Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hazard Light: A Candle, Burning at Both Ends

Every day, people with difficult jobs prepare themselves to meet that day's requirements.  They measure their expected level of demand against their resources to meet it. When the demand exceeds the available resource, these people are officially stressed. Working life is no longer a challenge--it's tiring and somehow destructive. When the stress on the job takes more and more away, the individual feels 'burned out.' They become careless of their safety, disinterested in their jobs, less effective. They lose sleep or have less restful sleep.

Enter Researchers, Working 9 to 5 With Leisurely Lunch
So, the social scientists started researching Burnout  in the 1980's, probably about fifteen years behind the curve. The soc-sci's have the damndest ways of explaining things, but they did do some good work. Gradually they began to view this kind of stress as a combination of conflicts; role conflicts, organizational conflicts, and how they work on an individual.

I read a lot of blogs where people are stressed. I am taking my examples from them. I hope they don't mind.

Role conflicts
A role conflict occurs when one person must try to reconcile the needs of two roles at once. I see examples of this all over the Internet, where, for instance, a bank robbery is underway and a bystander wants their bank card back, (danger & use of force/ childish person who must be managed).

In another case, a fight must be broken up here, a call has gone out to back up a colleague,  but somebody lost their handbag. The role in the immediate situation is at war with the need to maintain collegiality or 'brotherhood' with other officers. Plus the crazy lady who left her purse in a bar.

Role conflict can also occur when an unaccustomed role shows up in the middle of the night. In this post, an emergency responder was suddenly thrust into a more long-term care-giver's role: talking to a family about the patient's death.

When this role conflict cannot be reconciled, or occurs repeatedly under more and more conflict, it leads to burnout.

Organizational conflicts
In every organization, conflicts over hierarchy, rules vs. discretion, and other conflict is inherent. But this can be made worse if extra duties are piled on, some of which introduce role conflict above. For example, this police officer feels he has become a customer service supervisor.  It is not a role he feels appropriate to his station.

Other examples include short-handedness, division between cadres that has been fostered through nepotism or favoritism , or the manipulated competition between factions.

The symptoms and process of burnout
So these steps are straight from Wikipedia. I don't think you have to hit all of them to end up at the bottom of the stairs. For instance, I think most people DO realize #6, the root cause of their distress. And I think Nos. 9 through 11 are all the same thing. I even think 1 and 2 may be the same.

1. A compulsion to prove oneself
2. Working harder
3. Neglecting one's own needs
4. Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
5. Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
6. Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
7. Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
8. Behavioral changes become obvious to others
9. Inner emptiness--[deep emotional fatigue--ATH]
10. Depression--[this is where someone turns their anger inward, but actually it started at #3-ATH]
11. Burnout syndrome

Our Bias Against Remedies?
In our culture the burnout's responsibility falls on the individual. But the soc-sci's consider it a problem with the organization. For people in law enforcement or emergency care, unofficial caretakers or teachers in embattled schools, it becomes an intractable institutional situation. That is why the administration has to step in--with some organizational policies to defeat stress. That means allowing these officers to journal on the 'net to evaluate their day rather than cutting any thoughtful expression off, have some days off that aren't spent testifying in court, vary their job somewhat, work with colleagues, receive coaching or coach others, ask for tools or a teacher's aide and get them.

A Painful Situation with a Good Stress Response
To end, I want to recommend a video that came from a post at Behind the Blue Line. Video #2 is the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, where a man brandishing a knife was shot by one of the police officers--a tragic event for all involved. Afterwards, you see that the backup arrives pretty quickly. Each of them works to minimize the stress for every other one on the scene. The officers involved are taken from the scene, which minimizes their role conflict (as participants they should not be guardians, and as victims themselves they should be given care). Those officers detailed to sit with the involved police are given that role only. Then others direct traffic, assist the medical responders, and divide up the other functions.

In this instance, the legal demands, psychological demands, and role demands are all parceled out in a non-conflicting way.  This is part of established procedure and also very wise.

This is the kind of thinking that schools, law enforcement agencies, emergency rooms, and fire departments need to make and need to be able to make for everyday stressors as well as out-sized ones. That means good leadership at those organizations. It also means a city council or school board that understands this (voter's choice!) and that can pay for it (taxpayer resolve!).

I am not a psychologist or a social scientist. But everywhere I see many people working in burnout conditions. Their budgets have been cut; they work without partners, which increases their isolation; they must reconcile the protecting with the serving, quality with quantity; the threats around them and the manners everyone expects them to have.

They are supposed to walk little old ladies across the street, care about the eggshell spattered on our doors while blizzards rage, and catch the violent offender. Or solve a child's psychological problems with twenty-nine other students looking on. Or fix in twenty minutes a liver which has been assaulted by bourbon for decades. Get to a call quickly but not drive too fast.

