Keeping the Fire Alight: Understanding and Preventing Burnout

By Miranda Kitterlin, Ph.D. Assoc. Professor, Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, FIU | August 01, 2013

Ever have one of those days where you just want to run screaming from the building and never return? Perhaps you thought you truly loved your career, but lately you just don't know if you can face another day, another employee, another guest? Or maybe you just don't care anymore, and are completely disconnected from a job that once gave you such fulfillment? Don't worry, you are not losing your mind (well, maybe not yet), and you are not alone. These feelings are most likely due to a form of work-related stress, called 'burnout', and the phenomenon has been dubbed one of the most significant occupational hazards of the twenty-first century.

Burnout is a type of job stress typically characterized by a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion combined with feelings of depersonalization, delusion, and/or disconnect at work. This type of excessive stress has been connected to a variety of health problems, and behavioral stress reactions can range from depression to violence. While the specific causes of stress for an individual will vary based on a number of factors (i.e. personality, tolerance, etc.), the majority of individuals can only handle excessive stress for a short period of time before experiencing burnout... or worse.

Because stress can manifest itself in a variety of negative ways, the value of stress management at work can be seen at individual, organizational, and societal levels. At the organizational level, excessive stress resulting in burnout may present itself as cynical attitudes in the workplace, apathy and lethargy towards work, irritability with co-workers and guests, and a general lack of satisfaction with accomplishments on the job. Other undesirable workplace outcomes may include decreased performance, job dissatisfaction, decreased organizational commitment, increase absenteeism, and increased turnover. Consider the cost of lost productivity, add in the expense of recruiting, replacing, and training staff, the throw in the cost of guest satisfaction due to burnout spill over into guest service, and you've got quite a problem. In short, burnout is bad for business, and small investments in addressing this problem can have big returns.

Once you have an understanding of what burnout is, the next step towards generating a solution for your organization is to identify causes of burnout. When asked what causes them to 'burnout' at work, here are some of the responses hospitality workers provided:

  • Overwhelming workloads; having too many tasks and too little time to perform these tasks, as well as no help getting the work done.
  • Feeling like I have no control over my work life.
  • Constantly dealing with guest complaints and unreasonable expectations.
  • Workplace politics or dysfunctional workplace dynamics.
  • Not enough time between shifts to recover and get ready to do it all over again.
  • Micromanagement from my supervisor.
  • Constantly performing the same monotonous tasks over and over every day.

    And, the most commonly reported response:

  • Poor work-life balance

Reading over this list of causes, one's first reaction might be, "It's the hospitality industry! That's just the nature of the business!" Historically, perhaps you're right… American society has continued along a steady trend of less people doing more work, especially given the recent economic devastation. In hospitality, specifically, burnout rates are among the highest, with a reported employee burnout rate of one in seven (incidentally, the same rate at which education professionals are burning out).

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