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Burning Out: Fighting Work Exhaustion

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

EMS can be a remarkably difficult career. While there are times of boredom, the things that EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, and police officers see on a regular basis can be disheartening. I won’t delve into the details here but seeing the awful things that people do to each other, and themselves, can wear on anyone after a while.

Ultimately many of us burn out and leave the field entirely. When I was working, the conventional wisdom was that career life expectancy in EMS was 7 years. Research has borne that out, but trends are going in the wrong direction, as average paramedic tenure has dropped from 6 ½ years to 4 since 2011.[1]

As the toll of the job added up, my burnout increased. I knew that I was in trouble when my sister said that I looked like Nicolas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead; pale with hollow eyes and an emotional disconnection to the world. That emotional distance seems to be a way that paramedics deal with the stresses of the repeated emergencies that come with the job.[2]

That burnout and work exhaustion is correlated with feelings of loneliness, and the more exhausted we are the more lonely we are.[3]

Burnout and exhaustion are a problem across job titles throughout the United States. This burnout costs America deeply – $125-$190B/year in healthcare spending[4] and a loss of $150-300B/year for employers as 1MM people miss work daily from stress.[5] Half of us are burned out, regardless of profession or workplace.[6]

Unfortunately, employers fail to understand what is happening and why. They see burnout as a personal problem or related to talent management instead of recognizing it as a symptom of larger, systemic problems.[7] As the demands of competition and shareholder have increased and the philosophy of “do more with less” have driven businesses to push employees harder, the results are becoming clear.

An overestimation of the effectiveness of computer tools and automation leads to overwhelmed workers, and post-implementation workload evaluations are effectively unheard of (especially in those companies where overwork is celebrated).[8] People get stressed, and that stress results in decreases in productivity and reliability, increased turnover, and reduced service.

Sadly, executives have become so distant from their workforces that they don’t understand how much time and effort is spent on productive activities or how much is lost on unproductive ones.[9] Without that knowledge, it will be difficult for leadership to look inward and confront the company behaviors that create stress.

Most of us can relate to being short of time; even more so when buried with meeting after meeting that feel like they accomplish nothing but consuming time. Adding time management discipline from above could bring at least 20% relief to their employees’ days, were executives to take the right steps.[10] One workplace study had average managers losing more than half the week to email and meetings.[11] With that much time lost, productivity is sure to fall as well, even as the wall between work and home erodes.

As burnout builds, employee turnover grows as well – some quit, others are terminated because performance suffers. If a company creates policies that effectively reduce employee stress, turnover rates are more than 6 times lower than companies that don’t.[12]

While it has been taught that engagement is the solution to stress, newer research is debunking that thinking. 20% of highly engaged employees report high burnout and are the highest turnover risk.[13] Using challenge as a strategy to prevent burnout has also been shown to be a double-edged sword; it can motivate some but will create anxiety and stress for most everyone, lead to exhaustion, and those stretch goals may actually be creating worse results than moderate, achievable ones.[14]

How does this happen?

Part of the problem is that we naturally lean on the people that perform the best. If given a critical project that we need to hand off to our team, we will consistently lean on our top performers.[15] We then ask those same top performers to make up for their less-capable peers and work on other small non-mission-related tasks, all while managing the most critical work.[16]

All of this leads to our best employees burning out and ultimately leaving our companies. This is expensive; from 25-200% of that employee’s salary.[17] When viewed in this context, creating a business case for stress and burnout prevention should be relatively easy, especially when looking at the long-term health of the business.

While wellness initiatives show some effectiveness, to truly make a difference HR involvemen is necessary – monitoring demands, workload, etc.[18] By providing increased focus on the right support and recovery programs and workload management, stress and burnout can be more effectively monitored and reduced, and the subsequent consequences minimized.

As with so many other things in business, paying attention to the needs of the employee base, focusing on morale, and reducing stress can have returns far greater than their costs. The old theory that pushing people as hard as possible is the only way to get results ends up costing businesses far more than they receive, and ultimately we all pay with increased healthcare costs, decreased health, and diminished emotional capacity.

Trying to run a business and its people at maximum capacity, with every item a fire drill and every task a top priority leaves no capacity to increase productivity if an actual emergency happens. Instead, managing employee time effectively and using a study and evaluation of workload management strategies can reward a business in increased productivity, reduced insurance costs, better decision making, and reduced turnover – a win for everyone involved.

[1] https://www.jems.com/na/ferno/can-you-predict-how-long-your-new-medic-will-stay.html

[2] Ibid

[3] https://hbr.org/2017/06/burnout-at-work-isnt-just-about-exhaustion-its-also-about-loneliness

[4] https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2016/03/04/heres-what-burnout-costs-you/#40934a074e05

[6] https://hbr.org/2017/06/burnout-at-work-isnt-just-about-exhaustion-its-also-about-loneliness

[7] https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/how-stress-at-work-is-costing-employers-300-billion-a-year-2016-6

[13] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

[14] ibid

[15] https://hbr.org/2018/06/how-are-you-protecting-your-high-performers-from-burnout

[16] ibid

[17] http://open.lib.umn.edu/humanresourcemanagement/chapter/7-1-the-costs-of-turnover/

[18] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

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