference toward their work and coworkers. Finally, reduced personal accomplishment, also known as personal inefficacy, entails feelings of reduced confidence in one’s ability to perform the job well.

The importance of burnout lies in its negative impact both on the individual’s well-being and job performance (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Recent studies have focused on the impact burnout has on employees’ decision making (Michailidis & Banks, 2016). The execution of decision making is an integral part of employees working life and a key process for the successful completion of work-related tasks. It is therefore essential to understand how burnout influences decision making. Risky decision making may lead to detrimental and fatal consequences both for the employee and the organisation, especially in highly stressful occupations such as doctors who deal both with an individual’s physical and mental well-being and health on a daily basis.

In a study conducted by Michailidis and Banks (2016) with a sample of 262 employees from a wide range of occupations, initially looked at whether burnt-out individuals, exhibited avoidant decision making style. The study also explored whether burnt-out individuals exhibited higher risky decision making and whether this was mediated by the effect of the likelihood (how likely they think it will go wrong) and seriousness (to what extent they think it matters if it goes wrong) of the consequences of the worst-case scenario occurring.
Findings revealed that, indeed, burnt-out employees not only exhibit avoidance decision making, but also spontaneous and irrational decisions. However, the most interesting and innovating finding of the study was that burnt-out employees do take risk decisions. The effect of burnout on risky decision making was mediated by the seriousness of consequences from the worst-case scenario occurring. Burnt out individuals take the riskier option as they think that it does not really matter if the decision they take goes wrong–they underestimate the seriousness of the consequences. This is also aligned with findings according to which burnt out employees take spontaneous and irrational decisions. Due to the fact that burnt out employees are emotionally exhausted and develop callous and uncaring attitudes toward their job, they make risky decisions quickly without comprehensively analysing and evaluating alternatives.

Given the high-stressful work environment and the integral part decision making plays in employees’ life, the findings of this study are of particular relevance and importance – both to employees and employers. The fact that burnt-out employees take risky decisions could enable employers/managers to design work environments that provide more suitable support to employees who are responsible for decision making tasks and especially when risk is involved.

Employees, on the other hand, should pay attention to the early warning signs and prevent burnout from creeping up on them. The questions one might ask to determine whether he/she is in fact “burnt out” lie in the three components of burnout as mentioned above; emotional exhaustion, depersonalization; and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. Constantly feeling completely worn out, tired and emotionally drained, feeling increasingly cynical, dissatisfied and detached from work and work related activities, as well as having a lack of motivation and confidence in one’s ability to perform well at work, might be some warning signs or red flags that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Ignoring these early symptoms might eventually lead to burnout.

There are some strategies that employees could follow in order to prevent burnout. Slowing down on the pace of work and having a break from work, from work-related commitments, and from activities is the most important strategy that researchers would recommend. As when a car runs out of fuel, employees have to replenish their resources from work every now and then. Thus, recovering from work and restoring one’s energetic resources could improve the situation. Employees could go on a vacation, use up their sick days, ask for a temporary leave-or-absence-anything to remove themselves from the situation. This would enable them to use some time away to recharge their batteries, to revaluate their goals and priorities, and rediscover what really makes them happy and thus change course accordingly. Evidence strongly shows that getting support by others is also important for our physical health and mental well-being. Employees should therefore seek support from their family, friends but also from their manager/supervisor. Simply sharing your feelings and thoughts with others can relieve some of the stress. It could also be useful to have a meeting with their manager/supervisor and clarify their job description. The employee could point out things that he/she is expected to do and things that are out of his/her responsibilities. This would enable him/her to put parameters of their job and thus focus on their main responsibilities, reducing their work overload and consequently preventing burnout.

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