In a world where these people are renewed and the institution pays more than lip service to preventing burnout, the supersonic "space-and-time-defying response vehicle" is a good joke. But even good jokes get old.

Individuals sometimes make bad decisions when under stress. They sometimes take good care of themselves. People can learn how to take care of themselves, or we can reach out to them. But we also need to think about the institutions that these people work in, and how to structure work to reduce burnout. According the social scientists, it is a more productive way to work. We'd get more bang for our cynical buck. It is also the decent thing to do.

Blogs cited include Behind the Blue Line, The Johnny Law Chronicles, Inspector Gadget, Miss Brave Teaches NYC, Report on Conditions, and Ten-80 blog. I could also have used almost any blog on my blogroll. Not all of them are burned out, of course. But I hope they are each taking care of themselves. That their institutions value them. That an appreciative sector of the public steps up to the plate.

Articles cited: all linked above: mostly Wikipedia and a teacher burnout article that had good refs.
They are still doing research on this. If anything good comes up that's recent, I'll try to post it. I have my eye on a couple of scholarly articles--


Bob G. said...

That was a good, concise "eval" of a situation too many suffer from (and needlessly, I might add).
I'm a civvie, and I know I exhibit some of the *symptoms*...

And I point my finger squarely at those in my area, who have no other intent in their lives but to constantly annoy others.

Their LACK of values impacts on my
way of life.
Their absence of basic human principles denies me a quality of life I have a right to enjoy.

Many times we don't like what we are forced into becoming, but the manner in which we handle it through whatever works for us is all we have to lean on.

Might be faith in God, calming music, nurturing support from loved ones (in my case, all of the above)...whatever.

Whatever works for you MUST be positive in nature...not negative.

But people have to realize that EVERY one of us DOES have a breaking point.
The "plan" is to never get that close to it.

Good post.

BobKat said...


Great Post!!! It'll take me awhile to read through it all, but in the meantime wished to share with you and your readers my recent IT review.

1) Myself and my co-workers are beyond the breaking point at our job doing tech support - a job that directly affects the accurate computations and storage of millions of school children's grades, attendance, contact data, GPA's and their future.

2) Management pretends we don't do our job, because management doesn't trust us, so management finds ways of assigning extra work and assignments to "prove we are working".

3) failure to deliver results in a timely manner for these assignments is considered a lack of respect for authority; and we are told we should and don't adhere to basic high school rules that dictate when an assignment is given, we need to JUMP!

4) I bust my butt this past year and got zero raise - think the economy is improving? It's not!

5) You can get blood from a stone... keep bashing in the head of your employees that work hard everyday!

Thank-you Ann T.

Sensitive subject and I'm glad you posted about it.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Starting and stopping my comment again...

Yes, I found myself on that list. Not myself now, but myself about 18 months ago.

Getting someone to believe in you again is now the tough part--including believing in yourself.

Thanks for the wonderful and thought provoking post.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
Yes, you are dealing with the public, and they are so random, you never know your threat level or what annoyance is next. That is a lot of stress.

You have some good habits that shore you up as you listed, plus the blogging/journal type things you do. I see you many places I go, and you are always helping them and me.

Stay safe (as you frequently say),
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear BobKat,
When it gets to a game between management and workers, there is sure as heck an organization problem. The little traps and gotchas almost always become reciprocal and things just go to hell. I feel for you.

So, you have to find a way to renew yourself. This is a good example of how the individual ends up having to make the step to transform himself, hoping the organization will figure out it also has to do so.

Thanks for commenting,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I am pretty sure you are a nurse and in an ER. I am sure the opportunities for burnout have to be huge.

Besides that, I think you are a person that sees much and longs to solve root causes for many immediate problems. Much of the public will not give that back.

A person that believes in you--I believe in you, but I am glad you did find people in your own hometown to do so. My opportunity to give hugs or bring a plate of brownies is not so good.

Anyway, I am glad you were able to come back on the road from burnout.
I hope you can keep doing the renewing!

Thank you very truly for sharing,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

One last thing.

I truly have the best and most thoughtful readers here. I am very grateful to you.


Slamdunk said...

Concise post on what certainly is a serious problem.

On a lighter note, I always thought that I would fit in well in cultures that included an afternoon siesta in the workday--2 pm is usually my low point.

Also, I like the new blog look Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I am with you--my low point is exactly three in the afternoon, and no sugar or coffee will fix it. A nap right then would be perfect!

With summer coming, the public usually starts acting out even more, so I am hoping for some prevention/intervention.

Thanks for commenting on the look! I hope it's easy to read!

Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T
Thanks for the support. I've been job hunting, and it's not a life affirming experience. :-/

The irony is I really like life in the ER generally. It's a matter of not letting the turkeys get you down.

Thanks again.

The Observer