Distinguishing stress and burnout
“When you reach the top, keep climbing.”
– Zen proverb
I have studied negative and paradoxical effects of career success for three decades now. Yet I never cease to be amazed at how often my work is supported by the writings of Zen Buddhists. The preceding quote is one of my favorites because it makes no logical sense. Common-sense reasoning would reject it as impossible, and it is absolutely dead-on correct — which is probably why a Zen Buddhist who achieved career success coined it.
Anyone with experiential insight knows that if success marks an ending, only pain will come of it. The wisdom inherent in the proverb is this: Whereas human potential is boundless, opportunities for challenging growth are finite.
In operational terms, when successful careerists hit a growth ceiling, their innate hunger for challenge will collide with the demands of a downsized or stagnant business
As a result, these people will suffer one of two distinct symptom patterns:
• Facing demands to do “more of the same,” they will respond in a ram-like fashion, butting their heads against ceilings.
• Frustrated by an inability to move up or forward, they grow bored and succumb to frustration and aggression.
Either scenario puts CLOs in the hot seat. Department heads will cry that their talent has become irritable, noncontributory or downright disruptive. Do you provide stress-management training, burnout-remediation initiatives or both? If so, who gets which training module?
Many CLOs do not know which tack to take, despite the fact that diagnosing what star talent is suffering from requires no psychiatric training. What is needed is the knowledge that stress and burnout are distinct disorders and that if you confuse one for the other, you risk exacerbating a sufferer’s symptoms.
Stress is a psychological construct that is constantly misconstrued. In engineering, stress refers to a force applied to an entity that causes change (strain or failure) in its integrity. By extension, many assume psychological stress is a force lurking outside us, such as fire, with a uniformly negative effect upon all.
In reality, the opposite is true: Stress results from a perception of a threat. When you view an impediment to goal attainment as daunting, you suffer a number of psychological symptoms — from irritability and sleeplessness to weight gain and rashes. Nothing is, de facto, stressful. It’s how you view it.
Burnout, on the other hand, has a completely different etiology and symptoms. You do not suffer burnout when confronted by threats. Actually, very mild threats might relieve ennui, the dominant feeling associated with burnout.
Why? Because burnout evolves from lacking challenges, typically those lost when a once-stimulating career ceases to evolve in an engaging manner. This often occurs when “A” players or C-level executives are asked to do the same tasks over and over, a situation that causes them to suffer overwhelming feelings of boredom, seek escapes or grow emotionally disengaged from work.
CLOs can work wonders to prevent burnout, even if they are unable to provide authentic challenge. One way to engage “A” players and C-level executives is to exploit their functional and institutional knowledge by calling upon them to mentor others. Should a challenge (e.g., a promotion) present itself, CLOs can train these stars to tackle new demands, creating a virtually instantaneous cure for their symptoms.
This is not so for the individuals suffering from stress. Presenting them with new challenges is like adding gas to a fire. People suffering stress need instruction regarding how best to embrace comfort via relaxation, task delegation or learning how to cognitively reinterpret threats as challenges.
The good news is CLOs can be proactive in addressing both burnout and stress. To prevent burnout, realize that the more your programs accelerate the growth of talent, the more you must be prepared for your learners’ need for challenges. Retracking talent is one ideal way to keep challenge levels high; intrapreneurship opportunities are another.
To address stress in a proactive manner, assume that every “A” player or C-level executive in a department undergoing cutbacks or stagnation likely will be forced to assume redundant, unrewarding work. These individuals will strain to meet the demands thrust upon them but, in the process, grow frustrated. These are the individuals you need to inoculate against disorder with training in self-care. If you don’t, they will get frustrated and leave your company.