The phenomenon of professional exhaustion, or burnout, has given rise to a number of coaching and counselling services in Switzerland seeking to educate employees and managers how to recognize symptoms and to jointly take preventive measures.
Job burnout is defined as chronic stress that affects both physical and mental health. In extreme cases, it can lead to nervous breakdowns. It can affect employees who feel overworked, yet fear being laid off if they complain. The same goes for CEOs who love their jobs but don’t know how to relax or switch off. All are victims of a fast-moving 21st century, where high-tech advances are often coupled with staff reductions that impose extra burdens on everyone.
The solutions offered by burnout counselling services often appear targeted towards the victim: join a gym; get enough sleep; make time for private life. Such advice is good for anyone, whether to improve overall health, or to deal with depression. But for many, this is easier said than done. Burnout symptoms may be more evident than solutions: having a low energy level or little motivation; feeling tired all the time; no longer enjoying ones job; and having personal problems at home and at work.
One solution, according to psychologist Catherine Vasey, director of the NoBurnout project at the University of Lausanne, is to help companies institute policies that deal simultaneously with both employees at the administrative level and with CEOs. Much of her work “is with burnout sufferers at the managerial level as it is they who need to institute prevention measures at the company and because they are frequently burning out themselves”. According to Vasey, CEOs are often their own worst enemies. Despite having high motivation for their work, they are often challenged when it comes to delegating. They also find it difficult to shut off and to preserve a social life outside the office.
Researchers at Geneva’s Webster University are currently gathering data on burnout and the connection between work and common mental health difficulties.
According to project psychologist Ros Thomas, “Mental health problems account for one of the top economic burdens for employers, where mood and emotional difficulties are consistently associated with lost productivity while at work.” Lack of institutional support or stress among aid workers dealing with disasters are also factors. Several NGOs in the Lake Geneva area specifically handle the debriefing of returning relief personnel to avoid aggravated burnout.
Burnout ultimately leads to loss of productivity, whether among valued employees who can’t say “no” or those who seek to be available at all hours for clients on the other side of the world. Many, too, remain chained to their computers with few breaks and increasing overtime. “Management needs to realize that burnout most often affects its best workers,” said Vasey, adding that the best way to eliminate the fear of being replaced is for company policy to clearly state that it does not want burned-out employees. However, this may require changing the entire culture and values of a company – something that doesn’t happen overnight.
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a distinguished career as a journalist and media trainer for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo. Pamela@lenews.ch