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How to avoid burnout at work

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Taking positive steps at work will help keep weariness at bay.

Fun fact: you may have heard of the Stanford prison study, which simulated a jail into which student volunteers were placed, as guards or inmates. It was meant to run for a week, but it was shut down after only a few days, because the “prisoners” started showing extreme psychological distress. This didn’t happen, though, until observer Christina Maslach questioned whether study leader Philip Zimbardo should let it continue. Maslach, a new PhD, was only one of a number of observers who went through the study, but clearly one of a minority of those observers who questioned it.

Maslach also went on to marry Zimbardo, and they’re still married. Did love blossom in a (simulated) prison?

These days, Maslach, a professor emerita, is famous in her own right. She is a pioneer in research on burnout, that nebulous thing we fear but don’t necessarily understand until it happens to us. It’s a feeling of bone-deep weariness, it’s losing interest in work you previously enjoyed, and it inevitably affects the quality of your work, Without “treatment”, burnout can become a vicious cycle where your work affects your well-being, and vice versa.

The questions she developed to assess burnout tap into three main areas. Emotional exhaustion is, as the name implies, the point at which your emotional-energy “bucket” has run dry, when you don’t give a stuff any more and also don’t have the energy to support others emotionally. Diminished personal accomplishment is that feeling of not getting as much, or anything at all, out of what you do, and dissatisfaction with work full stop.

Finally, and it’s interesting that Zimbardo also used this word to describe what happened to the prison study participants, Maslach describes “depersonalisation” in terms of increasing cynicism towards work and others around us. You’re officially burnt out if you’re emotionally exhausted and have elevated scores on at least one of the others.

Christina Maslach.

Various occupational groups tend to report different levels of burnout risk. Studies have found lower levels in police officers, X-ray technicians and oncologists, for example, and high levels among GPs, midwives, nurses and psychiatrists. Hmmm … Medical specialists seem to report lower levels than non-specialist medical professionals. Interestingly, university teachers are right up there with the people with a higher risk of burnout. These stats are not from New Zealand, though, so maybe we’re different. Not necessarily better, but different.

Feeling as if you have control in your work life is an important predictor of burnout. It’s one of the reasons levels of burnout differ across occupations. People in high-burnout occupations also perceive less control in their work lives.

What can you do? Whether you’re feeling stressed or not, take time to identify the things you can control at work, and use them to build your skills – focus on mastering tasks rather than just completing them. Take care of yourself outside work: physical and social activities help to replenish your emotional-energy bucket, and also make it bigger. If the sun is shining, take a half-hour lunchtime walk. Research shows that it must be 30 minutes or more, because less than that just reminds you what you’re missing. Next time someone asks “How’s it going?”, be honest, and ask for help from people who can provide it.

Of course, this isn’t easy when you’re experiencing burnout, so don’t just read this column and move on – print it out and pin it to your wall as a reminder. If not, list the things that help you enjoy work and pin that up, instead.

This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.