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Burnout Situations
by Dr. Beverly Potter


Some criticism is helpful because it lets us know what to improve, but a boss who is predominantly negative and miserly in giving acknowledgment and other wins despite good performance makes you feel helpless because no matter what you do the critical boss continues to find fault. You just can't win - so why bother?
Perfectionism is a thinkingdisorder
To perfectionists only perfect performance is acceptable. Anything less is criticized as inadequate. Working with a perfectionist - who could be your boss, a co-worker, or partner - is difficult for most people because no one can meet the perfectionist's standards.

The perfectionist's focus is on rooting out imperfection, no matter how small. As a result he or she tends to ignore progress and what has been done well and instead attacks what he sees as imperfection. Since no one can be perfect - especially on a continual basis - the perfectionist suffers constant self-criticism, which tends to be very demotivating. Sometimes it is your own perfectionism that sets you up for burnout.


A simple lack of recognition can erode enthusiasm for working.  Too many supervisors are stingy with their acknowledgment and recognition as if these were rare and finite commodities; others righteously boast that they recognize only outstanding performance. Unfortunately, good performance or improved performance goes unacknowledged, reducing motivation to strive for outstanding performance.

Inadequate Pay

When you work hard but feel underpaid, you can feel your efforts and outputs are not being adequately recognized. People spend years in college believing that it will lead to personal recognition and well-paid work. If they are paid less than what they had expected, it can be viewed as lack of respect because pay is often used as an indicator of "respect."

Under employment

If you have high aspirations and have years of experience but are employed below your ability level, you can equate this with a lack of recognition. Baby boomers who must compete with millions of others for disappearing opportunities are particularly prone to this dilemma. Women are often under-employed. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a woman lawyer doing the work of a law clerk or paralegal. Stories abound of Ph.D.'s who work in the Post Office because they can't find a job in college teaching. People, who have been laid off when their companies were downsizing and often find that they must subsequently take jobs below their capabilities, can similarly suffer from lack of recognition and be prone to burnout.
A task without end is any job that has no clear beginning or end points. An in-basket that is always full can feel like a task without end. No matter how long or hard you work to empty the in side of the basket, it quickly fills up again. Other examples include an unending line of customers who eventually become faceless and assembly-line work. Entrepreneurs, and the self-employed easily fall prey to tasks without end. People who are their own boss tend to push themselves to complete work, regardless of how long it takes.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was an evil king who was condemned to Hades to forever roll a big rock up a mountain. Each day he strained and struggled all day, pushing the heavy rock up the steep mountain until he finally made it to the top. Each night, as he slept, the rock rolled back down to the bottom of the mountain. Sisyphus's task never ended. In today's workplace many jobs fits this picture of Hell.
People who work under unrelenting pressure or with clients who don't get better can have a similar experience. Eventually, they can develop feelings of futility: "No matter how hard I work or how late I stay at the office, I just can't make any headway in my job." Every day they push the rock up the mountain only to find the rock back on their desk again the next day.
With the impossible task it is clear what is suppose to be accomplished, but it is not possible to do so. This demotivator can take many forms:  not having the tools you need to do the job, unrealistic deadlines, not knowing what your job is and doing the wrong thing, or clients who never get better. If you can't do what you must do, you feel impotent and helpless.

Incurable Clients

Many service providers have large caseloads of clients with nearly impossible problems. No matter how hard they try, how much they give or how much they care, the drug addicts continue to use drugs, the welfare recipients can't get work, and the delinquents end up back in juvenile hall. When people helpers are able to provide genuine relief-giving assistance, it can be profoundly satisfying. But when they can't do a thing, it becomes a kind of emotional assault and battery.


If you don't know what's expected, it is difficult to feel confident that you are doing the right thing in the right way. To perform well you need information. Information is power. Without sufficient information you will have difficulty making decisions and setting priorities. Confusion about job responsibilities and how your work fits into the accomplishment of organizational goals is especially prevalent in rapidly expanding - or contracting - organizations.

