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Burnout: the plot thickens!

by
01 June 2013, at 12:00am

KATHERINE DOBBS continues her series looking at the main causes and the prevention of ‘burnout’ in practices with an examination of the problems caused by an overload of responsibilities

IN the first article of this series, we discussed the first cause of burnout as determined by Figley and Roop, which is conflict between individual values and organisational goals and demands.

As you may recall, one of the definitions of burnout presented in that article was: a result of frustration, powerlessness, and inability to achieve work goals (Charles R. Figley).

When do you often experience this frustration, powerlessness, and inability to achieve work goals? When you simply have too much to do so you cannot hope to achieve your goals! So it makes perfect sense that the second noted cause of burnout is simply: an overload of responsibilities.

Cause number 2: an overload of responsibilities

We talked last time about the interview process, and how to determine the organisational demands that you would be accepting when you say yes to a specific position being offered.

As you may recall, we talked about reviewing the job description for your potential position, and then asking some more questions to uncover the truth about the demand you can expect. Those questions included information about employee turnover, extra assigned projects, expected amount of overtime, and how well the team is covered for the unexpected but always present short-staffing that seems to occur with amazing frequency.

Hopefully the answers to these questions, and perhaps even the way the person answered them (did he or she choke and cough and stumble on the questions, barely getting an answer out? Probably not a good sign!) helped you to determine what type of load you might be expected to carry. But regardless, we all know that situations arise when you are not only expected to go above and beyond, but your continued employment depends upon it.

  • Unexpected employee understaffing

    I don’t know about you, but I have worked in practices that you could count on someone calling in sick every day. If you were lucky, only one person called in sick! Practices are encouraged to schedule their staff at a minimum level to handle the workload. If it’s busier, everyone works harder; but if it’s less busy, then at least you haven’t wasted money on staff standing around doing nothing while there is no money coming in.

    Well, in theory that works fine, when everyone on the schedule shows up! Seems to me that we should plan on needing one extra person per day to cover this unexpected shortage of staff, but generally that is impractical. So, when the team is made smaller, everyone handles an overload of work responsibilities.

  • Requested time off for employees

    Then there are those times when employees have requested time off, for vacation perhaps (aren’t they lucky? Wish it was you?), and ideally the schedule was modified to cover that person who is gone. But there are times when it is impossible to find coverage, or it would result in undesired overtime to have someone work a longer week to cover the vacationing employee. So again, an overload of responsibilities is the result.

  • Extra projects assigned or offered to you

    Particularly if you’re a good employee, who is trusted and capable, you will get asked to perform extra projects. If you’re fortunate, you are asked if you can take on this project. In this way, you are given the opportunity to assess the other duties and projects you are balancing, to see if saying yes one more time will tip over the boat.

    If you are simply assigned the project, then unfortunately you could feel resentment about the assignment because you are already balancing such a heavy load. Ideally, your supervisor, manager or boss should keep an eye on everyone’s workload, but in reality you must be your own advocate and express when you are being stretched too far.

    To help with this, it’s a great idea to develop a Project Log, which identifies the project name or description, the date assigned, the person who assigned it, the agreed upon deadline of completion, and then tracking or documentation of all the time you put in to completing that project. In this way, you can review or even show this log to your employer to help demonstrate to them what you are balancing. There are times when you need their help in prioritising which project they really want you to focus on at the moment.

    Don’t assume that the project assigned today is supposed to be completed after all your other projects are done, because chances are that the new project has taken priority in their opinion and is expected to be completed right away!

  • The need to lead in the absence of management

    The other piece to being overloaded with duties and projects is the part about “responsibilities”. Being responsible could amount to being expected to lead the direction, delegation and completion of duties not just for yourself but for your group, particularly when management members are not involved in this already.

    In other words, if you’re a “senior” nurse, meaning you’ve worked in that position longer than most or all other nurses in the practice, you are by default expected to be a leader. I know that may be new news to you, but you might as well accept that you may well be seen as being responsible for the work performance of the nursing group as a whole.

    Yes, ideally this would be the responsibility of a supervisor, practice manager or hospital administrator; however, don’t count on the practice owners, because truthfully, they are busy being veterinary surgeons and generating revenue for the practice, and they can barely handle their own responsibilities in the hours given to them during a day!

  • The need to mediate in the absence of upper management

    The other part that goes along with being a senior or long-term employee is the expectation that you are in a good position to mediate issues within your group. I realise that you didn’t know this either, but it’s true. The real deal is that someone has to do it, or everyone pays the price of a team wrapped up in disharmony and dysfunction.

    It is actually to your benefit to jump in and try to keep the peace, because who wants to spend their days working in this type of environment? But yes indeed, this could easily result in an overload of responsibilities … not just duties or tasks, but being the one responsible!

    So I may have not told you anything that you didn’t already know; after all, you knew you are overloaded! What you want to know is, what can I do about it? Well, it will involve assessing the situation (which of the above components is leading to your overload?) and then taking your results to whoever is upper management.

    This time, it is likely going to be the practice owner if no other management exists in your practice; they need to hear it! If there are levels of management in your practice, take it up one level, or another if needed, but by all means tell someone!

    Do not wait until you are so overwhelmed that you can’t possibly see the light, and you decide to quit your job. It’s easy to feel victim to this overload, but until you learn how to proactively and reactively deal with issues such as work overload, you will continue to become overloaded in subsequent places of employment.

    It does help to go to management or owners with solutions, however, instead of just complaints. In your opinion, can delegation be distributed differently? Can Project Logs be used to ensure that everyone is pulling their weight? Should the schedule be reviewed and fixed if you really are short-staffed every day? Should a nursing supervisor be implemented to monitor the workloads of this group … and, would you be willing to be that person?

    The thing not to do is to suffer in silence, until you feel that last straw land on your back!