Stress does not cause executives to burn themselves out. It is the fear that their work does not make a difference which causes managers and staff to quit jobs which they feel have become untenable. Entrepreneurs may suffer less from the sense that their work is meaningless but they too have to manage the impact of stress on their health and performance.
Professor Ayala Malach-Pines, of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, has researched the difference between stress and burnout among employees across a range of occupations.
"For many people, the driving force behind their work is not merely monetary but the belief that they can have an impact, and it is this idea that spurs them on," Malach-Pines says.
"The root cause of burnout lies in people's need to believe that their lives are meaningful, that the things they do are useful and important."
Matt Schmidt, 30, knows the feeling all too well. In 2003, Schmidt joined Foster's Group as a business analyst, employed on a number of projects.
He left the role earlier this year after lacking direction in his job, long hours and personal health issues.
Schmidt admits leaving Foster's was a tough decision as the company was a good employer, but his health issues left him with little choice.
"When my back problems surfaced, I was given a month off," he says. "My boss said, 'Don't stress, your pay will be in your account'. I was leaving my support network and it was scary. I asked myself, 'Am I just copping out?" I reached a point where I had to take control of my life."
Since leaving Foster's, Schmidt has travelled overseas, shed 35 kilograms and taken up yoga.
"Rather than thinking I need to find a job, and then figure out my life out, I will do it in reverse," he says. "I will design the lifestyle I want and find a job that fits around that."
Professor Chris Jackson, of the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, says workplace stress and burnout have multiple causes, and often strike people who work the hardest.
"When job demands are high then that's one of the ingredients of burnout," Jackson says.
"There are other things that lead to burnout besides stress. If you don't have social support, or if you're undermined by your boss and you can't fulfil your role, there is a loss of direction. This leads to failure in accomplishing tasks and an inability to focus on the job. It becomes a vicious cycle."
Jackson recommends organisations frame jobs to give people more fulfilment. Whether at work or home, Jackson says, people want meaning in their lives.
Many company owners believe long hours are essential and inevitable when building their business.
One exception is Nick Heywood-Smith, director of Wellness & Lifestyles Australia. The company provides allied health professionals, such as physiotherapists, to clients.
Heywood-Smith works 40 hours a week over four days, taking Wednesdays off to spend with his children. Company growth has averaged 48 per cent a year for the past three years to reach turnover of nearly $3 million in 2008-09.
More than avoiding burnout, Heywood-Smith says keeping his work hours down improves his management. He has appointed an executive team from among the outstanding subcontractors who work for him, and guides them with weekly meetings.
He recently returned from two weeks holiday in New York.
"We arrived to find some big problems, and suddenly I thought of a solution," Heywood-Smith says.
"I think it was because I was so relaxed that I could think of a new strategy to tackle an old problem."
Seven burnout warning signs
01 Difficulty concentrating and procrastination.
02 Feeling tired even after a good night's sleep.
03 Increased physical complaints, sickness (colds or flu) or pain (headaches, stomach aches or back pain).
04 Lack of motivation and low morale.
05 Irritable and moody, reluctant to socialise or interact with others (or drink too much to cover it up).
06 Depressed, angry, stressed or powerless.
07 Feeling hopeless, having lost a sense of purpose or meaning.
Source: Delta Centre
Fairfax Business Media
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