Chronic Stress & Burnout

  • Consider the classic definition of stress which states it results from an imbalance between demands encountered and resources available to meet demands. This transactional model contains several key elements.

    First, the evaluation of a disturbing or threatening event: the primary appraisal. Second, the evaluation of the controllability of the stressor and the persons coping resources: the secondary appraisal. Third, the actual strategies enacted to regulate the primary and secondary evaluations: the coping action. If the challenge, or threat, is evaluated well enough, met, and more or less resolved the system returns to balance. If it does not get resolved life goes on but one more brick gets added to the load. The key point is to try to maintain a more or less steady dynamic equilibrium between stability and change.

    But what happens if this ideal picture runs amok? And it will.

    Burnout is a stealth antagonist. It ranges the border-zone between un-remitting external expectations and tiring personal resources. 

    Burnout and chronic stress emerge at some point where demands continue to increase (people experiencing "relentless asks" at work) while our available resources (internal and external) fail to keep pace with demand. If you have a leak in the boat and water comes in faster than your ability to bail, exhaustion and sense of futility won't be far away if nothing changes. The key metrics to keep in mind for understanding the progression from "stressed out" to "burnout" are Exhaustion and Disengagement.

    Exhaustion may be understood as intense physical, emotional, and cognitive strain defined as a long-term consequence of prolonged exposure to certain job demands. Emotion, in this context, represents the dynamic collaboration between thoughts, feelings, sensations, perception, and motivation.

    Disengagement concerns relationships between employees and their jobs particularly with respect to identification with work and a willingness to continue in the same occupation. Disengaged employees endorse negative attitudes towards their work projects, work content, and work in general which includes feelings of futility, cynicism, depersonalization, reduced sense of professional accomplishment.

    Burnout is a syndrome of exhaustion, disengagement, and a reduced sense of personal and professional accomplishment. It occurs among people at work over time. The syndrome thrives when co-present with ineffective, non-existent, or poorly designed recovery cycles and weakened boundaries combined with little or no sense of control over workload. It presents a very challenging dance between non-stop outside requests and expectations and our internal resources available: if our biological/psychological stimulus barrier buffer protecting us from relentless, repetitive collisions between outside and inside forces starts to weaken or become too porous or too rigid, we would expect some kind of systems failure over time.

    More to come.