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Burnout is an issue that business prefers not to talk about, despite the toll it can take in the workplace. Executives are eager to discuss employee engagement: Getting employees more excited about their work. But burnout, caused when employees are exhausted, overwhelmed, and ticked off with their work, isn't a topic for conversation.

"Managers don't want to open up a can of worms and talk about employees' problems," says Michael Leiter, a professor of organizational psychology at Acadia University and expert on burnout. "They are happier discussing engagement and where they want to go."

So let's discuss burnout, with Prof. Leiter, who has been on sabbatical in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, writing a book and reducing the chance of his own burnout as he mixes work with the beach life. It was before another sabbatical in 1984 that he read about a scale Stanford University professor Christina Maslach had developed for measuring burnout, which is now the standard tool worldwide for such research. He impulsively picked up the phone and called to ask if he could spend his sabbatical working with her (when your university is in Wolfville, N.S., you look for sunny places to spend your winter sabbaticals, he says with a laugh,). The result has been a nearly three-decades-long collaboration, including the 1997 book The Truth about Burnout.

In that book they advanced the notion – rather obvious, but interestingly not discussed until then – that engagement is the opposite of burnout. He suggests you think of a continuum, from chronically exhausted, discouraged and disengaged to the exalted state of engagement. You will find people at all ranges on that continuum in organizations. But often in certain units there will be a cluster of burnouts, festering because of an unhealthy work situation.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory revolves around six categories:

  • Workload: Too much work, or not enough resources;
  • Control: Micromanagement, lack of influence, or accountability without power;
  • Reward: Not enough pay, acknowledgment, or satisfaction;
  • Community: Isolation, conflict, or disrespect;
  • Fairness: Discrimination or favouritism;
  • Values: Ethical conflicts or meaningless tasks.

Respondents are asked a series of questions, such as, "I feel tired when I wake up in the morning and face my job." It's fine to be tired at night, notes Prof. Leiter, but being tired and frustrated before going to work is a bad sign.

Prof. Leiter highlights two factors as the prime determinants of burnout. The first is workload – too much to do, with not enough time or resources. He says organizations can get to their goals by training people and giving them more resources or can just push people harder, using them up. These days, of course, there are also what he calls boundary issues, as with modern technology it becomes more difficult to separate ourselves from work.

The other big factor is values, since these days people increasingly expect professional and personal values to be validated at work. When they find a difference between what the company says and does – waxing eloquent about customers being the main priority, but treating customers poorly – the gap can lead to frustration and, eventually, burnout. "Idealistic people are more susceptible to being burned out," he says. "Cynical people have a shell."

Burnout seems to be increasing, with surveys turning up slightly higher scores than two decades ago. But it's certainly not becoming an epidemic, for all the complaints about the workplace we hear. Still, as he puts it, "Burnout is still alive and well."

There are two paths to dealing with burnout: The individual path and the organizational path. You can determine the mismatches between how your current work matches up with your personal preference in the critical six categories and then address those mismatches. Or the organization can identify the mismatches commonly shared in its workplace, and start to deal with that.

But make sure you understand the source of the mismatch. Profs. Leiter and Maslach, in an article a few years ago in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, recall attending a meeting of teachers in the U.S. where a motivational speaker had been hired by management to inspire them and help deal with stress. But as the speaker told stories from his days as an athletic coach, the teachers were sitting quietly and stewing. They did not lack motivation. What they were lacking was decent pay, adequate supplies, parents' support, and a manageable workload. "The superintendent's well-meaning attempt to nip burnout in the bud only nurtured it," they write.

Prof. Leiter says individually you should look at the pace of your work, and find a lifestyle that suits you. Companies need to improve teamwork and management. "Good management sustains your people better," he says.

If burnout is occurring, it's easy to feel helpless and seek escape by moving to a new work unit or organization. But Prof. Leiter urges you to try a few remedies first, believing we have more scope than we believe to push the envelope at work and make changes. "People have more latitude than they take in their job," he says. "Try to craft your job the way you want and see how far you get. They usually won't fire you or punish you first time out. We're not in a feudal system."

Burnout won't go away, like a bad cold. You must address it, directly, pinpointing the causes and taking action to alleviate the problem. Trying to create a more engaged workplace with improved organizational policies can help, but he stresses that organizations also have to give individuals or work groups suffering from burnout special attention. So you can't avoid burnout, and just talk about engagement. They must both be addressed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance.

E-mail Harvey Schachter