Not too long ago, I discussed karoshi, a phenomenon taking place in Japan where workers have died from over work. The problem has exacerbated itself over the years enough to warrant its own word, a help hotline, and even a karoshi bill to try and prevent future karoshi deaths. I also pointed out that over working and stress at work is not solely a Japanese or even an Asian issue. The issues which lead to karoshi are some which managers and employees alike need to be aware of. Even here in Denmark, where working hours are among the shortest in Europe and we discuss arbejdsglaede compared to karoshi, workers still experience stress, confusion, and frustrations at work. In other words, we are talking about burnout, and it is on the rise everywhere.
There are three types of burnout: frenetic burnout, under-challenged burnout, and worn-out burnout. The type of burnout experienced by karoshi victims falls under the “frenetic” burnout category. People who suffer from frenetic burnout overload themselves with a lot of work and experience high levels of stress.
Those suffering from under-challenged burnout feel bored and under stimulated at work. They aren’t experiencing satisfaction with what they do, and they slowly start to distance themselves from their work.
The third type of burnout at work is burnout of the “worn-out” variety. Workers want to achieve their goals but are not able to do so due to lack of resources and a perceived lack of control. They also feel they are not being acknowledged; they are not influential in the company. This is type type of burnout is the focus of Christian Ørsted, author of Lethal Leadership. He uses the following diagram (Karasek, 1979) to illustrate his points:
Top Left Corner – Low Strain
This type of work scenario is marked by high influence and control but low responsibility. This is a perfectly fine zone to be in, we won’t burnout from it, but it’s not optimal for learning and active engagement.
Bottom Left Corner – Passivity
In this scenario, we experience low responsibility but also low control. We don’t run the risk of burnout by overwork, but this zone is boring and unfulfilling for many workers and can lead to burnout of the under-challenged variety.
Bottom Right Corner – High strain/Risk For Burnout
Here we have the “burnout at work” scenario – when we have high responsibility at work, but low influence. Those who have suffered from karoshi likely fell into this category due to overwork, and those who feel like they have no control over their situation can suffer from burnout of the worn-out variety.
Top Right Corner – Ideal Active engagement
Here we have the ideal engagement scenario – when we have both high responsibility and high influence. It is when our work falls into this category that we are the most active and engaged in what we are doing. This zone allows for maximum learning potential.
As you see, there is a correlation between burnout and control – those who have less of it are more prone to burnout. We typically think of someone experiencing burnout after working hard on an important project or because of high expectations placed upon us – and this of course can be a cause of burnout – but Christian believes we perform best when there is something at stake and most people do not experience burnout at work from short periods of intense work.
Christian argues that burnout at work often arises because of false freedom. We experience false freedom when we have agreed to take on a task, but after accepting it, we realise that we cannot meet all of the demands of the task. We are no longer in control, and we believe this is our fault because we agreed to the task in the first place. The same way many Japanese chose to work overtime under the radar; many feel it is their choice to work extra hours and feel they are falling short of their potential when it becomes too strenuous. This is why Christian believes that the struggles workers face today are not conflicts with managers, but conflicts with our inner selves.
We all experience the feeling of wanting to be better, do more, and it is hard to admit when we are in over our heads with a project or cannot handle as much as we thought we could. We like to feel in demand and indispensable. It’s no longer enough for many of us just to have a job which pays the bills to go to every day; we want to feel like our work has meaning and that we are contributing to the greater good of the company or of society. However, the more responsibility we get without the resources to match (finances, human resources, etc.), the greater risk we are at for becoming burned out. Lack of control and lack of influence greatly raise our risk factor for burnout.
We hear stories of karoshi and think that it’s just another country’s issue that couldn’t happen in our office because we work reasonable hours, we are balanced in our work/life efforts, etc.. Yet, we don’t bother to evaluate whether or not we are really equipped to handle the tasks we take on, and can handle the pressure we place on ourselves to deliver results.