Contemplating Work and Burnout

Today’s Read:
Luisa Barthauer et al.
Burnout and Career (Un)sustainability: Looking into the Blackbox of Burnout Triggered Career Turnover Intentions
Journal of Vocational Behavior, v. 117, 2020

Now that so many of us are working from home (WFH), I imagine there is a lot of thinking that we can never get away from work. Our worklife is bleeding into our homelife in ways that we have never experienced before.

I personally am struggling with uncertainty, a lack of diverse people to talk to about how I’m feeling about things that bother me, and the sense that every single one of my own shortcomings is (a) amplified, (b) unfixable, and (c) annoying and burdensome to anyone who happens to hear me talk about them. These have been standard thoughts for me in a work context for many years, and I have been practicing not letting those thought invade my non-work life lately. But that practice is, obviously, in tatters right now.

If there was ever a time for working on self-compassion and self-care, this is it, and I am doing it. When we do this, we face a lot of things about ourselves that we may not like that much, and that we are struggling to change. If this is happening to you, you are not alone. You are OK now, and you’re going to be OK later.

This is a rather lengthy lead-up to the article that I am looking at today, but I am not apologizing for that. We must talk about how we are struggling right now so that we can process it all.

Anyway, I am not a psychologist, or a sociologist, or a vocational scholar, but I love seeing the TOC alert for the Journal of Vocational Behavior in my inbox, and this article on career burnout from the recent issue really caught my eye. On my worst vocational-psychological days, I do think about whether I am fundamentally unsuited to be a librarian, or just burned out. The literature on this topic helps me process that inquiry.

What is career burnout? According to the authors, it is “a state of prolonged exhaustion, disengagement from work, and a lowered sense of effectiveness as a professional.” (p.3)

Burnout has an impact on career sustainability as follows (pp. 1-2):

ONE: “Working environments are increasingly defined by fast-paced changes, high time-sensitivity, and a constantly growing workload.”

TWO: “These trends have implications for the continuity and sustainability of careers.”

THREE: “A sustainable career tracks describes ‘sequences of career experiences reflected through a variety of patterns of continuity over time, thereby crossing several social spaces, characterized by individual agency, herewith providing meaning to the individual.'”

FOUR: “From the conservation of resources theory (COR) perspective, burnout reduces the required resources for a sustainable career.”

The authors undertook the study described in the article to “investigate how resource losses due to burnout can create a chain of losses required for career continuity … ultimately resulting in career turnover intentions.” (p. 2) One major consequence of burnout, the authors posited, is from a resources perspective. Burnout “reduces the cognitive and emotional resources that are required for maintaining a sense of usefulness and effectiveness in one’s current employment,” because people who are burned out have “feelings of incompetency, unproductiveness, and low motivation,” and, therefore, feel that they do not have value for their employer. (p. 4) The authors believed that a second consequence of burnout is that it reduces career satisfaction, which is otherwise necessary for an employee to “attain() valuable objectives and states” and to “achiev(e) self-set criteria for success.” (p. 4)

The authors then conducted a study, the subjects of which were German academics. They used the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI), in which two aspects of burnout are measured: (1) disengagement, and (2) exhaustion. Other factors measured included the following:

  • Perceived internal marketability (your view of your value to your employer)
  • Career satisfaction
  • Perceived departmental support
  • Career turnover intentions

Based on their findings, the authors concluded that “burnout relates to career turnover intentions, and that perceived internal marketability and career satisfaction” can lead to those intentions. They also found that those intentions are somewhat moderated by high levels of perceived departmental support. They also found indications of other moderating factors, which the authors characterized as “buffering resources,” that can “mak(e) unsustainable careers more sustainable.” Examples of these include “human capital resources, motivational resources, and career management behaviors.” (p. 10)

The authors conclude that “career sustainability can be fostered by focusing on (a) reducing burnout itself, (b) increasing the mediating variables (i.e., perceived internal marketability, career satisfaction), and (c) increasing the buffering variable (i.e., departmental support) of the unsustainable effects of burnout.” (p. 12)

I really enjoyed this article because it reforced something that I have believed for a while but have not been able to put into words. Career satisfaction is not black-and-white. There are many variables that contribute to whether someone is at the point of throwing in the towel and bailing on their current career, or whether they might be able to stick it out for another month, or year, or longer.

It is important to remember that your success or failure at coping with career burnout does not rest only on your shoulders. The connection between burnout and career turnover can be moderated by many factors, including the support you are getting from work. Finding a workplace where managers and colleagues (a) support you, (b) care about your well-being, and (c) want you to succeed is critically important.

Of course, whether those resources are available in today’s world of work is another issue entirely. An example I have seen lately is that there are libraries that refuse to close despite the threat of the coronavirus. This seems like a perfect recipe for librarian flight, and now I can see why more clearly. These libraries, by making their employees come to work right now, are likely contributing to the burnout of their employees, who may already be burned out due because there is too much work and they lack both resources and personal agency.

In other words, people can put up with a lot, but if every moderating factor for their burnout is removed, why would they want to stay? This invites a whole different conversation about vocational awe in librarianship, of course. But this post is already pretty long so that is a conversation for another day.

I’ll end by telling you that I am proud of you. For hanging in there, for showing up even if it’s from home. We’ll get through this.

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