Keeping the Flame Alive

July 1, 2002

Keeping the Flame Alive

How to fight job burnout

by Colleen Malloy

If a root canal sounds more appealing to you than a day on the job you may be suffering from burnout. Right now you may be thinking, I love my job, this could never happen to me. But the truth of the matter is that the most dedicated people are often most prone to suffer from job burnout.

After all, you need to have a fire in order for it to burn out. According to a recent study, job burnout is a psychological syndrome which occurs in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. In other words, your nagging boss, that obnoxious coworker, a lack of materials, and unrealistic deadlines could all be driving you away from the job you love and into psychological turmoil.

This article will take an in-depth look at the causes of job burnout and will help you beat burnout before it beats you.

The basics

Job burnout is related to both anxiety and depression. The good news is that, in contrast to these related syndromes which pervade every aspect of a person’s life, burnout is experienced only in a person’s working life. The bad news is that job burnout can lead to anxiety, depression, and a drop in self-esteem.

It is also important to note that job burnout is more of a social phenomenon than an individual one. Conditions in the workplace can lead to burnout and burnout can be contagious. Negative feelings tend to spread through a workplace like wild fire.

Social support is key to a productive employee, if coworkers and more importantly management are not supportive of your work you are more likely to experience burnout.

Many other factors can contribute to jobburnout. These factors lead to the three dimensions of job burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Each dimension or a combination of the three can leave you feeling burned out.


Mike Grube, A&P, IA, reflects on his first experience in the hangar: "I was the new guy, little experience, in the middle of problems between maintenance and management trying to do everything everyone demanded and getting little done, which was stressing me out."

Think about your situation at work. Are the demands management places on you realistic? Are you always fighting a losing battle with the clock? How about materials, do you have what you need to effectively complete your job? Are you feeling stressed out?

Lack of time, support, and resources can leave you feeling overloaded and overworked. Exhaustion, the first dimension of job burnout is linked to stress. When you become exhausted you distance yourself from your work both mentally and emotionally. This distance can lead to feelings of indifference and inefficiency.


These days everybody’s a cynic, are you? As I mentioned eariler, burnout can be more contagious than chicken pox in a kindergarten classroom.

It may be difficult to fight feelings of cynicism in an environment where management isn’t necessarily practicing what they preach. "Our management continually stresses in writing and verbally: compliance with published guidelines. Yet when push comes to shove the only thing that counts is rolling the aircraft out," responded an A&P to a recent survey.

It is difficult to process these contrasting messages. You may find yourself debating: should I do my job and comply with written guidelines, possibly putting my job in jeopardy, or should I compromise my ethics to meet a deadline?

Cynicism is bred when we are forced to call our employer’s ethics into question. After a while many people let their ethics fall to the wayside and adopt an indifferent attitude comprimsing the quality of their work in order to appease management demands.


You are working as hard as you can, as fast as you can and you still aren’t meeting demands. Working under this constant time crunch can lead to feelings of inefficacy.

You may find that you blame yourself when you cannot meet unrealistic deadlines. This can cause you to call your skills into question.

A lack of resources contributes heavily to feelings of inefficacy and many people stop giving their all as a result. After all, why bother trying if your best isn’t good enough?

Are you stressed out?
In a recent survey we asked our readers some questions about stressors at work. Here are some of the results:

The good news:
• 71 percent of those surveyed don’t fear losing their jobs
• 64 percent of those surveyed don’t lose sleep over work worries
• 76 percent of those surveyed feel they have the tools and training to complete the work required

The bad news:
• 64 percent of those surveyed feel they must work if they are sick or injured
• 86 percent of those surveyed regularly skip lunches and breaks
• 78 percent of those surveyed feel they give more than they get in return
• 71 percent surveyed said that they frequently experience conflicting demands

Job compatibility

It may not be your field of work that’s burning you out, it could in fact be your working environment that is wearing you down.