Incompatible Demands

Incompatible demands means that satisfying one demand results in failing to satisfy another demand. Actually, it is a lose-lose situation because there is no way you can win. Every time you win, you simultaneously lose. These kinds of situations are often called "damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't" because no matter what you do you are "damned."
If you report to two bosses you can be confronted with incompatible demands. One boss may want speed while the other wants quality, for example. Producing both may not be possible. Jobs that require working across departmental boundaries are also plagued by incompatible demands. Marketing wants one thing while manufacturing wants another. Anyone interfacing between unions and management struggles with this problem.

Conflicting Roles

A similar dilemma is one of conflicting role demands. This can be a woman executive who is expected to be supermom, superwife, and star employee or a manager whose company expects her to travel and whose family wants her at home. As men increasingly take on responsibility for raising children, these kinds of conflicts will probably become more common among fathers.


If you work in a sensitive field such as police work, IRS investigation, military, weapons research or nuclear power, you may face value conflicts. You may believe in what you do and you strive to do a good job, yet everywhere you go people criticize you for the work you do.
Not all burnout victims suffer losses and feel themselves a failure, however. Some come to it through success. They seem to achieve all the desirable goals. Yet, these bountiful rewards fail to provide the lasting satisfaction promised to this existential burnout victim who feels empty, undernourished, and helpless to fill the void. This is the most insidious form of burnout. None of the symptoms are manifested as warning signals in the early stages. There is only a tiny nagging inner voice saying, "I am living a meaningless life.  Is this it?"
Work overload means having more work than we can perform in a given amount of time.  A lot of work, in and of itself, does not cause burnout as long as people feel they can control what happens and they receive adequate wins. For example, you may be very tired, you may be "stressed out," but motivation can still remain high. Whereas, an overload of work that is ambiguous, punitive, or characterized by the other situations just described is a set-up for burnout.
Any time you work in a situation in which you feel you have little or no influence, you risk burning out. The frightening fact is that most jobs constitute such situations. In organizations, controllability is not distributed equally: It is allotted to a few. Yet a feeling of having influence or control over our treatment is necessary for high motivation and peak performance.
Zaleznik at the Harvard Graduate Business School investigated this paradox in three occupational groups: management, staff, and operations. He found that operations had more health problems, emotional distress, and job dissatisfaction, while managers had a  lower symptom rate. Operations people reported feeling frustrated by the vague goals and objectives set by supervisors who they viewed as technically ignorant and an environment that is highly competitive, demanding peak performance and fraught with potential failure. More than those in the staff or management groups, operations people experienced a great deal of conflict between their jobs and their personal lives. While management also encountered conflict and ambiguity, they reported less frustration than the operations and staff groups. Zaleznik's group theorized that the ability to influence consequences helped minimize the impact of ambiguity and damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't situations.

Not all managers are equally protected, however. The middle manager is typically caught in a psychic squeeze between the incompatible demands of those above and below and his or her own intense achievement strivings. In a downsizing economy middle management positions are the most likely to be eliminated. Many feel unemployable, which instills a profound sense of helplessness. The fact is, organizational structure minimizes personal power:

A quote from Zaleznik's Behavioral Science article:

Bureaucratic practices set limits to the assertion of power by individuals in the organization, but thepossession of power in organizations reduces the harmful consequences of bureaucracy to the individual. Therefore, survival in bureaucracies falls to those indivudualswho know how to negotiate a double-bind situation, while advancement in bureaucracies falls to those individuals who can make anopportunity out of a paradox.
Organizations resist change: they strive for stability and predictability. Powerful individuals can change the organization which threatens the organization's existence. It is the pyramid or bureaucratic structure itself that renders individuals powerless. And as we have seen, powerlessness is toxic to individuals. For individuals, powerlessness demotivates and eventually kills the spirit.


Copyright © 1980, 1993, 1998: Beverly A. Potter, from "Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work", Ronin.  All Rights Reserved. This article man be down loaded for person use.  Any other use requires written permission from docpotter.

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