Sunday, February 11, 2007

"Mind, Body, and Spirit" -> The Great Burnout

The picture to the side of this line is Professor Christina Maslach. With her happy smile, you probably would think that she has done work in a happy subject, but you'd be wrong. Her name is associated with the idea of Burnout. Not her own life, but for others.

Professor Maslach is a very bright woman: graduated from Radcliffe (the female part of Harvard) magna cum laude, and then got her Ph.D. at Stanford in 1971. Ten years later, she introduced the world to Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) with her grad student Susan Jackson in the Journal Of Occupational Behavior.

In her test, she follow's Richard Lazarus's idea that we must not only test "the strength" you feel a particular way, but "how often" you feel that way. So, when you take the test, you should always have two scales as follows:

a. How often:

1 -> Few times a year
3 -> Few times a month
5 -> Every week
6 -> Every day

b. How strong

1 -> Mild
4 -> Moderate
7 -> Very strong, major

Taken in combination, you get the overall loading.

Before we go any farther, a version of the test can be found here: CLICK FOR LINK. It really focuses more on the how often, and less on the strength, but it will give you an idea of your own index.

Perhaps you would like to take the test yourself? It should only take 5 minutes.

So let's throw the magnifying glass onto the test, and regardless if you've taken the test or not, let's dig into the 3 main areas that she probes in her testing: emotional exhaustion, accomplishment, and depersonalization by looking at the "general" types of questions she asks. She also had a fourth area "involvement," which was more weakly correlated with burnout, so she made it optional.
Area 1: Emotional exhaustion

She tries to get at this area in a variety of ways. She isn't clever, but straight forward, and she asks questions like the following:

-Are you emotionally drained at work?
-Do you feel used up?
-Are you tired in the morning?
-Do you feel burned out?
-Is the job frustrating to you?
-Are you work too hard?
-Are people putting too much stress on you?
-Are you at the end of your rope?

Area 2: Are you accomplishing a lot?

-I working well with my clients
-I can deal with the issues that come up
-I have a positive influence
-I have energy
-I have a "good atmosphere" in my work
-I really like working the job issues
-I've accomplished a lot
-I can handle emotional issues

Area 3: Depersonalization

-I treat everybody as human beings
-I'm not getting more callous toward others
-I'm worried that the job is hardening me to other people
-I don't care what happens to others
-Others are blaming me

Area 4: Involvement (optional)

-I have empathy
-I am like the others that I work with

So, if you read the above areas, what are the themes? The themes are as follows:

1. She asks you to rank your burnout
2. She measures your "anti-burnout" drug
3. She measures your burnout in an indirect fashion

The first area is a "direct" measurement of burn out. It is simply asking you "do you feel burned out." It almost doesn't need to be explained. If you feel the life has been sucked out of you, you will feel burned out.

The second area is a little more surprising. It is trying to measure the "anti-burnout" engine of our life. If we have this anti-burnout drug, we won't catch the disease of burnout. It has to do with accomplishment. This to me is the most interesting of all the areas because it makes the most sense to me. Humans are wired to want to accomplish something. For me, this is absolutely critical in everything that I do. Have I made forward progress? Have I added something to the world? If I feel that I am getting stuff done, I feel that I am "on a roll" and nothing can stop me.

The worse day of all is when I come into work, and I find out that something I thought was solved has been destroyed or upset. If I feel that I am making great forward progress on both a business and a personal level, then I am energetic. I'll come in and work when I feel under the weather or sick. However, if I feel that I am going backwards, it is very difficult to come to work.

Accomplishment is the anti-burnout drug.

The final area is to see another view of burnout. By examining how you relate to other people, we can get a sense of if you are really burned out inside. People that are not burned out relate to other people. They have warmth and they have friends. They are nice people to be around. On the other hand, as you become more and more burned out, you really don't care about others. There is a strong analogy to this in starving individuals.

We can starve the body, and this is called starvation and physical death.

We can starve the soul, and this is called spiritual death.

We can starve the mind, and this is called burnout.

Ancel Keys is the father of the science of starvation. During World War II, he took conscious objectors that wanted to serve their country, and he asked them to starve themselves to serve their country much as the soldiers were doing. (A nice link on this paper: CLICK FOR LINK.) These men were generally very religious, and they were the type of men that should be kind and gentle.

However, make them starve, and they turned into something they didn't want to be.

One of the subjects said the following:

“. . . noticing what’s wrong with everybody else, even your best friend. Their idiosyncrasies became great big deals . . . little things that wouldn’t bother me before or after would really make me upset.” Marshall Sutton noted, “. . . we were impatient waiting in line if we had to . . . and we’d get disturbed with each other’s eating habits at times . . . I remember going to a friend at night and apologizing and saying, ‘Oh, I was terrible today, and you know, let’s go to sleep with other
thoughts in our minds.’ We became, in a sense, more introverted, and we had less energy."

This should sound familiar. The results from starving somebody is very, very similar to the act of burnout. You are more irritable. You don't feel good. You are less able to engage with others.

In my mind, burnout is the result of having no "positive food" for our minds and our sense of accomplishment.

If you are wondering why I am writing this column today, let me simply say that I work in a very high stress industry with less than satisfactory feedback of accomplishments.

While not at the end of my rope, many days I feel that I am near it. However, I am fortunate in that I am financially secure enough to be able to step off the roller coaster any time that I choose.

I pity those that can't and must ride it 'til there is nothing left of them.

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