In a recent study on job burnout Christina Maslach, Wilmar Schaufeli, and Michael Leiter look at six different factors of job compatibility that can lead to job burnout. They reasoned that the more a person’s expectations in each of these areas differed from their working environment the more likely burnout would occur.The six factors of job compatibility are:

• Workload
• Control
• Reward
• Community
• Fairness
• Values

The first of the six factors, workload, is in many cases related to exhaustion. Excessive workloads are the most common case of workload incompatibility, but in some cases a workload mismatch could result from the wrong kind of work. If you are underqualified or overqualified for the job you are less likely to feel satisfied with the workload. Though probably not an issue for the average AMT, not having enough work can also serve as a major stressor for some people who feel pressured to look busy.

The control factor is related to inefficacy. If you lack the resources and authority to do your job to the best of your ability it is quite likely you may be struggling with control issues.

Reward, the third job compatibility factor, can be related to both financial rewards and social awards. Lack of recognition, whether in the form of a plump paycheck or a pat on the back can lead to feelings of resentment and inferiority.

Most of us tend to do our best work in a workplace in which we feel comfortable, happy, and respected. Hostility, frustration, and disputes in the workplace break down this sense of community. Without this community there is no support system to promote shared goals and values. No group of coworkers is like one big happy sitcom family, in fact, many times the interactions between coworkers tend to more closely resemble daytime soap operas. Each person can handle certain levels of tension and animosity within the workplace, but when your needs for social support and interaction are not met you become susceptable to burnout.

Fairness is as important to us as adults as it was when mom was doling out goodies after dinner. No matter how well we are doing, we want to make sure that the guy next door isn’t getting a jump on that next promotion just because he’s on the boss’ softball team. Inequities in workload, pay, and praise can be upsetting and those upset feelings can lead to cynicism.

Mismatching values can also lead to cynicism and conflict. If asked to cut corners to get an aircraft out the door on schedule you may face a moral dilemma. These types of moral conflicts can cause you to question your employer’s ethics and compromise your own.

All six of these factors, either alone or in combination can lead to burnout.

Dealing with burnout

People suffering from burnout tend to deal with stress in passive and defensive ways. They often withdraw from job responsibilities leading to increased absenteeism, lower productivity and effectiveness, decreased job satisfaction, and reduced commitment to the employer.

An obvious solution to job burnout would be to quit your job, but who’s to say you wouldn’t be just as unhappy somewhere else?

One way to cope with burnout is to change your outlook. As one article on stress suggested, use the scuba diver’s motto: stop, think, and act. Take a moment to think about what you’re doing, create a plan of attack, and then take action. Don’t view problems at work as sources of stress. Instead look at problems as challenges and opportunities for growth.

After dealing with stress, ulcers, and other symptoms of burnout Grube made a decision: "I decided that I would do the best I could by the book," said Grube. "I did my job, made my own decsions, and soon no one messed with me when they found out I wasn’t going to play their head games."

This type of individual-oriented approach can alleviate exhaustion and the related stress, but it isn’t an overall solution to the three dimensions of burnout. People can learn new coping skills, but they are hard to implement if the workplace stays the same.

Managerial interventions are necessary to change the six factors of job compatibility. Management must set realistic expectations on their employees and be available as a support system. This, of course, is easier said than done. In a world of timelines and bottomlines, employee morale is low on the list of management priorities. But in the end, creating a positive working environment will create more productive employees and higher profit margins.

Ultimately, both the employee and management must make an effort to fight job burnout before it spreads through the hangar in epidemic proportions.

Remember burnout is a psychological syndrome, you may not be able to cope with burnout on your own. Consult your physician or contact the American Psychological Association’s Help Center to find a mental health professional in your area that can help you overcome job burnout.

Additional ReSources

American Psychological Association Help Center
(800) 964-2000

"The Truth About Burnout"
Maslach and Leiter
Jossey-Bass Publishing

"Preventing Burnout and Building Engagement: A Complete
Package for Organizational Renewal"

Maslach and Leiter Jossey-Bass Publishing