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Beat the Burnout

Half of Workers Say They're 'Unmotivated'
Here Are Tips to Beat Job Burnout

By Andrea Coombes

September 2, 2007


SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Not thrilled to be back at work? You're not alone. Forty-eight percent of workers said they're not motivated to go back to work after Labor Day, according to a survey in August of 770 U.S. part- and full-time workers.


"Almost half of our work force doesn't look forward to returning to work on Tuesday morning," said Rich Wellins, senior vice president at Development Dimensions International, the human-resource consulting company in Pittsburgh that conducted the study.


The chore of "working on the same projects as last year" was the top reason for their lack of motivation, with 37% of the unmotivated respondents pointing to that as a problem.


"They're telling us that work is becoming monotonous, they're doing the same old stuff, they'd like some change, some variety," Wellins said, adding that he doesn't think it's the summertime blues. "If you ask them that question returning after New Year's, I think they'd say the same thing."


Meanwhile, the 52% of workers who say they're motivated to go back to work pointed mainly to the fact that they are "excited to start new projects," with 35% pointing to that reason.


While companies could do more to motivate workers, Wellins said, employees should take some responsibility for spicing up their work day by taking on new projects.


Talk to your boss, Wellins suggested. "I've done a good job to date and I'm looking for variety and challenge. Do you have some ideas on how I can take on some different tasks and responsibilities?"


Some workers hesitate to do that, he said, "fearful that the work they'll be given will be equally uninteresting," Wellins said. To prevent that possibility, go in with some ideas of new projects you'd like to take on.


"Look where you can add value. It might be better to go in with some ideas knowing what goes on in your workplace and knowing where help is needed. You're going in with some concrete ideas and suggestions," Wellins said.

Are you burning out?


Some of the unmotivated workers in the survey may be experiencing job burnout, one symptom of which is a feeling of chronic exhaustion, said Michael Leiter, author of "Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work" and a professor of psychology and work at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.


"You go home for the weekend and you're still tired on Monday, or you take a vacation and you're still tired," he said.


Thirty percent of those surveyed said even after they take a vacation, they never had that "just had a vacation," relaxed frame of mind, and another 19% say that feeling disappears before they return to the office. Meanwhile, 23% of those surveyed said they didn't take any vacation time this summer.


"My fear is we're not taking enough time to smell the roses," Wellins said. "No one's ever on their deathbed saying, 'I wish I'd put a few more days into work,'" he said.


In addition to chronic exhaustion, other symptoms of burnout include being cynical about your job -- "not caring about people, not caring about the quality of your work, getting into a frame of mind where you just don't care," Leiter said -- and feeling ineffective.


"You lose confidence that you're good at what you do and you lose confidence that what you're doing is something worthwhile." Everyone can experience the symptoms of burnout at times, he said, but frequent occurrences signal a problem.


Why the burn?


The specific causes of burnout can vary widely, depending on the worker, the job and the company. But there are some clear risk factors: If you're doing a job you don't believe in, particularly if it's one that requires a lot of thought, energy and commitment, you're likelier to experience burnout, Leiter said.


"If you have a job that is very routine, you can get very bored and it can be very tedious, but it's not exactly burnout," Leiter said.


"Burnout per se is more of an issue for people who do intense work that really requires you to be involved," he said, pointing to nurses, workers in creative professions or high-level computer programmers as examples.


A feeling that you lack control can also lead to burnout, said Beverly Potter, a psychologist who specializes in career and workplace issues and author of "Overcoming Job Burnout."


"We need a sense of control," Potter said. "Powerlessness destroys the spirit. You can't function, can't work." The solution? "Create a sense of empowerment," she said, by managing yourself. That includes "setting goals, pacing ourselves and rewarding ourselves," she said. "All of that gives us a sense of control."

How to avoid workplace ennui


Set goals -- but take small steps to attain them, rewarding yourself along the way, she said. "Develop a 'want' list, putting on there little rewards ... like taking a break for some coffee or getting a treat at lunch or going to a movie," Potter said. "If I just do a little bit of this work, I can go get that reward off the want list. It serves as a reinforcement for whatever 'this' is."


For some, the first response to burnout is to look for a new job, but that's not always the best answer. "All too often people think of [a new job] as the first option," Potter said.


"They don't even know what the problem is so they quit and get another job and that may be even worse because they don't even know what the problem was at the first job ... you have to know what was wrong with this job, what made me so miserable here, so demoralized."


First try to improve the situation at your current job, Potter said. If that doesn't work, then consider leaving.


For instance, focus your job more on the parts you like. "Clarify what do you believe in and try to emphasize that part of your job," Leiter said. This may entail talking to your boss about a desire to drop some tasks in favor or picking up more in another area.


Another idea: Try to pace yourself at work so you're not overextended, Leiter said. And, he said, stay physically fit. "If you can build up your resilience physically, that's going to be a resource. It's not going to solve all the problems but it's going to help."


Andrea Coombes is MarketWatch's assistant personal finance editor, based in San Francisco.