How to Burn Out Your Employees during Tough Economic Times

I was burned out by the age of 26.  Having completed my doctorate at age 24, I took my first job with a chronically understaffed nonprofit agency.  The boss was a micromanaging maniac whose leadership style was a combination of Death by Meeting and Russian roulette.

In spite of the endless hours we spent in meetings discussing the coffee fund and other trivia, she expected us to keep up with an unrealistic client load and excessive paperwork.  One of her favorite strategies was to randomly pull client files to see if progress notes were up to date (which, because of the mountain of paperwork, rarely were) and then call the unlucky therapist on the carpet.  Within six months, I was questioning my career decision; after two years, I regained my sanity by jumping ship and starting my own practice.

The Predictable Path to Burn Out

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my first job could have been in the dictionary under “job strain.”  According to the popular framework proposed by Karasek in 1990, the perfect storm for job strain is involves how much work we have to do, how much leeway we have to get it done, and how much support we get from others in the workplace.

Karasek’s “job strain” model states that the greatest risk to physical and mental health from stress occurs to workers facing high psychological workload demands or pressures combined with low control or decision latitude in meeting those demands and low workplace social support.  Job demands are defined by questions such as “working very fast,” “working very hard,” and not “enough time to get the job done.” Job decision latitude is defined as both the ability to use skills on the job and the decision-making authority available to the worker.

Dear Manager:  Loosen Up When Times are Tough

An excessive or unrealistic workload is, of course, the first step to burnout.  Employees who feel constant time pressure get worn out so that, over time, it can get harder to do even a normal amount.  Unfortunately, there are times when managers don’t have control over their employees’ workloads; after a layoff, for example, survivors may be inevitably tasked with picking up the slack of departing coworkers.

On the positive side, managers can reduce the stress of a difficult workload by giving their employees say in how their jobs gets done and creating a supportive environment in which to do it.  An employee who feels his or her manager is concerned about his or her welfare, and is trusted to make good decisions, is much more likely to stick through tough times.

The challenge for managers is to deal with their own stress during tough economic times so it doesn’t spill over to their managing.  In other words, don’t tighten the screws when you need to loosen the bolts.

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