In this brief piece, I want to begin an exploration of burnout. Some believe burnout is self imposed by workers who can’t take the pressure. Others find that in the current economic and organizational climates, burnout is imposed by business that do not recognize or accept that workers need periods in their work days to decompress.
During the Vietnam era, American military members often recited a refrain for which I do not have a clear attribution; although one source attributes it to Mother Teresa.
“We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”
Many of the service members who recited this also suffered from the stresses of war, constantly being shelled by the enemy, constantly being on patrol in jungles where the enemy hid, constantly being exposed to team members injuries, wounds, and death.
Movie watchers saw this portrayed with some degree of realism in Band of Brothers. These military men and women were constantly in a state of high arousal with few or no opportunities to decompress.
Is there a parallel to that refrain in the current economy, the current organizational climate? One source explains the parallel by citing that in the current climate (economic or organizational) there are often mismatches between job expectations and expectations of the person performing the job.
Often, organizations place economic consequences ahead of human values. This confusion of values against economic needs of the employee to survive in an unstable work climate may result in lost productivity brought on by stress.
Question, who are the unwilling and why did they become unwilling? It their book, The Truth About Burnout, Maslach and Leiter found several reasons why people become unwilling. They find overwork and lack of control over their jobs as part of the problem.
Another question, who are the unknowing? The comic Dilbert provides an example of the unknowing in the depiction of the pointy-haired boss who reaps all the rewards for himself sharing none with workers.
Why has working become doing the impossible? Although the work may not be impossible to complete, workers feel a loss of community in the workplace. Political intrigue and rumors often force workers to withdraw from those around them.
An example of the ungrateful comes from the movie Office Space. The unit manager who strolled the isles of cube dwellers showed his lack of gratitude in his interpersonal interactions. Today, workers feel that they are not treated fairly and have to deal with values conflict.
Citing Maslach and Leiter again, they write, burnout is a result of “erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will — an erosion of the human soul” (pg. 17). This is a strong provocative statement meaningfully explaining “doing so much, with so little, for so long.” The human spirit can become willing again if organizations take steps.
The modern military tries to relieve effects of stress and the resulting PTSD in the field and before and after a deployment. What are organizations doing to combat stress and burnout? The first step organizations must consider is the truth of burnout.
Since the bottom line is the bottom line in contemporary business, one truth is that burnout takes an economic toll. Another truth is the emotional toll zapping the strength of workers both mentally and physically.
Organizations cannot afford to have unwilling and ungrateful elements if it wants to survive. Relieving the economic and emotional toll of burnout can take the “un” out leaving willing and grateful. People do not exist because of an organization; an organization exists because of people.
Please comment on this topic from your personal or professional experience.
About the Guest Blogger
Dr. Paul Hoffman holds a Doctor of Strategic Leadership from Regent University, a Master of Arts in Leadership and Bachelor of Science in Organizational Communication from Bellevue University.
Doctor Hoffman is an adjunct professor at Bellevue University and Metropolitan Community College in Communications Arts, English, and Communication and Humanities. Before his teaching role, Dr. Hoffman was a graduate enrollment counselor at Bellevue University and enrollment representative to the University’s Quality Council.
Dr. Hoffman came to the academic arena after ten years in retail management. During this period he managed in speciality mall stores, and multimillion dollar warehouse style stores. Dr. Hoffman owned a small business and was an insurance agent for a fraternal insurance provider.
Dr. Hoffman was a U.S. Air Force active duty noncommissioned officer retiring in 1990 as a Master Sergeant. During over 21 years of active duty, Dr. Hoffman was a Security Police sentry assigned to guard aircraft, missiles, and nuclear weapons on alert and in storage.
For three years, he held the speciality of Military Training Instructor while supervising an installation correctional custody facility. In the concluding seven-plus years, Dr. Hoffman worked as an installation human relations and equal opportunity treatment NCO and finally as Superintendent of Social Actions overseeing both human relations and substance abuse prevention activities for an installation.
Military assignments saw Dr. Hoffman stationed at major Air Force Bases of the Strategic Air Command, U.S. Air Force Europe, and Pacific Air Force. During the Vietnam era, Dr. Hoffman had one assignment in support of major air operations over Vietnam.
Dr. Hoffman is married to Su Yun and they have two adult children. Son, Leslie Donald, is the oldest formerly a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. Les has two combat tours in Iraq.
Daughter, Theresa Ann, was a member of the U.S. Peace Corps serving on the island of Carricaou, the Grenades; her Peace Corps specialty was Community Health focusing on AIDS awareness and prevention and presently studying to become a physical therapy assistant.