Burnout – Its Causes and Its Cures

Apr 1, 2004

The topic of “burnout” comes up frequently in my consulting work with recruiting and staffing firms. This is particularly true when the economy is in recession and the overall business environment is less than robust, although “burnout” can happen to anyone at anytime. Actually, it is rare that I hear about a staffing professional suffering from “burnout” when they are experiencing great success on the job. Therefore, although not carved in concrete, it is relatively safe to state that “burnout” primarily (but not exclusively) happens to individuals who are struggling with the business.

In fact, from my observation of thousands of practitioners over the past thirty years, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that “burnout” is the primary cause of turnover for those individuals with more than one year in the business. Now, depending on how “burnout” is defined, this can be interpreted in several different ways.

What prompted me to write this article was an e-mail I received recently from a recruiter with 15 years of experience in the business. She asked me if I knew of anyone who specialized in providing a “quick cure for burnout” that did not entail “more hours on the phone.” This stimulated a rather in-depth exchange of e-mails and required me to quantify my perspective on this all-important topic.

Therefore, we will consider the three categories of “burnout”, their causes and the cures that are most effective for dealing with them.

Physical Burnout: This can best be described as the 24/7 syndrome and can afflict even the most successful practitioner. The individuals who suffer from this form of burnout are virtually never able to separate themselves from their work. Long hours and no days off generally lead to an unhealthy living pattern that encompasses everything from a poor diet, lack of exercise, deteriorating personal relationships, sleepless nights, and an overall loss of energy and motivation. In some instances, physical burnout may be caused by disease or extended illness. Bottom line, the individual no longer possesses the physical strength necessary to continue their work at an effective level.

The cure for physical burnout, in addition to a vacation and scheduled weekly time off, may include having diagnostic testing completed by a physician or clinic in order to establish physiological parameters and appropriate treatment options. Counseling, personal trainers, dieticians, and physical therapy may be needed in order to help change the workaholic pattern of this individual’s life. Without a basic change to the manner in which the person approaches their life, physical burnout will keep repeating itself while unnecessarily shortening a successful career.

If you have an interest in learning more about how to “balance your life” and prevent physical burnout, I strongly recommend that you read “Life Matters” by A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill. This book should be on every professional’s must read list.

Emotional Burnout: With this form of burnout, the individual’s emotional well runs dry and they no longer can find the enthusiasm and motivation necessary to meet the daily challenges of the job. The only option that seems reasonable to them is to just give up and quit. Emotional burnout can have many causes including personal challenges like chronic pain or illness, loss of a loved one, divorce, or any one of a variety of addictions. Symptoms include low self-esteem, self-doubt, insecurity, compulsive worrying, self-induced stress and a general sense of helplessness. Together, these symptoms needlessly consume the individual’s emotional power at a rate that, many times, exceeds the psyche’s ability to replenish it. This person really needs help.

The best cure for emotional burnout, regardless of the cause, is outside intervention by a qualified professional or group that possesses the necessary counseling, therapeutic and/or spiritual skills required to assist the individual in solving the problem. The causes of emotional burnout generally run deep within the person. Thus, most cures will require a major commitment of time, effort and resources from both the individual as well as their personal support network. Stepping away from the business may very well be necessary before any significant improvement can be realized.

Although both physical and emotional burnout occur with a certain level of regularity in our industry, they probably represent no more than 10% of the turnover that is blamed on “burnout.” By far, the most pervasive form of “burnout” that exists in the staffing industry is no-growth burnout.

No-Growth Burnout: This form of burnout can afflict both the experienced professional as well as those new to our industry. The symptoms mirror those of “emotional burnout,” particularly the general sense of helplessness.

The progression of “no-growth burnout” fits a defined pattern that usually begins with poor or non-existent initial training. The rookie may be exposed to books, CDs, videos and tapes that are full of useful information. However, they do not actually learn and master the basic skill sets necessary to be successful. They cannot transfer the acquisition of knowledge into an effectively consistent application phase. Since repetition is the key to learning, the lack of an effective application phase dramatically diminishes the learning process. At best, the result is a novice practitioner who may achieve a limited amount of success but is incapable of sustaining it. Thus, they become frustrated, disheartened, lose their motivation and in the final stages succumb to a general apathy that is almost impossible to reverse. In this situation, assuming a proper hire in the first place, the manager is generally at fault.

