White Paper: The Leader’s Edge/Leaders By Design Executive Burnout and Gender Issues Executive Burnout Defined
In his book, Reclaiming the Fire, Steven Berglas defines a form of burnout as: “a psychological disorder that results when a competent person who is, or could be, successful in a professional arena experiences a state of chronic trepidation, distress, despondency, or depression attributable to the belief that she or he is trapped in a job, or on a career path from which she or he can neither escape nor derive psychological gratification.” As the world moves at a faster and faster pace and demands on executives continue to accelerate, the incidence of job burnout has increased. According to experts, some common signs of executive burnout are:
Interpersonal Problems: When someone is emotionally drained at work, dealing with other people becomes extremely difficult. When conflicts occur, a person may overreact with an emotional outburst or increased hostility. Because of this, they may then begin to isolate from other people. Emotional Fatigue: Everyone feels dissatisfaction, anger, frustration or depression from time to time. When caught in a burnout cycle, however, these negative emotions become predominant. Maintaining oneself throughout the day becomes tiring and a person can lose the ability to face challenges with a positive attitude. They may eventually experience numbness and have difficulty in feeling much of anything. Low Productivity: During burnout, it is common for individuals to experience boredom and a lack of enthusiasm for projects. They may begin to question whether their work is meaningful. A manager may feel disillusioned or cynical, and it may be difficult to concentrate and harness the energy required to produce quality work. Health Problems: As emotional reserves ebb, an individual may begin to experience physical problems. They may experience fatigue, or other physical symptoms such as headaches, back pain, colds, insomnia, rashes or hives, chest pains or palpitations, gastrointestinal problems and nervous tics. Sleep problems are also common. When people are experiencing stress in their lives, they are more prone not only to illness, but to accidents. Addictive Resolution: Some people resort to substance abuse as they try to cope with chronic stress. An increased intake of caffeine on the job is common, along with nicotine, and drugs such as prescription medication and/or alcohol. In some cases, individuals resort to illegal drug use. Even normal activities such as television or computer use can also become an addiction. An increase or decrease in food intake may also accompany job burnout. These coping mechanisms, however, further compound the problem and fail to address the real burnout issues. Obsessive Thinking: Even when doing other activities during non-working hours, work often continues to preoccupy the mind. Thoughts continually focus on problems rather than on solutions. Some people "work harder," increasing time spent on tasks, just to try to increase a sense of satisfaction.
Many of the women who participated in The Leaders Edge 2002 study, “Why Women Leave”, provided interesting points of view about burnout and how it impacted their decisions to leave. Selected quotes from the study were:
“Stress was there, but I didn't know it until after I left; I slept for a month.”
“Burned out due to the lack of company support for flex time needed to meet my family obligations when I was working 80-90 hours a week.”
“It was the stress of trying to be someone I was not--that eats you up inside. I didn't know it was stress at the time, though. But I would come home from work extremely unhappy.”
“Burned out? Yes, 60 hour weeks will do it, coupled with the constant lack of resources and lack of direction—this meant sustained frustration and that certainly was stressful.”
“Stress from trying to get Company X to do what I needed them to do for the customer--things that had already been agreed on.”
“If you work a lot of hours, you want it to be something you love. To give so much and not get personal satisfaction just wasn’t acceptable to me anymore.”
“Stress from all the negatives – they overwhelmed the positives in the job.”
“The kind of stress that comes from working hard for a company that didn't value or support me.”
Why Executive Burnout is More Prevalent Today
Job burnout is becoming more of a part of the business vocabulary with the root of the problem in economic trends, technology and management philosophy.
Economic trends: Many companies are focusing on short-term growth and short-term stock performance. Wall Street puts companies under enormous and constant pressure to demonstrate positive results. As a result, companies are giving more attention to managing finances than they are to products and people. Values are not those of a cohesive, well managed work force; rather values are on bottom line and cash.
