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The Path on the Road to Burnout

Authors:
  • Corrective Services NSW

Abstract

The road to burnout is paved with good intentions. It is a condition that occurs when a susceptible person encounters a situation of overload. This results in emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a reduced sense of one's self and one's accomplishments: a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by good intentions. It happens when people try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting their energy. The type of person most prone to burnout generally has high expectations of what can be accomplished. As time passes and all the goals aren't achieved, the enthusiasm dies and listlessness sets in. Instead of lowering the objectives or accepting reality, frustration is bottled up and the individual tries even harder. This leads to feelings of alienation, cynicism, impatience, negativism and of not being appreciated. Eventually there may be feelings of detachment to the point that the individual will begin to resent the work involved and the people who are part of it.
QUILL: Queensland Branch's Newsletter
This is the full article by Toni Kennedy, as published in the January 2001 issue of
OPALessence,
the newsletter of the ALIA One Person Australia Libraries Special Interest Group. Toni gave
permission for an edited version of her article to be republished in the June 2001 issue of
Quill.
Burnout in the workplace: the path on the
road to burnout
The road to burnout is paved with good intentions. It is a condition that occurs when a
susceptible person encounters a situation of overload (Elliott & Smith 1983, p. 144). This
results in emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a reduced sense of one's self and one's
accomplishments (Haack et al 1984, p. 46): a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by
good intentions. It happens when people try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting
their energy. The type of person most prone to burnout generally has high expectations of
what can be accomplished. As time passes and all the goals aren't achieved, the enthusiasm
dies and listlessness sets in. Instead of lowering the objectives or accepting reality, frustration
is bottled up and the individual tries even harder. This leads to feelings of alienation,
cynicism, impatience, negativism and of not being appreciated. Eventually there may be
feelings of detachment to the point that the individual will begin to resent the work involved
and the people who are part of it (Gehmeyr 1993).
It is therefore not surprising that one-person librarians are subject to this condition, when as
Gehmeyr (1993) notes the three things often associated with burnout are: role conflict, role
ambiguity and role overload. In addition, a study by Haack et al (1984, pp. 66-67) identified
the work factors that make reference librarians particularly susceptible to burnout. These
included budget cuts, technological changes, client demands, heavy workloads, poor
management and supervision, and low pay. They are expected to answer questions from all
clients quickly, accurately and courteously, no matter how obnoxious the questioner. Many
have no office of their own, no private space on the job, and must remain in the public area
even when they are doing other work. They are often expected to do many jobs
simultaneously and are often taken for granted by others in the workplace. This sounds like a
perfect description of the work in a one-person library. to evaluate your risk of burnout go to:
http://www.queendom.com/tests/career/burnout.html and complete the test.
Burnout has been differentiated from stress in that burnout is primarily job related, and those
most prone to it are highly motivated, idealistic people, who often persist in trying to attain
impossible goals (Smith et al, 1988 : 14). The symptoms may be physical, emotional or
behavioural. Physical symptoms can include tiredness, pains in various parts of the body, low
resistance to illness and insomnia. Emotional symptoms can include depression, inability to
concentrate, pessimism, boredom and reduced motivation. Behavioural changes may include
rudeness to patrons, absenteeism, extended breaks and tardiness.
Burnout is also generated in toxic workplaces, where the environment encourages over-
achievement and sublimation of the worker to the company. Some managers are also toxic,
constantly overloading their staff with work and focussing on negative aspects of the work,
and seldom giving praise, even when it is due. Co-workers may also contribute to this,
sometimes by spreading the contagion (if they are burnt out themselves) by constantly
complaining, refusing to do assigned work, and absenteeism (Smith et al, 1988).
Unfortunately, short of leaving the workplace for another (which may be the best thing to do
in the long run) there is often little that librarians (especially those in the one-person
situation) can do to change the organisation. However, you can always choose to change
yourself, and how you react to the situations you have to deal with at work.
There are generally thought to be 4 stages in the process of burnout. These are: enthusiasm,
stagnation, and frustration followed by apathy (Gosser, 1987: 33-4; Gorkin, 2000). However,
this scenario does not have to be followed in every work situation. Enthusiasm may become
tempered by the reality of the situation and knowledge of yourself and your abilities, and
need not lead inevitably to stagnation. If you are a susceptible person (ie perfectionist,
impatient, competitive, unable to say no without feeling guilty) there are steps you can take to
avoid becoming a victim of burnout even in organisations and situations that encourage it.
The first step is to know yourself. You must be aware of the pressures you put on yourself,
and be able to distinguish the problems that can be solved from the ones that cannot be
changed (Smith & Nelson 1983, p. 17). Evaluate your own susceptibilities and admit them -
have the courage to be imperfect (Elliott & Nelson, 1984, p. 144) but also recognise your
strengths as well as your weaknesses.
If you know you are a perfectionist, set reasonable goals that you will be able to reach to
prevent the constant feeling of failure that your perfectionism often generated. Focus on your
successes as well as the failures, and keep some perspective in the situation - will the world
really collapse tomorrow if you don't get the overdue notices out on time every time?
