Battling Burnout

News | Marko Gregurek, Maja Muminagic | November 2006

“We stopped to talk to the final presenter of the second day, Arnold Bakker, in the bar area going over his presentation one final time.“ (Photo: Marko Gregurek)

The International Conference on Burnout and Job Engagement sponsored by Webster University, was the largest ever staged in Europe. And it started with nothing more, and nothing less, than stress itself.

But maybe that was as it should be for a gathering of scholars trying to understand what causes the emotional exhaustion, reduced effectiveness and cynicism that characterise the burnout syndro me. Because, for all the intensity, the energy, excitement and sense of purpose of the event, it also gave dramatic proof of the more recent research on work engagement – how the sense of having possibilities and resources, of being challenged, supported and acknowledged, makes it all worth while.

Cell phones had been ringing all evening in the pockets of the volunteers the night before; there was a quick change of plan – the Burnout Team was to show up early to finish setting up the laptops and beamers needed by the 25 presenters who would speak over the three days. However, by the time the entire Team got to the Hotel Modul at the ungodly hour of 7:30, almost all the problems had been solved.

Just after 9:00, people began to appear: doctors, professors, social workers, researchers on burnout, and some who had suffered from it. Although by the end, it got harder and harder to tell which was which.

The conference, from Oct. 5-7, had been the brain-child of psychologist Stefan Geyerhofer, professor at Webster University Vienna, who gathered the leading researchers and writers in the field, including Christina Maslach, Michael Leiter, Ben Furman, Cary Cooper, Arnold Bakker and Wilmar Schaufeli. It took two full years to co-ordinate schedules, send out invitations, make travel arrangements, hotel bookings, workshop rooms, venues and to get sponsors and donors.

Having dreamed up the concept of an international conference on burnout, Stefan Geyerhofer was now right in the middle of it.

As the conference opened he did not look stressed at all, though he’d been up since 4:00 am. He had time for everyone: for the volunteers and staff, the guests and friends; for setting up the beamers and notebooks for the coming presentations. At 10:00, a bell rang ushering participants into the large lecture hall.

Then suddenly a man came in, unexpectedly and abruptly, running toward the stage and yelling. The audience was stupefied as he launched into what seemed like an absurd rant about chimpanzees, about how we should take the Schönbrunn Zoo Tour and "not only establish contact between ourselves, but with some other species as well!"  By which time everyone had figured out that it was a joke and had started to laugh.

And in fact, that was an important part of the conference; the chance to establish contact, and learn through humor. We later found out who this man was: Werner Goltz, a social worker and one of Geyerhofer’s best friends.

Now that was how to start a conference. The ice that surrounds the beginning of any large gathering was shattered.

After a welcome by Bundesministerin Maria Rauch Kallat, Arthur Hirsh, director of Webster University Vienna, and Geyerhofer, researcher Christina Maslach gave the first presentation, in English.

Although German was the official language of the conference, both languages were used.

"The first dimension of burnout is a sense of exhaustion, a sense of being physically and psychologically drained," explained Maslach. The second one, interestingly, is cynicism – a negative shift towards the people with whom one works. And the third, is ‘inefficacy.’

"It is when you ask yourself, Why am I here, what am I doing, does it make any sense?" Maslach said. The positive opposites are then clear – energy, involvement, and productive use of time. As she was speaking, people were still coming in, with loud whispers of "Over here, please" and "Yes, this seat is free" as the crew added another row of chairs. One hundred and seventy-five people in all attended the conference.

Slides were changing, now with the burnout symptoms – fatigue symptom, for example; then showing the outcomes –low morale, poor quality of work, not showing up, leaving early; health problems, depression, problems in the family.

Who is at the risk of burnout? Maslach’s research showed it is not so much a question of personality as situation, thus her focus on what makes a positive environment for work, for research, for thought.

Conferences on psychology can stir deep emotion. The issues are universal but at the same time deeply personal, and the psychologists who find successful language for their insights can strike a resonant chord.

One attendee, a 24-year-old former manager of a Christian non-profit organisation suffering the consequences of burnout, was deeply affected.  Relieved at his new understanding, he described how work environment, a lack of support and his own perfectionism had all played a role in his "burning out." And despite some improvement, after six months, he was still struggling.

"Burnout is a relatively stable condition over longer periods of time," Dutch psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli would say later in the conference.  Here was the evidence.

