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.
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.
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--