Basic skill sets are not learned merely from listening and watching. As important as these may be, real learning requires an action step (doing). There is knowledge acquisition and there is knowledge application. In the area of training, most managers struggle with the knowledge application phase. Once the knowledge has been provided (best if provided in a structured progression format), the manager or trainer needs to carefully guide the trainee through a process of action, critique, and repetition until they are relatively certain the individual is fundamentally sound and conceptually secure in their ability to execute that particular skill set. This is where real learning takes place, in the action and repetition steps.

Unfortunately, many rookies never become fundamentally sound and conceptually secure with the basic skill sets required for success in this business. Once again, assuming a proper hire, the rookie either has to possess an extreme tolerance for pain as they proceed through the process of trial and error, until they finally gain the prerequisite skill sets, or they quickly become frustrated, lose their motivation and “burnout.” Most succumb and either quit or are fired for lack of performance. This helps create the high rate or turnover among first year employees.

A more insidious form of “no-growth burnout” occurs with experienced practitioners. I use the term insidious because in its early stages, the individual is generally not aware of the problem. These individuals initially learned the basics of the business whether through good training or trial and error. For many of them, this is where the learning process stopped. They continue to do the job in the same way day after day with little or no perceptible change in functional skill sets. This works for a while and they may even enjoy consistent success for several years. Nevertheless, because they are not learning, growing and developing in their skill sets, they become stale and slowly lose their edge. Many times they begin to stray from properly executing the basics of the business that served as the foundation for much of their earlier success. Activity numbers decrease and contact time drops to a minimum as they rely more and more on the Internet and e-mail as a replacement for results oriented telephone activity.

At first, they and their manager may not even be aware of the problem but as it progresses, production begins to drop off. This is usually rectified by an increase of effort that produces an upsurge in activity and results. However, this revival, based solely on physical exertion is generally short lived or the practitioner is in danger of becoming physically burned out.

Bottom line, the individual has ceased to grow. The job becomes heavy labor because the harder they work, the less they accomplish. Unless something is done to effect a change, frustration, apathy, and a loss of motivation will drive them to resign or be terminated.

The cure is simple but needs to be dramatic, immediate and requires a strong personal commitment. First of all they need to get back on the phone properly executing the basics in order to make certain their foundation is solid once again. Close monitoring, feedback and coaching from their manager should be a great help at this stage of the recovery process. Then they need to begin growing and developing skill sets to an ever-increasing level of effectiveness. This will put them on a path where personal confidence will once again bloom as their accomplishments reflect the growth of a true professional. They will approach each day with a renewed enthusiasm because they now look forward to applying newly mastered skills, techniques and strategies. The job becomes self-rewarding while reinforcing their feeling of self-worth, sense of contribution, and professional pride. The growth in their paycheck becomes a by-product of this on-going leaning process.


Confidence comes from competence and competence is based on the continued positive growth of your functional skill sets.

A truly confident practitioner is good at what they do and continues to get better. Each day is a new challenge where they have the opportunity to learn and apply increasingly effective strategies and techniques. They are excited, enthused, and motivated as they track personal growth and accomplishment.

Although management always shoulders a responsibility to provide training and learning opportunities for their staff, the most important question is:

“Whose responsibility is individual self development?”

The answer to this question is fairly evident. Self-development is each individual’s responsibility. Some assume that responsibility while others do not. For those who do not, their eventual “burnout” in this business is all but guaranteed. In essence, they have given up on themselves. They may blame their manager, their work environment, or other circumstances not directly related to their problem. Nevertheless, an honest evaluation of where they are and how they got there reveals the fact they stopped growing, lost their edge, and began a downward slide that is very difficult, but not impossible to reverse.

The consistently top producers in our industry all have one thing in common; they are always learning, growing and developing their functional skill sets. In fact, their reality is exactly the opposite of “burnout.” They become increasingly effective at gaining significant results, in less time, with far less frustration and effort than is the norm for this industry. Their work becomes self-reinforcing.

With physical and emotional burnout, you need professional help. However, with no-growth burnout, you need to help yourself. Learning opportunities are endless whether through your manager, peers, professional associations, industry trainers, publications, videos, CDs, tapes or books. Continue to gain the knowledge, apply the knowledge, and build your skill sets. This is the best way to avoid “burnout” while insuring long-term prosperity and professional satisfaction from your career.

There is an old saying that defines the ten two letter words that spell success:

“If it is to be, it is up to me.”

That about sums it up. Meanwhile, if you have questions or comments on the topic of “burnout,” just let me know. Your contacts are always welcome.

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