The Employee Burn-out Phenomenon

Why is it that good employees sometimes become difficult to manage? This is one of the questions caring managers frequently ask themselves. Several reasons can be attributed to the burn-out phenomenon many leaders witness in their employees.

    1. Personal Problems: Some of the most common reasons for poor performance are problems unrelated to work. Financial woes, troubled personal relationships, health complications, and a myriad of other problems can affect the performance of the most dedicated of employees.
    2. Conflicting Priorities: The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle with patient access problems. As a result, new policies and process changes continue to challenge managers and employees. It is challenging to lead a team through change even when it is gradual. The rapid implementation of new standard operating procedures and constant re-training of employees to meet those standards can take a toll in overall morale as well as in performance.
    3. Inexperienced Leadership: As discussed in previous blogs, managers’ performance can make or break a team. The “do as I say; don’t do as I do” is not a realistic expectation for any team. Employees are drawn to strong leadership; the stronger the leader, the harder the employees will work. Often the first instinct of an inexperienced leader is to delegate everything. Unfortunately, this decision will severely limit the leader’s learning opportunities. Continue setting the example of your expectations by learning and being willing to do some work instead of delegating everything that comes to your desk.
    4. No Career Advancement Opportunities: The Department of Veterans Affairs, Patient Administration Service has been facing a retention problem for many years. Employees that are motivated or career oriented leave the department after serving for an average of one and a half to two years. There is no clear career ladder to climb and as result, good employees are lost faster than the service can replace them. The current career advancement opportunities within the services are more like a monarchy; everyone is waiting for the king or queen to step down for an opportunity to step up. This is a government-wide problem that is not easily resolved without major restructuring of current HR practices.
    5. Lack of Acknowledgement: One of the biggest problems faced by teams and managers in all branches of the government is the lack of acknowledgement. A common trend is fresh employees or leaders slowly losing initial motivation after their efforts go unnoticed. I have been to meetings where the leaders congratulate each other for a job well done, while employees are not acknowledged for their part in the mission. Always remember that a leader cannot exist without a team. A leader without a team is not a leader but an individual.

Employees’ performance is dependent on many factors. There are some signs and symptoms that can be controlled, as well as recognized early on by exercising caring leadership. Caring for the team’s morale and wellbeing can yield greater results even when the stakes are raised by constant change. The burn-out phenomenon may not always be prevented but disaster can be averted with a little more care and attention to detail from effective leaders.

Alberto Principe is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

One of the elephants in the room is that government is big. Really big. And one of the things that results in is very few of us ever having the sense of seeing the whole of something through. Even the decision-makers at the top rarely get to dream up something, implement it, and witness the fruits of that dream before their term of office is over. The rest of us are mere cogs in the wheel that do our little part; honestly, and with enthusiasm. We like accomplishing the little things that help our coworkers and management, but we are all too often eight or ten degrees of separation from the imagined public benefit that motivates most of us. The sense of “getting somewhere” on those files that are personally meaningful is often undermined by the long time-arc and the tiny role we play. That’s a reality, not a criticism.

When one looks at the burnout literature, it is primarily observed in what may be loosely summarized as “human services”, although I imagine it happens in the private sector as well. A big part of what runs through it all is the pervasive sense that one is simply not “getting anywhere”, either in terms of the organizational/mission or personal/professional objectives (as noted in the blog piece). Great leadership connects what people do to the mission, and identifies achievement of the mission as a function of individual efforts. Inexperienced leadership will have a much harder and ungraceful time doing so. And of course, if there are systemic blockages, whether budgetary or political, even great leaders have a hard time pulling that one off.

An illustration. I recently ended a position assisting in the methodological planning of a major project that was near and dear to not only myself, but the vast majority of fellow employees. We were close to “lift-off”, when a decision was made at the legislative level to shelve the legislation we were operating under, and go back to the drawing board. Fair enough. I didn’t think the existing legislation was as good as it could be. But after putting in 18 months of work and then being summarily shut down (the position ended and I went to another agency), what does that do for your enthusiam and engagement? I’m not bitter about it. Obviously if something is not working well, you don’t continue it just to provide employees with a sense of continuity or accomplishment. I’m just noting that this sort of thing HAPPENS in the public sector, happens often, and is a big source of disengagement and burnout.

We operate within a context where burnout is to be expected. Some public servants are fortunate. Yes they are cogs, but they get to serve the public, get to see the smiles on their faces when a service is provided, and get the sense that even if their career is not going anywhere, they are DOING something of use and service. Far too many of us are not in such a favourable position.

Sandy Davis

Well said, Mark! The reality is that no one can maintain motivation and momentum without some sort of feedback, and sometimes we are just too far removed from the point where the value is delivered, to see it. Keeping people engaged and preventing burnouts requires transmitting that reward to the staff.

Alberto Principe

A great example Mark. There are many more factors that can cause an employee to burn-out, but I am an avid believer that good morale and the sense of accomplishment employees need can be provided by effective communication from their leaders. Thank you for sharing your very valuable experience and insight.

Angelika Harper

I totally agree with many of your points as I am a casualty of the current VA policies internal or external, and I left my last position because of the burn-out-syndrome. I have been under leadership that delegated everything down because they did not know their job. The reason why they got hired in my opinion is because they met the time-in-grade requirement, but not necessarily the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs). Needless to say I was burned out and start looking for an opportunity myself. Some of the hiring authorities are out of our hands, such as time-in-grade requirements, VRA, VEOA, Schedule A because we in HR have to follow the law. The employees that wait until somebody in the Chain of Command retires to apply for a promotion opportunity might not get that chance because the job should be posted (internal or external), and has to be filled competitively or under a special hiring authority. There are also factors such as “hiring like me syndrome”, “hiring someone I know”, or “hiring someone that is related to the hiring official”, which is a Prohibited Personnel Practice. However, I am now transferring to a different entity in the Federal Service in the hopes that in the near future I get an opportunity, for a position with greater responsibilities, and where my talent is used to the fullest. I’ve been with the VA only for four years encountered problems such as difficulties to change, excepting new ideas, sharing information, or flexibilities of employees. Coming from the Army I am used to change, sharing information, moving, and being flexible. How good am I as a leader if I leave my employees behind with no knowledge, skills, or abilities to run the office without m