Coping With Burnout

Strategies for handling stress in the workplace

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Jaime BarnhartThe typical workplace has changed a lot this year. Take the office of Jaime Barnhart, CMP, director of conferences for the American Moving and Storage Association. She started her job in Alexandria, Va., a little over a year ago, taking charge of the group's annual meeting, four regional meetings and a board meeting. "Now, a year later, we are seven staff members down, through a combination of retirements, new jobs, going back to school and layoffs," Barnhart says. "I have all the responsibilities I had before, while also managing our political action committee, all the e-blast marketing we do and managing the lists."

At Levi's Brand in San Francisco, event manager Mike Mecham is the last man standing in the meetings department. "I have been a one-man band for the past 12 months," he says, "although I do have one person who helps me now half of her time, because we have new work. We have new leadership and there are things we want to do in new way, everything from gifts for customers to opening events at our sales meetings. It's more work."

To gauge how planners are feeling, M&C asked readers in October about their level of burnout. Almost half (49 percent) of the 128 respondents rated their level as medium, while 30 percent said it was high and just 21 percent said it was low.

As workloads keep growing and it becomes harder to check anything off the to-do list, stress levels rise in tandem. And many of us, when overwhelmed with work, blame ourselves for not managing our time better, or we become bitter critics of a workplace we can't afford to leave. Either way, we internalize the mounting stress, which in turn often leads to mental and physical exhaustion -- a classic recipe for burnout. However, according to human resources and psychological experts, there are steps planners (and employees in any profession) can take to help ease the pressure.

Prioritize tasks The true cause of stress comes down to how much a worker is being asked to do and the adequacy of resources she has with which to do it. To relieve the burden, either the demand has to be lessened or the resources increased. Since resources are being cut right and left, meeting planners have to find a way to cut extraneous tasks out of their days.

"One way to reduce the demand is by getting rid of silly work and prioritizing what matters most," says human resources expert Dave Ulrich, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That's a tactic used by Mecham at Levi's: "I try to streamline. I look at my work and try to figure out what is absolutely essential and then discard the rest. Sometimes I ask, ‘Do we really need to do name badges this time?' or ‘Does this report really need to be updated at this time?' "

8 Signs of Stress
Are you or your employees burned out? Look for warning signals, suggests human resources expert David Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the organizational consulting firm RBL Group. "The early indicators are important to catch," he adds. Among the red flags:

1. Flaring tempers

2. Making careless mistakes

3. Being less kind to others

4. Acting "strange"

5. Not paying attention in key meetings

6. Missing deadlines and dates

7. Feeling tired

8. Not wanting to come to work

Fine-tune the focus Whether you're the manager or the worker bee, streamlining processes is a good way off the burnout track.

Bob Rosner of Workplace911, an online human resources consulting firm, suggests putting as much effort into your not-to-do list as your to-do list, for individuals and entire teams. "Bosses are like 14-year-old kids at an all-you-can-eat buffet -- they try to fill up their plates," he says. "They try to get people to do more and more. Although we all assume we have to multitask, studies at Microsoft and Oxford University show that when you multitask, the work takes twice as long and you make twice as many mistakes."

He suggests that managers tell employees that if they're working on something really important, it should be their only focus. "I think companies should give prizes to people who identify work that shouldn't be done anymore," Rosner adds.

Once the nonessentials have been cut, the healing can begin. "You start the process of re-energizing the work force by giving them a sense of control over what is happening," says Ronald Downey, professor of psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. This also will help foster a new sense of common purpose. As Downey puts it, "Rebuild the team you have."

Do Not Disturb 

In an open-office setting, distractions from co-workers can add to the stress of handling a heavy workload. Last year, at Levi's Brand, based in San Francisco, the president of the Dockers line suggested that all employees receive a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Now, colleagues know that if someone is wearing headphones, he does not want to be disturbed. 



12 Criteria for a Happy Employee
The Gallup organization has conducted thousands of interviews across all employment levels, types of organizations, industries and in many countries. The following, called the Gallup Q12, are indicators that predict quality employee and workgroup performance. Managers who make sure these criteria are met will create a productive environment for their staffs.

1. I know what is expected of me at work.

2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my job right.

3. I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.4. In the past seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

7. My opinions seem to count. 8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel that my job is important.

9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to quality.10. I have a best friend at work.

11. In the past six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.12. This year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Stop feeling guilty It's natural to feel bad when layoffs touch your department. Sur­vivors' guilt in the workplace is a very real phenomenon.

"At first, I really felt a loss," says Levi's Mecham of the days following the reduction of his department. "We were a close team. It was hard to accept that I would not see them on a daily basis. They were my 8-to-5 family."

Jaime Barnhart was on-site at AMSA's Safety Conference when the layoffs occurred. "Guilt? Sure I felt it," she says. "I had been here for just over a year, and people who had worked here for 20 years were let go. It's hard not to feel guilty, but I also know that it was an unfortunate reality of today's economy."

The problem, according to Downey, is that people find it hard to acknowledge such feelings. "They avoid it; they don't want to talk about it," he says. "You have to sit everyone down and discuss how to handle it. Sit down and deal with the guilt."

But bosses and employees often don't communicate well, says Bob Rosner: "Most bosses struggle to listen, most employees struggle to speak up, and there's a lot of enmity between the two."

Part of the problem, Rosner adds, is that people are becoming more disconnected from each other. "Do people have lunch anymore? Do people have coffee breaks anymore?" he asks. Reinstituting such habits can help facilitate talking among the ranks.

And what do you do when there's no one left in the department to help rejigger things? Mecham had to prioritize the ensuing workload by himself. "I received all the work from my team and started to sort through it all," he says. "I felt overwhelmed but inspired by the challenge to reinvent our approach."

True survivors have that ability to put a positive spin on the challenging environment. "I know I'm adding skills that normally I would not have picked up," says Barnhart. "I think meeting planners are typically type-A people. There are days when I'm absolutely insane, and I feel like I'm going to drop a ball. But on the other hand, we've gotten rid of the fluff. My time-management skills have gotten a lot better. There's a lot more delegation and collaboration that takes place because I can't do it all. I can come into the office and be stressed out about getting it all done, or I can do it."