Field Notes: Job burnout: Whose responsibility is it?

January 18, 2019
  • Communication
  • Competencies
  • Holistic and Systemic Thinking
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Well-Being
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"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Erin Mason, Associate Registrar at the University of Connecticut

At the 2018 AACRAO annual meeting, I did a poster presentation on some job burnout literature I had been studying. Here’s what my research has taught me:  job burnout is the result of prolonged exposure to stress and it is a very common phenomenon. Some studies estimate that 190 billion dollars are spent treating the manifestations of workplace burnout.

Why does burnout occur?

Burnout occurs for reasons that can be divided into two categories: individual and organizational characteristics. Studies consistently show that “Type-A” and/or those who display a higher rate of neuroticism (from the “The Big 5” personality traits) are more likely to suffer from job burnout. Men and women suffer from job burnout at equal rates; however, studies repeatedly show that younger employees suffer form burnout at higher rates than older employees. It is difficult to ascertain why, but researchers hypothesize that younger employees’ workplace coping skills are still developing.

Organizational causes that contribute to employee burnout are often a result of perceived resource scarcity.  This includes insufficient time to complete responsibilities, inadequate staffing or staff with inadequate skills and training. It also includes employee/job mismatch and unfair managerial expectations regarding work/life balance.  

Organizational change, especially change that impact employees’ roles, can be burnout-inducing. Burnout is more likely to occur when organizations redefine an employee’s unwritten understanding of what is expected of the them. For example, if a position is eliminated in my department and my employer expects me to perform part, or all, of the responsibilities of the eliminated position, in addition to my current responsibilities, I must renegotiate my concept of what I do on a daily basis.

Employees who have low control over their assignments suffer from burnout at a higher rate. Staff who have little or no control over what they do daily or how they perform their jobs can be at higher risk for burnout.  

Whose responsibility is it?

While much of popular literature is written from the perspective of helping the individual move through burnout, placing responsibility solely on the employee enables us to ignore the systemic nature of this problem.

As representatives of core offices, we are called upon to meet the changing demands and priorities of our institutions—often being asked to do more with less. Higher education institutions are complex; we, too, have little control over the ever-changing goals and priorities of our institutions. While we cannot exclusively prevent job burnout, we can develop our skills and utilize strategies that moderate the impacts of the organizational factors that prime employees for job burnout.

9 ways managers can help

1. Assess the environment. If your workplace environment contends with limited resources, frequent changes and low control over circumstances, you must first acknowledge that your employees are more likely to experience job burnout.

2. Recognize the symptoms.
The three classic definitional components of job burnout are emotional exhaustion, cynicism (or depersonalization) and inefficacy (or low personal achievement). To be considered “burned out,” a person must be suffering from all components. Emotional exhaustion is the easiest to identify and it is most highly correlated with mental/ physical health manifestations, as well substance abuse. If you perceive this as an issue, connect staff to resources (EAP, physicians, etc.).

3. Acknowledge your role as a manager in mitigating job burnout. If an employee is asked to absorb additional work from an eliminated position, set benchmarks to evaluate with the employee the consequences on an ongoing basis. Perhaps the employee will find the additional tasks manageable or can find a more efficient way of performing the tasks. Perhaps the new tasks fit best with a different role. Be open to working together to best manage the change.

4. Expect, and model, work/life balance. Eat your lunch. Take your breaks. Do not email on weekends whenever possible. It is not a coincidence that the right to work and the right to leisure are Articles 23 and 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5. Reevaluate roles/responsibilities holistically. Ensure employees’ strengths are being utilized and are aligned with their responsibilities. Job burnout often occurs because of a mismatch between employees’ skills and responsibilities.

6. Find ways to give employees some control. Involve employees in the change process, seek their input and feedback (warning—don’t ask unless you are going to use their advice). If an employee needs a temporary relief from their project or a cubicle neighbor, find ways to rotate tasks or cubicles. Allow employees to pick one project that excites them-- in addition to their daily work. Find ways for staff to independently set deadlines or prioritize their work.

7. Appreciate your employees and teams. Find ways to acknowledge gratitude and successes. In times of change, acknowledge challenge-- and the eventual successes-- that change brings. Social support is critical to workplace success. Find ways to nurture and leverage existing, or create new, teams to help manage and mitigate the challenges and develop solutions.

8. Continually evaluate resources. It is incumbent upon upper-management to evaluate resources and to advocate for additional resources and training if your office is routinely unable to perform successfully.

9. Reframe the issue. The needs of an office versus the needs of the institution’s budget creates a natural tension. I have found truth to the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Due to organizational change, we may no longer be able to do things in the same way, but we may be able to find a better approach. This takes time and creativity but can be a great way to utilize and develop employees’ skills.

Mindful management
To approach job burnout deliberately, managers must acknowledge that our roles go beyond supervision -- as managers, we are architects of workplace culture. We must look beyond output. We must mindfully create and nurture a positive, healthy workplace culture. I believe this is the way to create sustainable, long-term success in moderating the impacts of job burnout.