#9 Burnout and Resilience

There has been rising concern in recent years over the toll that burnout is taking in our country and around the world. The medical community has been especially hard hit. This condition is variously described, but generally is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a failure to recharge during non-working hours, a feeling of low personal accomplishment, growing cynicism and feelings of isolation. It differs from depression in that burnout symptoms are feelings and attitudes relevant to work life, not all of life.

Burnout is a phenomenon that has been around for a long time but in the last 15-20 years it has become progressively more common in the US, Europe and around the world. In just the last few years, the rates have become especially alarming in health care. Nationally, some aspects of burnout affect 50% of physicians, which is twice the incidence seen in the general population. But it is not just physicians. Some 30-50% of other healthcare workers are also now experiencing burnout symptoms.

In the Behavior at Work Collaborative we are dedicated to building and sustaining healthy workplace cultures. Workplaces that have put real energy into a culture that enhances the lives and experiences of those who work there, will often recognize that there is something special now about their place of employment. It is not perfect, but there is a certain collegiality and sense of mutual respect that one does not find everywhere. People who work in such places really want to do whatever it takes to preserve this special environment.

Those impacted by one or more aspects of burnout, those with growing feelings of frustration, cynicism and isolation, are deprived of the healthy attitudes and energy required to behave in respectful and optimistic ways at work – ways they enjoyed before the cloud of burnout began to descend. So unrecognized burnout can easily then begin to tear at the fabric of a hard won respectful, collaborative work culture. Higher than normal rates of sick leave stress the work loads of others. Grumbling, sharp comments, gossip, discontent and not so subtle finger pointing become commonplace. The key is recognizing what is going on. It is not a few individuals who have gone sour and need to be punished or fired. It is a few individuals, and maybe more, who need help.

With new awareness and a more educated perspective, people of a formerly healthy culture can begin to replace feelings of animosity with a sense of urgency and concern for some apparently disruptive coworkers. They may also recognize additional people who are almost certainly struggling with some aspects of burnout. Individuals themselves may be feeling the effects but have not been able to name it. The friends and coworkers in basically healthy work cultures will want to do their best to bring this conversation more out in the open and seek out solutions instead of scapegoats. This Collaborative wants to be a part of promoting that process.

RESILIENCE is the word that has been settled on to collectively describe the characteristics of people who are able to weather the stresses of modern work-life, bounce-back for another day and somehow stay physically and emotionally healthy through it all. A lot of research is going into this right now and we all need to learn more about what is being uncovered. Researchers are identifying numerous causes behind the current rise in burnout. About 80% of those identified are institutional – that is processes required by larger organizations (our employers) and the government. About 20% are personal. These are things we individually can have some control over. For success, both of these areas need to be addressed. Both are crushing resilience in many of us.

Each workplace may need to find its own way in beginning to understand the extent of burnout and the status of resilience in their own people. Resources on the topic are multiplying daily. People everywhere are ready to have this conversation and are looking for someone willing to dip in a toe and get it started. The time, however is now. We should all be concerned and willing to help meet this challenge in the places where we work.

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