Furthermore, the economy has become a global one with entire industries shrinking or disappearing from developed countries like the U.S. The movement of jobs out of the country puts pressure on those who remain as they lose friends and co-workers and are required to deal with more work yet with fewer people. Technology: Sophisticated technology is replacing some jobs entirely, with the impact not only on the technical and manufacturing sectors but also on other sectors such as information. For example, Arizona State University now offers entire college level courses on CD-ROM, requiring less in person interface with instructors and students. Downsizing decreases the personal quality of these services and, within companies, people are losing the opportunity for income, positions and training. Tight micromanagement is focusing employees more and more on the bottom line. For example, health care providers are now constrained by policies and computer programs that reduce the need for judgment and prescribe treatment to a very narrow band of outcomes. Professionals and front line managers are becoming less responsive to local conditions with decision making relegated to a central corporate authority, often financial based. Job stress increases as what inspires work is ignored or played down. Management Philosophy: After hiring him six years ago, last December, Home Depot's board fired CEO Al Nardelli, deciding he was not the right person to lead the company. In order to make his departure less painful, the board gave Nardelli $210 million in cash, stock, and options. In 1995, Al “Chainsaw” Dunlop left a twenty-month job at Scott Paper with $100 million in compensation (his top three lieutenants received $15 million each). Several of Dunlop’s “contributions” were to cut 1/3 of the workforce of 33,000 employees, cut research in half and eliminate altogether staff training programs. In December 1996, the company was merged into Kimberly Clark and Scott Paper was no more. At a time when many working families are looking at shrinking retirement nest eggs, the average CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company made $13.5 million in total compensation in 2005 and many have negotiated golden retirements for themselves. As front and middle line employees work harder in more tenuous positions for less compensation, executive management does very well. Employees are losing confidence that organizations are fair, considerate communities and in such an environment burnout thrives.
Job stress and burnout lead to significant financial and productivity loss. These loses take the form of workers’ compensation costs, health care costs, absenteeism, sick leave, employee fraud in addition to on he job errors and reduced quality of work.
How Stress and Executive Burnout Impact Women and Men
Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers and the impact on social and economic issues is enormous. Workplace employment is important to women and men as a source of income and as a way to define ones self. However, the progression to equality has
been slow and many corporate decision makers continue to think “executive = white male”. For women, this means not only having to contend with the same job pressures faced by men but also potentially facing additional stress as a direct result of being females aspiring to senior executive roles.
Stress is not limited to work and there are often multiple sources, with burnout related to a whole life situation. Two factors influencing how females and males respond to stress can be categorized as occupational and managerial:
Occupational Stressors: Certain organizational and extra-organizational sources are especially important for women managers. For women, organizational factors include being part of a minority group resulting in discrimination, prejudice, career blocks and sexual harassment and being the “token” woman, causing isolation, stereotyping, exclusion and an absence of role models. Extra-organizational stressors relate to the interface between work and home commitments and include issues such as domestic support and conflicting feelings about starting a family. Studies have shown that overall, in comparison to men, women are likely to be faced with extra sources of occupational stress and poorer access to coping mechanisms that can forestall burnout. Managerial Stressors: Research shows that while females and males find their jobs challenging and stimulating, men are in more favorable positions to respond to stress than are women. Women are concentrated in lower levels of management where they are paid less and expected to perform at higher standards. In addition to the glass ceiling, the maternal wall, tokenism and sexual harassment, women face additional stress factors that can lead to burnout: Gender stereotypes: Women are assumed to lack the commitment and motivation to succeed and are more frequently discriminated against during their careers. Men are seen as highly motivated, success oriented and exploitative. In comparison women are viewed as willing to move to another position only when and if they feel thoroughly competent to do so. Thus, women are blamed for their lack of advancement, with their presumed lack of interest used consistently to explain their under representation in management.
Business Networks: In their attempt to maintain the status quo, men often exclude women from management networks. Networks offer knowledge, support, information, advice and sponsors. Some studies show a lack of self esteem as the main reason women are hesitant to use networks; others show a distaste for “political” activity since it can compromise principles.
Organizational Culture: Organizational culture reflects societal norms. Executive management is seen as male-dominated and women are constrained by this male model. This culture results in women being marginalized, making it difficult for them to get their voices heard.
Marital Support: For men, marriage provides support for managing their careers; for women it can be a barrier and even an obstacle to career advancement. Women face stress from work and home pressures with women with children facing even greater risks for ultimate burnout. Studies show business organizations view a woman as an asset; a husband as a liability.
Minority Employees: Studies of black women managers show their facing a push/pull from cultural demands and work demands. This only serves to exacerbate the stresses caused by sexism and racism already encountered in the workplace.