Austrian Sabine Maunz talked about the effects of leadership on employee burnout, presenting a concept of a transformative leader who, by embodying meaningful values through his or her own example is able to articulate an inspirational vision. The alternatives of the "transactional" micro management or laissez-faire neglect can have disastrous consequences.

Webster faculty member Jennifer Daigle shared her research on personal descriptions on burnout, feelings of deep exhaustion, helplessness, or defeat. "One thing I have found," she said, "was how little importance is granted to the subjective experience of the individuals." As often in science, it is easier to study things that can be measured.

Following the first coffee break, Ben Furman, a psychotherapist from Helsinki, held a workshop on his Twin Star model – a programme designed to improve the work environment.  Furman’s presentational style was extremely appealing

"I always try to provide entertainment for the people," he teased, "but I always sneak in a little content, too." His presentation was one of the most talked about, his concepts clear and easy to grasp, illustrated with amusing examples.

Werner Friedl in the next room, struggled to compete with Furman’s presentation. In spite of Friedl’s microphone, laughter and voices kept penetrating the extremely thick doors forming the partition. Mesmerized, we shadowed Furman. When we did finally capture him, he suggested we have lunch the following day.

The first day ended with Cary Cooper, bearing the bad news in his presentation, "The New Sources of Burnout and Stress in the Global Workplace." An American living in the U.K., Cooper warned the rest of Europe about the negative trends he has observed there. "I’m just telling you what’s coming," he said repeatedly. "In all [EU] countries, job dissatisfaction is rising."

Stress related health problems afflict 76% of U.K. employees, and Cooper expects this trend to hit countries like Austria, too. Directors and senior managers seem to be at greatest risk for burnout, as 42% of directors, versus 31% of managers exceed their contracted work hours by three or more hours per week.

"Major changes are taking place, breaking the psychological contract," he said. Of course these negative trends also meant that his books were selling very well.

That evening, the presenters and participants retired to a Heuriger, where conversation was lively and wine plentiful, while Geyerhofer skillfully navigated between the tables: a joke in English to Ben Furman, a friendly hug for Christina Maslach and a conversation in German with a student about her future. A masterful performance.

Day two was the busiest of the conference. Choices were difficult, and rooms were often packed for topics ranging from burnout research, to therapy, to descriptive studies, and a popular workshop by Herbert Goelz on the art of laughing from within.

Apart from the daily lectures, workshops, and coffee breaks, the noisiest forum was the lunch buffet. Here participants discussed the presentations, argued over intention or interpretation, and began to unwind at least a little.

As promised, Ben Furman saved places for the two of us. Although not as full of crackling humor as when presenting, he had the wonderful talent of making us feel we’d been friends for years.

Furman got interested in burnout 15 years ago, when he noticed a growing number of his Finnish patients suffering from work-related stress – from the Americanisation of European society.

"We have developed a new set of worries," he said. "But if we are to really solve this problem, we might consider giving up the name burnout. It paves the way to a lot of uninteresting discussion."

On our way back to the hall we stopped to talk to the final presenter of the day, Arnold Bakker, in the bar area smoking peacefully and going over his presentation one final time. He was enjoying the conference, he said, missing only, perhaps, discussion on the clinical side of burnout. His own presentation was on the importance of positive emotions that, in contrast to fear or anger, open up possibilities and broaden the range of behavioral choices.

While perhaps intuitively obvious, Bakker and his colleagues have been able to actually measure these qualities, quantifying their contribution to greater creativity and productivity, and even higher income, as well as the base line measures of a stronger immune system and longer life.

But between the translation and the many slides, he was not able to finish. The question period was rushed, as everybody needed to end an exhausting day.

On the final day of the conference, the excitement seemed to ebb. The last presentation was scheduled for noon, and the compressed program took its toll. Still, Wilmar Schaufeli’s 9:00 a.m. presentation was packed.

"Burnout appears to be contagious," Schaufeli told the audience, "so that group relationships are often decisive in combating it." Schaufeli, along with Bakker, has geared his work toward a deeper understanding of the positive conditions in which people thrive.

"Psychology has for too long been defined by the study of disease," he said, a focus that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In the end, in spite of the humor and good spirits, burnout was clearly no laughing matter. As Furman had said, "You can feel that people are not here for entertainment. They are looking for serious solutions to serious problems. "

It had all gone remarkably well, and more smoothly that any of us ever thought possible. And in the end, the Burnout Team received one final reward all had been waiting for – a chance to sleep in on Sunday.

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