Examine your 'be perfect' script and substitute positive messages for the negative ones you
normally judge yourself with. Don't feel guilty if you don't always live up to your ideal of
what a librarian should be (Elliott & Nelson 1984, p. 144). There are a number of useful sites
on the Internet that can help you do a reality check on your unrealistic expectation and beliefs
about yourself (eg
http://www.cyberpsych.com/reality_check.html and
http://www.cyberpsych.com/unreal_beliefs.html [link unavailable] ).
Utilise the support of colleagues. This can either be formally through meetings with your
peers, either through ALIA groups such as OPALs or outside networks (eg Gratis, LOTTS),
or informally with a chat to a friend. The saying that a problem shared is a problem halved, is
often true in this situation. Knowing that you are not the only person with an unreasonable
boss, unco-operative coworker, looming deadline and difficult patrons can often diminish
your feelings of frustration, rage or helplessness. Often no one in your organisation really
understands your problems ('It must be lovely to be able to sit around reading all day', they
say) and this can add to your feelings of isolation. There is often such a mismatch between
the image other people in the organisation have of librarians and the real work involved in the
job. If so, look elsewhere for understanding and empathy.
Don't work yourself into the ground - go home when it's time to go (not when the last task has
been done) and use your earned time off from work without guilt - the workplace will go on
without you. Periodic rest periods and vacations will allow you to replenish your energies and
return to work with renewed enthusiasm (Smith & Nelson 1983, p. 18). Long hours at work
will never replace time spent with your family and friends. Leave your problems at work -
don't take them home with you. Don't identify yourself so much with the job that you lose
yourself and your life outside in the process. Don't ever forget that you can and should take
charge of your life. Create balance in your life: spread yourself out so that your job doesn't
have such an overpowering influence on your self-esteem and self-confidence (Miller &
Smith 1997).
Look for new challenges in the work that you do - avoid repetition burnout from doing the
same thing again and again. Learn a new skill, using professional development to expand
your expertise. You may be able to use this in your present job, or it may enable you to find
another one that suits you better. If you are encountering interpersonal in the workplace,
courses in communication or dealing with difficult people may be most useful. Keep yourself
motivated and inspired: one of the best ways to keep enthusiastic is to constantly set goals for
yourself. Look at what other people are doing and at how it can add value to your work.
However, be realistic - don't attempt too much at once. View your career and your job as a
positive journey, as something to be built upon gradually and continually.
Don't accept undo-able jobs. This will only result in frustration and feelings of low self
worth. Set limits and stick to them. Realistically evaluate the time it will take to do a job and
the skill involved in doing it before accepting it. Will you have time and are you really able to
do it? If necessary, learn to say no, and forgive yourself for doing so. It is easy to accept work
hoping to impress yourself, your boss or clients, but less easy to cope with the feelings of
failure that can result when the job is not done well or on time.
Face life with a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at yourself and others - preferably when it
happens, rather than years later. Don't take yourself too seriously and try to find something
pleasant to look forward to each day - allow yourself time out for fun. Freudenberger, who
originated the term 'burnout', suggests that 'humour will cut the system down to size for you
and make you vastly more popular with everyone around you' (cited in Smith & Nelson 1983,
p. 18). Remember that happiness comes from within, not from without.
If you feel the symptoms of burnout coming on, don't wait too long - consciously intervene to
break the cycle before it goes too far, perhaps using some of the suggestions above. If you
already are a victim of burnout, remember that it's never too late to change - wither yourself
or the situation. Burnout cannot be controlled with a pill or a shot, and can take time and
perseverance to overcome. Smith & Nelson (1983, p. 17) give a good summary of the
interventions most often cited by burnout researches. These include: improved working
conditions, positive job support, on the job training, self awareness, physical exercise, setting
realistic goals, vacations, hobbies, more education, breaks during work, family support,
workshops and seminars, decompression, changing jobs, improved salary levels, sense of
humour, and mediation/yoga. However, if the situation has progressed too far, and the only
solution is to leave that particular workplace, don't take your negative feelings and
behaviours into the new workplace. Begin again with enthusiasm, but this time temper it with
realism about your abilities, your susceptibilities, your aspirations and goals. Be realistic
about the stresses inherent in any work environment and remember 'we are not our
work...still, somehow, in the process of caring a hell of a lot about something, and pouring all
your sweat and blood into it, you can get terribly confused' (Falter-Barns 2000).
Burnout can be prevented or overcome. Whenever a situation becomes intolerable there are
three choices open to all of us: to escape the situation, to change the situation, or the change
the way we view the situation. It is up to you to choose which is the right way for you.
Finally, remember to 'work hard, work well, work effectively...until quitting time. Then go
home and enjoy the rest of your life' (White 1990, p. 65).
Toni Kennedy
Library, Lady Davidson Private Hospital
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... In the LIS field, burnout prevention interventions have not been created or assessed, although McCormack's 2013 book presents ideas for managing burnout at an organizational level in LIS settings [21]. Personal stories from LIS professionals present individualized approaches, such as saying "no," mediating, and changing jobs [22][23][24][25][26]. ...
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