Work is a highly valued activity and women and men develop self images that can motivate and provide work satisfaction. There are certain factors, individual and personality characteristics, however, that make it difficult for women to benefit from positive self perspectives:
Self-Esteem: The overall disparity between managerial levels held by women and men and the lack of recognition provided to most women make it likely that, overall, women evaluate themselves less favorably than do men. Feelings of self esteem can help buffer stress, thus, woman are more likely to experience the adverse effects of stress than are their male counterparts. Simply put, individuals with low self esteem experience greater levels of anxiety and depression than those with higher levels of self esteem. Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to execute a specified behavior successfully. Women have less experience with managerial tasks, are more task restricted, receive less verbal support and as a result experience greater psychological tension. As a result, women’s self-efficacy is lower than that of their male counterparts. This has been shown to significantly impact the way women perceive and respond to pressure at work. Personal Control: People with an internal locus of control (a perception that events are a consequence of ones own actions) develop fewer psychological problems than those with an external locus of control (a perception that events are unrelated to ones behavior and beyond ones personal control). Women managers report lower levels of internal control and are more likely to employ emotion-centered behaviors than male managers and they increase their chances of experiencing psychological ill health and burnout.
The process of coping moderates the impact of stressful events on an individual’s physical, social and emotional functioning.
Emotion-focused coping: Women prefer emotion-focused (feelings and reactions to the stressful event) solutions which, in the extreme, can lead to self blame and wishful thinking. Engaging in extreme emotion-focused strategies reduces the perception of personal control and increases the risk factors for burnout. Problem-focused coping: Men are more inclined to use active problem-focused (addressing the problem) coping strategies, planning and rationalizing their actions and engaging in positive thinking, perseverance, self adaptation and personal growth.
In summary, because of their minority status, women managers are faced with a higher number of stress sources than men. Women work harder for less reward (at work and at home) and have poorer access to effective coping strategies. Organizations have failed to recognize, address and resolve the difficulties women must overcome to succeed in management.
What Companies Can Do
What can companies do to prevent burnout in their managers and executives? To start, they must recognize that burnout can, does and will occur. This ought to be acknowledged up-front by the people in charge of orientation programs, management training courses and discussions. The organization needs to let it be known that it recognizes and cares about preventing it. Other measures to be taken include:
Professional Coaching: One of the more effective measures against burnout is offering the services of a professional coach. Through regular sessions with a coach, women and men can express issues that might otherwise be repressed and denied because of organizational politics. They can explore what really matters most, what strengths and needs are available, and how best to handle stress and challenges. Career Development: In a recent Leader’s Edge research report, many of the women surveyed reported the lack of a career development plan as a reason why women are leaving corporate jobs. In response, companies need to provide career planning; honest evaluations; feedback on performance; and functional cross training experience. Retreats: Offering recreational breaks is an excellent way to help by encouraging a focus on extra-organizational issues. Informal off-site retreats can help revitalize individuals (as well as teams) and can also serve as reward and recognition for hard work. Workshops: Offering workshops and regular retraining to upgrade skills is vital. Leaders should offer opportunities for people to keep up with rapidly changing demands in order to offset feelings of "not- knowing." When people feel they lack knowledge and skills, they are prime candidates for helplessness and burnout. Idea Exchanges: Executives often need peer support. For example, in recent years, women’s groups have formed with members from non-competing industries. The purpose of such groups is to network, exchange ideas, get feedback, discuss challenges and opportunities, establish compelling goals and to take action. This kind of exchange offers women an opportunity to receive support that can stave off burnout. Be Candid About Job Pressure: HR managers should be candid with new employees about the psychological aspects of the work and the intense pressures they may come to feel. The more managers know, the less guilt they are likely to feel about their own perceived inadequacies when the pressures begin to mount. Enforce Change: Companies can also keep track of how long people are in certain high pressure jobs and rotate them out of potentially exhausting positions. Some people should not be allowed to work extreme hours for an extended length of time. Changes of pace and demands can also shift energy and allow people to replenish and revitalize themselves. Recognition: Organizations need to make sure there are ways of letting people know that their contributions are important. Money is not the only way to express recognition. There are a number of ways, in addition to monetary compensation, that companies can show they notice a special effort. These include special perks, privileges, trips and other incentives. Outlets for Expression: Companies should provide avenues through which people can express not only their anger but also their disappointment, helplessness, hopelessness, defeat and depression. Salespeople, for example, face defeat everyday; others experience frustration when a contract is lost, a product fails, or when competition is strong and effective. In defeat, executives often deny their anger which contributes to stress and burnout.
If executives fail to see stress problems as serious, problems will worsen. If companies fail to see that organizational factors can cause burnout, this lack of understanding may perpetuate the problem. Executives need to know that their problems often have to do with the nature of the job, and not their capacity to handle it.
What Employees Can Do
One of the challenges everyone faces at one time or another during a career is to build engagement with work and take steps to alleviate burnout. Although some companies have addressed stress and burnout head on, most have not. If one’s sense of impending burnout is growing, then it’s often up to the individual to take charge, get control and face the burnout problem head on. In their book, Banishing Burnout Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach provide a number of strategies that can be employed to address stress problems in the workplace.
Workload Problems: Organizations often generate more demands than men and women can meet. Workload problems often manifest themselves in the areas of exhaustion; being too available; not having enough time and; and too much assigned work.
In response, some fairly straightforward steps can be taken such as: starting a personal fitness program; promoting a workplace fitness program; participating in emotional resilience programs (e.g. meditation); improving time management; and reducing workload. To respond to excessive workload, persuasion and a clear rationale such as improved work quality, sustainability and even fairness are important to demonstrate. It is certainly a challenge, but the employee needs to show that the company stands to gain from a more reasonable pace of assignments.
Control Problems: When control is the problem, the employee is being acted upon, not acting. The employee is frequently ignored, manipulated and frustrated. Confidence is undermined and more authority over one’s work is needed. Control issues are frequently the result of being micromanaged; ineffective organizational leadership; and even teams not cooperating, collaborating or being productive. To solve the control problem requires a gradual approach to increase autonomy by pushing the limits of control and doing a better job of managing superiors; taking control of a weak leader by facilitating shared leadership; and taking a more supportive role to the supervisor. Team weaknesses can be addressed via communication, often just getting people to talk; providing focus for the group and thoroughly reviewing tasks to ensure control of the agenda; and making sure the team is not working at cross purposes. Reward Problems: Reward problems often mean the returns on time and energy are not worth the effort. Insufficient compensation is a common reward problem and causes rage, anxiety and depression, especially when others in similar positions are better compensated. Other reward problems include lack of recognition and unsatisfying work. Money reward problems may require a multiyear campaign and can include negotiation for a raise or even giving an ultimatum (some organizations only address money issues when another offer exists). Other recognition issues can be solved by doing a better job educating an immediate supervisor and acknowledging others. Celebrating the accomplishments of others can be finessed to bring greater attention to oneself. Community Problems: Many women and men spend more time at their workplace community than at home or with family and friends. Community problems include divisiveness (adversarial, counterproductive departments); poor communication (resulting in a suspicious culture) and alienation (little mutual support). Colleagues can end up being distant and cold, leaving other employees isolated. Solving community problems starts with admitting disputes exist, agreeing they are a problem and resolution of the more obvious problems. Encouraging a more supportive work environment includes expressing support for other employees, asking for support and maintaining a positive attitude toward new employees. Value Problems: The three primary forms of value issues are dishonesty, destructive activities and meaninglessness. Dishonesty and greed are receiving considerable media attention. Destructive activities of an organization can sometimes have a negative impact on employees or the larger community. A value conflict can also include a required need to devote a great deal of time to work that appears to have no great quality or importance. Short of changing jobs, ways to address the stress associated with value conflicts include confrontation, initiating a dialogue about the situation, initiating activities that help offset negative impacts and something as simple as doing charitable work. Summary and Conclusion
Executive burnout is becoming more of a part of the business vocabulary with the root of the problem in economic trends, technology and management philosophy. Job stress and burnout lead to significant financial and productivity loss. These losses take the form of workers’ compensation costs, health care costs, absenteeism, sick leave, employee fraud in addition to on-the-job errors and reduced quality of work. When companies do not recognize stress problems as serious, problems often worsen. If companies fail to see that organizational factors can cause burnout, this lack of understanding may perpetuate the problem. Executives need to know that their problems often have to do with the nature of the job, and not their capacity to handle it. For both genders, work-family conflict has been identified as a stressor associated with several dysfunctional outcomes, resulting in lower occupational well being and decreased job satisfaction. The quality of the experiences at home and at work can mediate the effect of these roles on their occupational well being. Individual coping strategies can alleviate work stress. Moreover, successful stress reduction can be gained by making sure gender issues are an important part of the formula when occupational well-being, work stress and roll conflict are being addressed. Companies can take steps to prevent burnout in employees and executives. To start, they must recognize that burnout can, does and will happen. The organization needs to let it be known that it recognizes and cares about preventing it. Other measures to be taken include: professional coaching, planning recreational retreats and instituting workshops and regular retraining to upgrade skills.
Christina Maslach, Michael P. Leiter (2005) Banishing Burnout - Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work Debra L. Nelson, Ronald J. Burke (2002) Gender Work Stress and Health Steven Berglas (2001) Reclaiming the Fire. Christina Maslach, Michael P. Leiter (1997) The Truth About Burnout - How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It Leadership Advantage, “Preventing Executive Burnout” (2001) April, 2007
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